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Use of Symbols in Edward Albee's The Zoo Story

The Zoo Story is marked as a new development of American drama in a way in which Edward Albee blends symbolism with naturalism to realize his theme. Symbolism means the representation of an idea, person; or thing by something else which recalls it by some analogy or association. It thus implies an indirect suggestion of ideas. In The zoo Story symbolism is part of the very fabric of the play functioning within, as well as enlarging its surface meaning.


The Zoo Story has a greater depth of feeling and experience, and is more original in its conception. The zoo constitutes the central symbol of the play and is an image of human isolation and absence of contact and communication. It is an apt and poignant symbol. The Zoo Story is concerned with human isolation. The world  is a “zoo” with everyone separated by bars from everyone else-----------that is, men are not only separated from each other, but from their own basic animal nature.

The play opens upon Peter, who is seated on a bench in the park. He is the modern version in middle-class stereotype who blends perfectly into the brightly-packaged emptiness of the modern landscape. The “bars” which separate Peter from his own nature and from other people are the material goods and the prefabricated ideas with which he surrounds himself.

While Peter is separated from the animal in himself and others, Jerry is an animal who fights separation from the other animals. He is determined to discover the essential nature of the human condition. He has a strong box without a lock, picture frames without pictures, and pornographic playing cards that remind him of the difference between love and sexual need.

We can also represent the symbols of Jerry and Peter as traditional Christian’s symbols. This is Jerry or Jesus, a thirty-year-old outcast whose purpose is to establish contact “with God” who is a colored queen, who wears a kimono and plucks his eyebrows--------.“ And there is Peter, St. Peter, an average world-ling who is stripped by the irresistible Jerry or his material goods and led toward a revelation of truth.

Jerry has lived for a short time in a rooming house on the West Side. The gate keepers of the rooming house are a foul woman and a dog. The foul woman symbolizes the lustrous. The description of the dog immediately identifies the dog as Cerberus, the monster, all black with flaming eyes, who guard Hell.

The dog attacks Jerry only when Jerry tries to enter the house, but never when he comes out. The dog considers the house his domain just as Peter, later in the play, considers the park bench which he has appreciated his. Both Peter and the dog are willing to fight to the death any invader of their territories.

Jerry’s failure to attain love by giving bribe to the dog with hamburgers symbolizes that we can not buy love or understanding nor can we establish real contact by any easy means.

From time to time Albee gives the audience broad clues to his symbolic equivalents so that his meaning cannot be mistaken. Jerry has taken the first step in a journey that will lead him to the realization of what it is like to be essentially human and to be an outcast. Finally realizing the futility of trying to reach Peter with words, realizing too the fragility of the vision of truth that has flashed before Peter’s mind during the tickling, Jerry dies for Peter. He dies to save Peter’s soul from death by spiritual starvation. Peter will be forced by Jerry’s death to know himself and to feel kinship with the outcasts for whom Jerry has prayed.

What Albee has written in The Zoo Story, is a modern Morality play. He chooses old symbols, that carry with them a wealth of meaning but that yet do no violence to the naturalistic surface of his play. The theme is the centuries old one of human isolation and salvation through sacrifice. Man in bio-natural state is alone, a prisoner of self. 

Pretending that he is not alone, he surrounds himself with things and ideas that bolster the barrier between himself and all other creatures. The good man first takes stock of himself. Once he has understood his condition, realized his animality and the limitations imposed upon him by self, he is driven to prove his kinship with all other things and creatures. In proving this kinship he is extending his boundaries, defying self. Proving his humanity, since the kinship of all nature can be recognized only by the animal who has within him a spark of divinity. He finds at last, if he has been completely truthful in his search, that the only way in which he can smash the walls of his isolation and reach his fellow creatures is by an act of love, a sacrifice, so great that is altogether destroys the self that imprisons him, that it kills him. Albee, in recreating this theme, has used a pattern of symbolism that is an immensely   expanded allusion to the story of Christ’s sacrifice. But the symbolism is not outside of the story which he has to tell is the story of modern man and his isolation and hope for salvation.

Jerry’s tragedy is not just an individual case. He is a universal symbol of the alienated modern man.

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