What’s unique about Zoo Story is not simply that Albee employs symbolism and naturalism, but the manner in which he utilizes these elements to fully realize his theme: Isolation.
The title of the play, Zoo Story, suggests that human beings aren’t just isolated from each other, but also from themselves— our own animal instincts.
Albee conveys the notion that the world, itself, is a kind of zoo, a confining force that can lead human beings to take violent action; similar to the one at the end of Albee’s play, where one character murders the other after what seemed to be an amicable interaction. Isolation, as presented by Albee, is a human configuration: we as human beings build our isolation, emerging from man made elements like greed, prejudice, racism, sexism, and the like. These aspects, collectively, comprise our captivity; they are the bars of our cages.
Isolation, therefore, is indelibly human.
The location in which Albee sets his drama—a park— is also an expression of his mastery of symbolism. To the untrained eye his utilization of a seemingly natural environment might suggest an effort to convey wildness or a lack of cultivation. However, he achieves the opposite. The contrast between nature and the very suppressed condition in which the play’s central characters function, provide the perfect juxtapositional framework for Albee’s drama.
The physical appearance of the characters and the occupations they hold, lacking distinction, make them ideal symbols of the masses and further emphasize Albee’s zoo theme. At best, Peter, the story’s central character, can best be described as “spiritually sedated.” A state, perhaps, brought on by his seemingly enviable attainment of the American Dream. For, after having achieved that mythological objective— the inherent goal of all our citizens— what is there left to pursue?
But are we free as human beings, even when we think we are? Is the price of living in a civilized world inhibition, limitation, the suppression of our most primal instincts?
Given the volatile climate of the world, one where violence is a regular occurrence, the conclusion that our animal instincts are freer than they’ve ever been— our propensity for murder and other harmful actions—comes easily. However, could the opposite be true, that our spiritual confinement, or lack of true freedom, leads us to create the chaos in which we reside?