Study Guide

The Zoo Story Language and Communication

By Edward Albee

Language and Communication

I've been to the zoo. (PETER doesn't notice.) I said, I've been to the zoo. MISTER, I'VE BEEN TO THE ZOO! (1)

Right there, first line of the play: Jerry's shouting; Peter isn't noticing; and miscommunication, unhappiness, absurdity, and capital letters are happening. They all should have just stopped there; this isn't going anywhere good.

I…well, no, not due north, but we…call it north. It's northerly. (14)

Albee throws in a lot of ellipses in his play. Peter here is hesitating, stuttering, trying to figure out which direction is which and where language is supposed to take him. Nowhere clear, nowhere fast. Get out Peter! Get out while you can!

JERRY: Do you mind if we talk?
PETER: (Obviously minding) Why…no, no (30-31)

Peter isn't saying what he means, nor meaning what he says. Social convention gets the better of him. That's a sign of Peter's character, but it's also a sign of how language works in the play: as a barrier to honesty and communication rather than as an aid to them. Hmm…how does that work?

I'll tell you why I do it; I don't talk to many people—except to say like: give me a beer, or where's the john, or what time does the feature go on, or keep your hands to yourself, buddy. You know—things like that. (65)

Jerry is saying he doesn't talk to very many other people, but every so often he grabs a stranger and talks at them for a long time. He's saying (maybe not intentionally) that he's lonely.

I didn't mean to seem…ah...it's that you don't really carry on a conversation; you just ask questions and I'm…I'm normally…uh…reticent. Why do you just stand there? (84)

Peter is telling Jerry that he doesn't communicate well—and then he's saying that he, Peter, doesn't communicate well either. Neither of them communicates well. No wonder this play is so confusing.

JERRY: ...What's your name? Your first name?
PETER: I'm Peter.
JERRY: I'd forgotten to ask you. I'm Jerry.
PETER: (With a slight nervous laugh) Hello, Jerry. (118-121)

Peter and Jerry finally introduce themselves a good long way into the play. They've gone from strangers to acquaintances, just because they have given each other a name. That's how language works. But of course they still don't really know each other that well yet, but that sort of thing takes time.

It's just…it's just that…it's just that if you can't deal with people you have to make a start somewhere. WITH ANIMALS! (163)

Jerry's logic here isn't that clear. But one big difference between humans and animals is that humans talk. If you're not communicating well with speech, maybe go look at some animals. You might not understand the ways they communicate (be it mooing or oinking or neighing), but at least there's nothing to understand. Maybe that makes Jerry feel more hopeful.

Whenever the dog and I see each other we both stop where we are. We regard each other with a mixture of sadness and suspicion, and then we feign indifference. We walk past each other safely; we have an understanding. It's very sad, but you'll have to admit that it is an understanding. We had made many attempts at contact and we had failed. (165)

Again, accepting a failure to communicate is less painful than trying to communicate and not having it work. At least Jerry isn't poisoning the dog, and the dog isn't biting him. If he'd used that model with Peter, he could have just walked on by and they could have never spoken. Which would have been happier, yes, but would have made for a much shorter play.

And was trying to feed the dog an act of love? And, perhaps, was the dog's attempt to bite me not an act of love? If we can be so misunderstood, well, then, why have we invented the word love in the first place? (165)

Not understanding the dog, trying to kill the dog, and then seeing the violence as an act of love—this is not a healthy relationship, Jerry. Jerry doesn't listen to Shmoop, though. He just does the same thing again with Peter. The moral is—listen to Shmoop, people—break the cycle. Also, don't poison dogs.

I've listened to you because you seemed…well, because I thought you wanted to talk to somebody. (227)

Peter is correct that Jerry wants to talk to somebody. So he does understand Jerry after all. Not that it did either of them much good.