Levels of Existentialism in The Zoo Story

by Gayla Nelson

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Sometimes in the shortest of plays, there is the greatest insight into the human condition.  This play brings forth not only an intellectual depiction of the isolation and alienation many people live with day to day, but also an emotional response to this position through the characters of Peter and Jerry.  Both characters fit the definition of existentialism, but on different levels. By the very nature of depicting this variance in existentialism, Edward Albee has impacted our view of human nature and of those who live outside the realm of “spiritual comfort.”  It’s importance in American drama is secure.

We, as readers of the play, or as viewers of the play on stage, are trapped into it, just as Peter was trapped by his own inability to make a conscious choice to get up and walk away the first time he felt uncomfortable with Jerry’s remarks.  Just as in life, we must go through the motions necessary until the moment of our death, which is inevitable.  Is this existential belief a choice or is it thrust upon us?  For those who do not have that total faith and belief in a God and the commitment to the tenants of the Bible, have we any other choice than to find ourselves in the position of either Peter or Jerry?  It seems to become then a matter of what level of existentialism we find ourselves at any given time that dictates our reactions and responses to the world around us.

Given this choice, the goal would seem to be to reach the level of the Existential Hero, represented in The Zoo Story by Peter. Peter has evolved through the various stages of existentialism to the point where he has made that leap of faith and has taken responsibility for his own existence and lives his life responsibly and morally.  He works at a job that he appears to like, though it may not be his “dream” job, but then he has given up dreams already.  He knows he will never have a son and that yes, “that’s the way the cookie crumbles” (16).  He has the wife and kids and cats and parakeets, yet he still isolates himself from this family every Sunday afternoon when he goes to a relatively deserted part of the park to sit on “his bench” and read his book in solitude in a place where he is not likely to be bothered. Self-inflicted isolation and escape through reading are his reward after a week of work and meeting his moral responsibilities. He is not seeking connections with other people or animals.  He will not die from smoking his pipe (13) because he has become a man of moderation.  He has settled for what life has handed him.  Like the playing cards discussed in the play, he is playing the hand in life that he was dealt, and he would do so, probably without complaint, until he dies, except for his unfortunate and brief encounter with Jerry.

Jerry, on the other hand, has not yet, and never will reach that level of existentialism.  He is still shocked and dismayed by the conclusion that he has reached that God has abandoned him, just as his parents did, and he is desperate to make some kind of connection with someone in his isolated world. In his dialogues he shows contempt for those who live in the rooming house with him, by depicting them as representative of God. “WITH GOD WHO IS A COLORED QUEEN WHO WEARS A KIMONO AND PLUCKS HIS EYEBROWS, WHO IS A WOMAN WHO CRIES WITH DETERMINATION BEHIND HER CLOSED DOOR…with God who, I’m told, turned his back on the whole thing some time ago…with…some day, with people” (35).

Jerry has moved from the first stage of existentialism, the recognition of the absence of God, and the ensuing despair, to the level of anguish.  Stuck in this level of anguish, he truly is terrified.  He tries to make a connection with his landlady’s dog, even referring to it as his “friend” after the attempted poisoning, but they are not friends at all. Jerry tells Peter that he and the dog now, “…regard each other with a mixture of sadness and suspicion, and then we feign indifference…we neither love nor hurt, because we do not try to reach each other” (35-36).  This is now how Jerry sees his relationship to everyone in life. Jerry labels himself a “permanent transient” (37). He belongs nowhere. His life is futile and without meaning.  Jerry cannot live in this chaotic universe because his life is so meaningless, but instead of committing suicide, he forces a connection with Peter, first by making him fight for his bench, and then by impaling himself on his own knife once Peter has it thrust out in front of himself in a stance of defense. Jerry dies in bad faith because he forced an action upon a stranger.  He took choice away from Peter in the end.  He made the choice for him, and it was a choice that Peter never would have made himself.  Jerry had not risen to the level of fighting off death, but instead, had reached a point of seeking death out.  It is said that to commit suicide is a cowardly act, but to force another human being into such a situation as to assist, unknowingly, in a suicide, has to be the epitome of cowardice and selfishness.

The consequences of his actions are to be dealt with by Peter, because Jerry is happy in his dying and persistent in his appeals that Peter removes all evidence that would tie him to his death. Jerry tells him, “Thank you, Peter. I mean that, now; thank you very much” (48). Peter can do nothing but say repeatedly, “Oh my God”(48). The existential hero would never kill another human being.  To do that would be to be in bad faith. This shatters the very limited existence of Peter, who although not technically at fault, did have the choice at any time to walk away from Jerry, especially after the dog-poisoning incident that so obviously repulsed him.  But he didn’t.  He stayed and he listened, even when he believed that Jerry was a raving lunatic. He stayed to fight for his bench.  He stayed because even in his self-imposed isolation, the human need for a connection is strong enough at times to win out over our ability to reason.  The final mockery comes at the end, just before Jerry dies when he mimics Peter and his last words are, “Oh…my…God” (49).

What will this do now to the level of existentialism that Peter had attained? Is he still an existential hero, or has he lost even that through Jerry’s actions? The Zoo Story provides a wealth of questions to age old mysteries about why we are born just to die, but it doesn’t provide any of the answers, and that, to me, is what makes it one of the very best plays in American drama.

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