Study Guide

The Zoo Story Philosophical Viewpoint: The Absurd

By Edward Albee

Philosophical Viewpoint: The Absurd

You'll read about it in the papers tomorrow, if you don't see it on your TV tonight. You have TV, haven't you? (39)

Jerry is talking about what he did at the zoo; apparently it's dramatic enough that he thinks it will be on TV. What happened at the zoo may be absurd because it's goofy (did Jerry dress up as Superman and attack a rhino with a cheese grater?), but it's also absurd philosophically—you have to try to create a meaning, or picture, of what happened at the zoo, even though there is none provided.

The way you cross your legs, perhaps; something in the voice. Or maybe I'm just guessing. (57)

Jerry seems to be able to read Peter's mind; he knows that Peter isn't having more kids. How does he do that? The answer is more straightforward than you might think: the dude is in a play, and the author told him what to say. The artificiality of the play then becomes a kind of absurdity itself—someone is arbitrarily controlling what happens. It makes you want to look over your shoulder and see if some playwright is moving you around at random too.

I'll start walking around and in a little while, and eventually I'll sit down. (Recalling) Wait until you see the expression on his face. (85)

Jerry is predicting the rest of the plot of the play; he'll walk around and then he'll sit down. But as predictions go, it's pretty unimpressive and uninteresting. There doesn't seem like there's a larger meaning to it. Even when you know what's going to happen, it doesn't necessarily make sense. Knowledge doesn't stop the absurd.

I remember still that she did all things dourly: sleeping, eating, working, praying. She dropped dead on the stairs to her apartment, my apartment then, too, on the afternoon of my high school graduation. A terribly middle-European joke, if you ask me. (117)

The "joke" here is that Jerry's aunt died on the same day that he graduated from high school. Talk about great timing. Why this is a middle-European joke is unclear—or for that matter why it's a joke at all. Presumably it's funny because it's a coincidence with no real meaning. Jerry's sense of humor isn't very pleasant (he seems to have gotten it from Albee).

PETER: (Enthusiastic): Oh, yes; the zoo.

Why does Peter care about the zoo? What's he all enthusiastic about anyway? It's not clear why he should care. Maybe it's not even clear to Peter. Sometimes you get excited about things, or obsessed by things, without really knowing why. It's like watching the Kardashians on television, or getting a song stuck in your head.

Don't you see? A person has to have some way of dealing with SOMETHING. If not with people…if not with people…SOMETHING. With a bed, with a cockroach, with a mirror…not, that's too hard, that's one of the last steps. With a cockroach, with a a...with a…with a carpet, a roll of toilet paper…no, not that, either…(163)

People are isolated, alone, radically alienated from the world, from each other, and even from themselves. Jerry understands that, and decides that a good solution would be to shack up with a cockroach. What can we say? To each his own…

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 DOORS…with God who, I'm told, turned his back on the whole thing some time ago… (163)

The philosophical absurd is an atheist philosophy—it usually presents God as absent or unknowable. Jerry seems to be using slurs against gay people and black people as a way to mock God, or suggest God is ridiculous. Which seems like an unpleasant thing to do—but Jerry is fairly unpleasant, after all.

I went to the zoo to find out more about the way people exist with animals, and the way animals exist with each other, and with people too. It probably wasn't a fair test, what with everyone separated by bars from everyone else… (202)

The play is suggesting here that just like animals in a zoo, people never connect; they're all in cages. But if that's true, then there's got to be a way to break free.

JERRY: I'm crazy, you bastard
PETER: That isn't funny. (214-215)

Does absurdity mean the world is crazy or that it's funny? Or that it's neither. There's nothing very funny or crazy about dying—even if you've got parakeets at home.

JERRY: Is this the thing in the world you'd fight for? Can you think of anything more absurd?
PETER: Absurd? Look, I'm not going to talk to you about honor, or even try to explain it to you. Besides, it isn't a question of honor; but even if it were, you wouldn't understand. (248)

There's the word! "Absurd." Jerry's saying that Peter is absurd to care about fighting for his bench, and Peter more or less proves his point by babbling about honor, as if there's something particularly honorable about fighting for a bench. But people do fight for stuff, and does it ever make much more sense than fighting for a bench? In a world that doesn't make any sense, where life is meaningless, why worry about which bench you're sitting on? (Though, admittedly, some benches are more comfortable than others.)