In the Zoo by Jean Stafford, 1964

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by Jean Stafford, 1964

Jean Stafford began her career by writing three novels, but she shifted in the next 25 years to the production of mostly short stories. During the final years of her life she turned away from all fictional work and concentrated on essays and book reviews. Stafford had no children herself, but she often wrote about the helpless and powerless status of young people. Maureen Ryan has noted how the youthful characters of Stafford's fiction are most often female. They are handicapped by their inefficacy and by their limited knowledge and understanding. One of Stafford's most successful stories, "In the Zoo," explores the consequences of powerlessness. First published in The New Yorker in 1953 and collected in Bad Characters in 1964, the story moves beyond childhood trauma to examine the lingering and damaging effects of girlhood events on two middle-aged sisters. As in many other of her stories, Stafford demonstrates a remarkable insight into a child's mind.

Daisy, the older sister, lives west of Denver, and the younger sister, the story's unnamed narrator, lives on the East Coast. While waiting for the narrator's train to depart from Denver after her visit to Colorado, the sisters visit the zoo. An aging polar bear reminds Daisy of Mr. Murphy, a childhood friend, and the association triggers the sisters' recollection of their unhappy and guilt-ridden youth.

Like many other children in Stafford's stories, the girls are orphans. At ages 8 and 10 they moved from New England to Adams, Colorado, to live with Mrs. Placer, a childless boardinghouse operator and an acquaintance of their grandmother. Though a life insurance policy paid some of the sisters' expenses, Mrs. Placer never allowed them to forget her "sacrifice." The boardinghouse was filled with "cruel, uncushioned furniture," "dour and dire pictures," and an assortment of lodgers who shared Mrs. Placer's cynical manner and spent their evenings on the front porch "tasting their delicious grievances."

Stafford's piece is structured around two zoos: the zoo in Denver, which frames the story, and the zoolike boardinghouse recalled in the sisters' painful memories. Mrs. Placer treated the occupants of her home like captured animals. She fed and quartered them, subjugated them to her criticism, and ensnared their self-esteem with her negativity.

To escape "Gran," the girls often visited Mr. Murphy, an alcoholic ne'er-do-well who lived alone with a menagerie of animals and who amused himself with gin and solitaire. He became the girls' only friend and gave them a puppy, which Gran surprisingly allowed them to keep as a watchdog. Laddy slept with the girls and escorted them to school. In a display of independence and sociability, he disappeared on a hunting trip with the firehouse dog and returned three days later, dirty and covered in cockleburs and ticks. Gran set out to remake Laddy. First she changed his name to Caesar. Then she instructed him with "stamina-building cuffs," chained him to prevent his walking to school, and kept him at her bedside. Before long the dog was transformed from "a sanguine, affectionate, easygoing Gael … into an overbearing, military, efficient, loud-voiced Teuton."

Learning of Laddy's plight, Murphy upbraided the sisters for surrendering their dog. With a monkey atop his shoulder and colorfully dressed, more like a clown than a defender of moral righteousness, Murphy marched to the boardinghouse to challenge Gran. The old woman met him at the door with Caesar, who, unrestrained, bounded through the screen and killed the monkey. Gran admonished Caesar with only a light slap, saying: "You scamp! You've hurt Mr. Murphy's monkey! Aren't you ashamed?" Murphy cried bitterly and got his revenge the following day by feeding Caesar poisoned meat. The girls never again visited Murphy, but they often passed by his house and observed him graying, withering, and maneuvering more slowly over his cards. He had a manner the polar bear would prompt them years later to recall.

Gran's domination of Laddy graphically illustrated her capacity to bring out the worst in life. The girls viewed her lodgers as both "victims" and "disciples," yet they were unable to inoculate themselves against her penetrating bitterness. Nurtured on lies, accusations, and insults, the sisters "grew up like worms." While at the zoo, they puzzle over the question of why they did not escape the boardinghouse, and they conclude that they were trapped by guilt. "We were vitiated, and we had no choice but to wait, flaccidly, for her to die," the narrator says.

Though Gran's death physically released the sisters, her legacy of pessimism lives on in them. On the train platform Daisy suggests that her sister obtain a roomette. "If there are any V.I.P.s on board, I won't have a chance," says the narrator. Mounting the train steps, she tells Daisy, "It will be a miracle if I ever see my bags again. Do you suppose that black-guardly porter knows about the twenty-dollar gold piece in my little suitcase?" Then, as the train pulls away, Daisy cautions, "Watch out for pickpockets." Settled in her train car, the narrator writes to Daisy and shares her suspicions about the only other occupant of the car, a Roman Catholic priest. "That is to say, he is dressed like one," she writes to Daisy. Then, as she looks out the window, it occurs to her that the fields below are most likely "chockablock with marijuana." As she recognizes her odious connection to Gran, the narrator suddenly erupts in an "unholy giggle." She has assumed the old woman's view that life is essentially a matter of being "done in, let down, and swindled." The story culminates in this tightly focused moment when the narrator realizes that she cannot escape the influence of her past. She may have loathed Gran's manner, but she cannot purge herself of the old woman's imprint.

Ryan has noted how Stafford commonly organized her stories to produce self-revelatory experiences like the one captured by "In the Zoo." The connection between youthful experience and mature reflection intrigued Stafford and appears elsewhere in her work. Perhaps it was because her own childhood was unhappy and unsettled and her first two marriages troubled that Stafford was capable of writing so piercingly about family life and relationships in her fiction.

—Barbara A. Looney