Perhaps the most important theme of the play, individuality drives the central anti-rhinoceros metaphor. 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.
Ionesco'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 control individuals.
From the opening scene, 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 comes fully into his own and 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.
Characters throughout the play argue using false logic to convince others. In the first scene, the Logician argues that all things with four paws are cats. Later, Dudard argues that all journals are propaganda. The unnerving aspect of these arguments becomes clear as other characters believe the illogical reasoning. Those who use false logic tend to admit only the evidence that supports the arguments they want to prove, and those who are persuaded are shamefully duped. Berenger remains the only character to fully see through the cloud of confusion, and for that reason, he withstands the false arguments and remains human.
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.
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 rhinocerous who puts something else above her own individuality?
Berenger vs. Jean
Berenger and Jean are clearly opposites in the sense of being foils. Their appearance is exactly opposite. They mistake each other's voices. Their bedrooms even look exactly alike. What is left to make each one unique? It is a fundamental, existential question to consider where general human nature ends and where an individual can claim something of his own. Berenger resists the pull to become a rhinoceros because he has an individuality that Jean lacks. But what is it? Is there any reason to try to be different from everyone else? This question is central not only to the play but also to the Theater of the Absurd.
The play is a premier example of the Theater of the Absurd. In the primary metaphor, people turning into rhinoceroses is absurd. It is more than a metaphor within the play, for people absurdly do become rhinos. It is perhaps not much of a loss, for the people were hardly rational to begin with. This absurdity, the irrationality within human nature, works brilliantly because it expresses the playwright's concerns about humanity and lends itself to a critique of authoritarian regimes, which pretend to be much more rational than they really are. The metaphor also invites humor and surprise. Influenced by surrealist and abstract artists, the playwrights of the absurd appreciated such humor and used absurdity to reconsider the theatrical tradition itself: how much rationality can or should a play have, after all?
Rhinoceros Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Rhinoceros is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.