Rhinoceros Questions and Answers
1. Q. What are the themes in the play Rhinoceros?
Q. How do the characters in Rhinoceros conform with the mob? What are the causes?
Q. How do the themes in Rhinoceros relate to Nazism?
The play by Eugene Ionesco, known equally for its absurdism as it fascist undertones, depicts a quaint French town where residents are suddenly, and for an unknown yet unquestioned reason, turning into rhinoceros. Often read as a response and criticism to the sudden upsurge of Communism, Fascism and Nazism during the events preceding World War II, and explores the themes of conformity, culture, mass movements, philosophy and morality.The main theme of Rhinoceros is established as will and responsibility through the transformation of Berenger. His evolution from an apathetic drunkard into a pure human illustrates the major existential;; struggle: “one must commit oneself to a significant cause in order to give life meaning”.
It’s interesting to see how Eugène Ionesco plays with the concept of strength. Ultimately, the strongest character when it comes to sticking to one’s principles is Berenger-who is self-deprecating and whom other characters label as weak because of his drinking. But Berenger is the only person so sure of humans superiority over rhinoceroses that he refuses to succumb to society’s demands to conform and turn into a rhinoceros like everyone else. The strength of his beliefs serves him well as he becomes the last man standing. In contrast, the characters who might normally be seen as the strong members of society are unable to resist societal expectations. For example, Jean, the smug member of the bourgeois; Dudard, with his total faith in science; and the logician: all three of these characters are weak when it comes to standing up for personal beliefs and defending them against the crowd. All of them become confused even as Berenger becomes more resolute in his convictions.
Berenger seems to be madly in love with Daisy, and eventually she claims to be in love with him as well. But she turns out to be completely different from and incompatible with Berenger, for she decides to become a rhinoceros and he does not. The contrasting romantic couple in the play consists of Mr. and Mrs. Boeuf. They stick together, for Mrs. Boeuf decides to join her husband as an animal. Will she ever fully be a rhinoceros, or will her love for Mr. Boeuf trump the demands of rhinocerosness? Or is her love blind, making her perfectly fitted to being a rhinoceros who puts something else above her own individuality?
The Limits of Logic and Rationalism
As is a common theme among dramatists working within the traditions of the Theater of the Absurd, Ionesco makes a sustained effort in Rhinoceros to expose the limitations of logic and reason in a world increasingly defined by the illogical and the absurd. He is quick to point out, for instance, that such self-proclaimed rationalists as The Logician and Jean struggle openly in the world of the play, either talking themselves into circular arguments or rationalizing their acquiescence to the pressures of the rhinoceroses.
To Ionesco, a world in which the savagery of fascism can find fertile soil is a world of absurdity and nonsense. Put another way, it is a world in which logic and rationalism clearly have no power. In the opening act of the play, in particular, Ionesco devotes significant detail to disparaging both the intellect and the rationalizing language of The Logician, the most obvious representative of the rationalist world. In the end, The Logician’s view of the world is proven to be illogical and inapplicable to the real world of the play.
Rationality itself, in other words, is never enough to give meaningfulness to the world. What is needed in order to make a life meaningful, both Berenger and Ionesco argue, is the initiative to make a commitment to life and to take responsibility for something gnificant outside of an individual sense of pleasure or happiness. However illogical it might seem, a meaningful life, Berenger argues, is a life of emotion, dreams, and full (and often frustrating) engagement with the world in all its complexities.
As Ionesco observes in an interview with The Tulane Drama Review, one of the keys to the play is to recognize the failure of both logic and language to make sense of the world. “Berenger destroys his own clichés as he speaks. And so, he sees beyond them. His questions no longer have easy answers. Perhaps he arrives in this way at fundamental questions which lie beyond false answers.” Considering Botard’s conspiracy accusation in Act Two, The Logicians flawed attempts to uncover the number of rhinoceroses in Act One and Jean’s self-proclaimed rationality, Ionesco turns logic’s limitations into absurdity. The world of Rhinoceros defies the realistic world as a world of nonsense.
But to read Rhinoceros as an attack on fascist politics is simple enough. But more deeply, Ionesco is determined to explore the psychology and mentality of those who succumb with little resistance to Nazism, allowing their individual ideals and free will to be subsumed into a violent group consciousness. In Rhinoceros, characters repeat words and ideas that other characters have said earlier in the play.
Constructing the rhinoceroses as a universal family, Ionesco underscores how malleable or impressionable individuals could be seduced by the ranks of a powerful group consciousness such as Nazism. Ionesco’s position is made clear through the course of the play: to acquiesce passively to the pressures of the rhinoceroses, either through turning a blind eye to their rise to power or by joining their ranks, violence that such groups initiate.
Ionesco’s main reason for writing Rhinoceros is not simply to criticize the horrors of Nazis, but to explore the mentality of those who so easily succumbed to Nazism. A universal consciousness that subverts individual free thought will define this mentality; in other words, people get rolled up in the snowball of general opinion around them, and they start thinking what others are thinking. In the play, people repeat ideas others have said earlier, or simultaneously say the same things. Once other people, especially authority figures, collapse in the play, the remaining humans find it even easier to justify why the metamorphoses are desirable. Ionesco is careful not to make his play a one-sided critique of the brutality of Nazism. The rhinos become more beautiful as the play progresses until they overshadow the ugliness of humanity, and the audience is forced to recognize that an impressionable individual might have similarly perceived the swelling ranks of Nazis as superior. In fact, Dudard’s desire to join the “universal family” of the rhinos points to the notion of the rhinos as an Aryan master race, physically superior to the rest of humanity. Nevertheless, they are still morally repugnant, escalating their violence over the course of the play. Ionesco carefully traces an argument against John Stuart Mill’s “harm principle,” which states that individual freedom should be preserved so long as it does not harm anyone else. Ionesco demonstrates that passively allowing the rhinos to go on-or, allegorically, turning a blind eye to fascism, as individual citizens and entire countries did in the 1930s is as harmful as direct violence.
The essential difference between Berenger and everyone else is that he refuses to join the others; he is not afraid to stand alone and continue fighting for what he believes is right. He is unkempt from the beginning, which suggests that he follows his own rules. In watching Jean, Dudard, and Daisy join the rhinoceroses, the audience can perceive specific moments when they change attitude and lose their sense of moral responsibility and individual thought. These marks of individuality, Ionesco suggests, are essential to humanity. orw I Will and Responsibility 20 Domuadue sd of lliw 9917
The transformation of Berenger from an apathetic, alcoholic, and ennui- ridden man into the savior of humanity constitutes the major theme of Rhinoceros, and the major existential struggle: one must commit oneself to a significant cause in order to give life meaning. Jean continually exhorts Berenger to exercise more will-power and not surrender to life’s pressures, and other characters, such as Dudard, seem to do just that as they control their own destinies. Berenger does not have great conventional will-power, as demonstrated by his frequent recourse to alcohol and his tendency to dream (both daydreams and nightmares). However, he maintains a steadfast, latent sense of responsibility after Act One, often feeling guilty for the various rhinoceros-metamorphoses around him-in a sense, his initial apathy was the cause, helping promote a climate of indifference and irresponsibility. Furthermore, he shows early on that he at least cares about Daisy, the only evidence in the play, other than Mrs. Boeuf’s devotion to Mr. Boeuf, of sincere love for another human. By Act Three, his powerful guilt and sense of responsibility indicates that Berenger practices the most selfless kind of love-unconditional love for all humanity, whereby he is concerned for the welfare even of those who have scorned him. This all-encompassing love is what gives his life meaning. no The supposedly strong characters, like Jean, fail the ultimate test of willpower, the rhino-epidemic, and their crumbling wills are foreshadowed by their subtler evasions of responsibility-Daisy, for instance, wants to live a guiltless life. Their idea of will borrows from Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of “the will to power.” For them, will is a means to metamorphose into Nietzsche’s “super-man,” a powerful being beyond human morality. The savagery of the rhinos, and Jean’s transformation and statements in Act Two, exemplify this desire for power. He becomes violent, claims humanism is dead, and tries to trample Berenger. The play’s final irony is that Berenger becomes the true super-man, gathering his resources of will, built on a foundation of love for his fellow man, to take responsibility for humanity. Rhinoceros hinges on Berenger’s gradual realization of the power of his own will to transform him from an alcohol riddled, apathetic man into a self-proclaimed savior of humanity. His struggle to attain this level of self-knowledge is a classic existential one: how to take the meaningless of a life lived in a world of absurdity and make it meaningful through a conscious act of the individual will. Emphasizing the freedom of each of the characters to actively choose their own path of action (as in the case of Dudard), this play argues against the primary definitions of humans as rational, logical beings (these opinions are expressed through Botard and The Logician). This is not a play, in other words, about the logical construction of meaning, but about the personal discoveries of meaning amidst the swirl and chaos of possible options. Not surprisingly, an individual’s movement along such a path is very often fraught with anxiety and, at times, fear. To become aware of the possibilities associated with such a deep personal freedom, as Dudard reveals to Berenger, is also to be aware of the possibilities of choosing to give that freedom over to an outside power (to follow the herd) or, in the most extreme cases, to choose death over life. To live a rational world, this play asserts, is to live without such profound choices, but to move beyond the rational as such characters as Dudard and Daisy do, is to open oneself into the world extends beyond the pressures of the ordinary and the everyday. While other characters, most notably those of a rationalist leaning, fail the ultimate test of will power (giving themselves over to the rhinoceroses), Berenger gains a sense of power as the play unfolds from act 1 through to act 3 when he emerges as a man who can feel a sense of love and responsibility for all of those around him, including people who have shunned him previously.
vcIonesco’s play is a grand metaphor for the Nazi takeover of Germany. At the heart of this play, we see regular, everyday people turn into something monstrous. This may be the most mysterious aspect of the Holocaust: how an entire nation of ordinary people allowed such a horrific government system to take more and more abusive power. Taking only a microcosm of this phenomenon, Ionesco abstracts the issues through a metaphor about rhinoceroses in order to reflect on how Nazism came to power and how it came to to control individuals.
In Act 3 the theme of conformity to trends takes center stage. For Ion Ionesco conformity has two main causes: people failing to hold strong to their own beliefs, including paying attention to the emotional aspect of beliefs, and the popularity of trends, which involves the use of social pressure to conform. For Dudard the calm, scientific use of logic and reason is by far the best way to deal with life. He prides himself on being objective, fair, and seeing all sides of an issue. Dudard states, “One has to keep an open mind … everything is logical. To understand is to justify.” In this way Dudard is similar to the logician. His calm use of reason entraps him. At first he shows no desire to become a rhinoceros, but his objectivity and desire to understand the opposing point of view seduces him into joining the pack. Before he leaves to join the rhinoceroses, Dudard says, “But if you’re going to criticize [the rhinoceroses], it’s better to do so from the inside.” So he uses th idea of scientific inquiry to justify becoming a rhinoceros. namun dinileb ent For the author, failing to attend to emotions is very dangerous. In Act 1, when the housewife expressed her fear of seeing a rhinoceros, the logician replied, “Fear is an irrational thing. It must yield to reason.” Later, when the housewife was grieving for her dead cat, the logician told her, “What do you expect, Madame? All cats are mortal! One must accept that.” In both cases the housewife’s emotions are perfectly natural, but for the logician, feeling one’s emotions is an inferior thing, which should give way only to reason. In Act 3 Dudard tries to distance Berenger from his fear of the rhinoceroses. He tells Berenger, “You must learn to be more detached.” Later, Dudard says, “I’m simply trying ving to look the facts that unemotionally in the face.” By doing this, though, a person can lose touch with his or her emotions. Such distancing from feelings has severe repercussions as more and more people change into rhinoceroses. Berenger remains terrified about transforming into a rhinoceros, which helps him resist such a change. However, other characters seem to rationalize the change, thereby making them more susceptible to it. By showing this misuse of reason, Ionesco is making a connection to the rise of fascism. The brutality of fascism horrified most people, but many blocked out or distanced themselves from this horror through over rationalization. mo For Ionesco using reason to explain an absurd event is inadequate. An absurd occurrence, like people turning into rhinoceroses or adopting fascism, is irrational and therefore cannot be explained using reason. In addition, Ionesco sees the banal use of language as instrumental in people conforming to absurd and destructive behavior. For example, when Berenger and Daisy express their love for each other, they do so by using a series of platitudes and banalities, such as “I’m not afraid of anything as long as we’re together.” They are repeating what countless romantic couples have said throughout history, which allows the pressures of conforming to the rhinoceroses to break their relationship apart.
The second major cause for conformity is the power of trends. Many of the people who first turned into rhinoceroses were probably in themselves potentially belligerent by nature and convinced of their own infallibility. However, as more a and more people became rhinoceroses, the remaining people felt more social pressure to become rhinoceroses. It’s what everyone else is doing, so it must be right. Dudard shows this before he leaves Berenger’s apartment when he says, “It’s my duty to stick by them [the rhinoceroses]; I have to do my duty.” Botard also felt this pressure. His last words were, “We must move with the times!” Even Daisy succumbs to the pressure of the pack when she says, “Perhaps it’s we who need saving. Perhaps we’re the abnormal ones.” In addition, as more people transform into rhinoceroses, being a rhinoceros becomes more attractive. The rhinoceros turns into the standard on andard on how an individual should look and behave, Ionesco indicates this when he e describes the rhinoceroses’ heads on the wall becoming more beautiful and th their noises becoming more musical. Near the end of the play, Daisy becomes intoxicated d by the desire to be like the rhinoceroses when she 930 Valen says, “They’re beautiful.”.
Ionesco asks how humans determine (or ought to determine) our self-worth. Is it from appearances, as Jean would convince Berenger? Or is it from something greater, something more complex and courageous, something that Berenger finally discovers? In his final line “I will not capitulate!” Berenger 1630) comes fully into his own and a accepts that what matters most is not on the outside but what lies within. That is, any lasting sense of human self-worth arises from what makes us most human: our reasoned courage to follow through on our ethical principles in the face of changing circumstances.
The role of authority in society is to keep order, but this role is problematic when that order is unjust or inhuman. The Logician proves himself to be irrational and false, undercutting his own authority. Mr. Papillon, the boss whom the workers respect, capitulates willingly to become a rhinoceros. Such problematic authority figures intensify the complex situation pressuring ordinary characters not to think for themselves. Too often, people cannot separate their individual thoughts from those of the people in more powerful positions.
This play is often read as a response to the sudden increase of Fascism, Nazism and Communism during the events preceding World War II. The rhinoceroses serve as an allegory for the uprising of Nazism and Fascism. The text not only criticizes the horrors of the Nazi regime but explores the mentality of the characters for conformed to Nazism.
Over the course of three acts, the inhabitants of a small provincial French town turn into rhinoceroses; ultimately the only human who does not succumb to this mass metamorphosis is the central character, Berenger, a flustered everyman figure who is criticized for his drinking and tardiness. Ionesco explores absurdism, a form of theatre in which the impractical or impossible is universally accepted without question, through his transformation of human characters into rhinoceroses. Rather than give this threat a name, he gave it a symbol through which the audience could and should be constantly interpreting it to their own time’s threats. Rhinoceros’s exploration of ideological paradoxes makes itself constantly relevant. Today, in the wake of neo nazis and white supremacists, we struggle to validate freedom of speech yet without the toleration of hate speech. Today, in the wake of a rift in what media we can trust for the truth, we struggle to understand our own logic for verifying facts.
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