Berenger endures a nightmare in his room (the room bears a striking resemblance to Jean's). He wakes, takes off a bandage from his head, and inspects his forehead for a sprouting rhinoceros horn. Still human, he nearly pours himself a drink, but he reprimands his weakness and puts the glass down. After hearing rhino noises from outside, he shrugs and drinks it down. He coughs and fears that he's metamorphosing, but a comparison between his cough and the sound of the rhinos outside allays his anxieties. He lies down again.
Dudard knocks on the door, and Berenger lets him in. Berenger fearfully asks if his voice has changed, for it seems as though Dudard's has. Dudard denies both accounts, and Berenger agrees that he was incorrect. His paranoia augments as he inquires if he has a bump, which he doesn't. They discuss Jean's transformation, which Berenger feels guilty about, thinking Jean chose to change specifically in his presence. Dudard reprimands his solipsism, and Berenger agrees but asks for an explanation for the metamorphoses, which Dudard admits he does not have. Berenger says he would want to stay himself no matter what, but is still afraid of "catching" the "disease." Dudard suggests Jean was primed for the change by his excitable personality, and Berenger seizes upon this notion: Jean, and perhaps the others, were "temporarily unbalanced," in a "critical condition."
They discuss the metamorphoses as an epidemic. Dudard believes it is temporary and even beneficial. Berenger wonders if he is immune, then states with certainty that if one doesn't want to catch it, then one won't. He takes another drink under the premise that alcohol is an immunization. Berenger coughs from the alcohol and again worries over an impending metamorphosis. Dudard recommends that Berenger stop drinking if he is to have will-power, but Berenger argues that his decision to drink is a deliberate one. Dudard points out that Berenger is making excuses, and Berenger assents.
Berenger continues to take responsibility for the metamorphoses, and Dudard urges him not to involve himself too much. Berenger says that if he were to read about an epidemic in another country in the newspaper, he could maintain an objective detachment, but "when you're involved yourself you can't help feeling directly concerned." Dudard says he's getting used to it and recommends walks and sleeping pills, which Berenger rejects. Dudard says must accept whatever reason there is for the rhinos, which Berenger denounces as fatalism. They continue to argue about how much involvement one should have. Dudard contends that any anxiety Berenger is having is related to his own fears of turning into a rhino—which Dudard claims won't happen, because Berenger doesn't have the "vocation" to become one. They discuss office matters; Dudard is annoyed at the workmen, assigned to repair their office staircase, who seem to disappear after a few days.
Dudard reveals that Papillon has resigned—and turned into a rhinoceros. Dudard finds this humorous, while Berenger is upset and wonders why he would do it, since he held such a powerful position. If this is the case, then the metamorphosis must have been involuntary: "He let himself be talked into it." They discuss Botard, and Dudard explains why he doesn't like the old skeptic—despite the force of Botard's convictions, Dudard finds his logic imprecise and subjective. Dudard considers the metamorphoses natural, while Berenger continues to find them "abnormal." Berenger, flustered in the face of Dudard's supreme intellect, says he will seek the Logician's services in clearing this up. As they discuss him, a herd of rhinos passes and Berenger spots the Logician's hat on a rhinoceros, a sure sign of the Logician's metamorphosis, and vows not to become one as well.
The strength of Berenger's will vacillates. Though he ends this section with a decisive statement, and earlier makes a strong declaration of free will (if one doesn't want to catch the disease, one won't), his resistance to alcohol continues to waver. Claiming his decision to drink is a premeditated one, he exposes a complex, circular dilemma: is the conscious decision to remove rational decision-making abilities (here, to choose consciously to escape into unconsciousness through drinking) a conscious choice after all? Extended to the extreme, this sentiment asks whether suicide is a viable form of confronting death. This was the ultimate preoccupation of existentialist philosophers, especially Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre. Or is suicide a cowardly act that removes true commitment and recognition of absurdity, of confronting death while still alive? Dudard's accusation, that Berenger is trying to rationalize his cowardice, affirms the existential view that confrontation with death is a constant, lifelong struggle, not a temporary one like the momentary act of suicide.
Unlike Jean, who says he never dreams, Berenger concedes the occasional loss of control over thought in his dreams—yet he has a greater ability to exercise mental control while awake, as his staunch refusals to metamorphose indicate. His dream life versus his conscious life fits the existentialist formula "existence precedes essence"—he is an irrational, absurd, irresponsible being in his sleep (where he has only "existence"), but he controls his destiny in consciousness (where his "essence" emerges). His Act One statement that life is a dream helps to explain the surrounding metamorphoses; everyone else is living out an unconscious dream-life, an existence without essence. Nevertheless, Berenger's will crumbles slightly. When he drinks in this scene, the direct cause is his hearing the rhinos outside and acquiescing to the herd; the indirect cause is his own status as a victim of collective consciousness. His occasional tendency to a mass, rather than individual, consciousness is exposed when he and Dudard, while speaking through the closed door, parrot the dialogue from Berenger's similar visit to Jean. While Berenger does not speak in simultaneous dialogue, as characters in Act One often did, his paralleled dialogue is simply a delayed form of collective consciousness.
This scene introduces the metamorphoses as a "disease," and "rhinoceritis" becomes a central metaphor for fascism as a contagious, half-rational, half- absurd infection of mind and morality. Ionesco provides possible, even humane reasons for why rhinoceritis spreads so rapidly, refusing to settle on the generally acknowledged claim of human savagery. Berenger posits that those who have changed are "temporarily unbalanced." These are certainly not the words of a Nazi apologist, but Ionesco intimates that fascist appeal is linked less to permanent and corrupt human nature but to the provisional imbalance of a time. Likewise, many historians account for the rise of Nazism by pointing to the shattered world of a post-World War I Germany that was willing to submit to a strong leader who promised a return to glory.
As to why other countries, such as the US, failed to react swiftly to Nazi atrocities, Berenger explains that when one is not in the midst of conflict, it is easy to be a detached observer. Ironically, Dudard, the most productive, dutiful worker, tries to assuage Berenger's own sense of duty and guilt for the rhinos. Of course, Berenger has somewhat caused rhinoceritis. In his apathy towards life he contributes to the overall lack of will that makes this epidemic possible. Yet it is Berenger's original indifference, an indifference that grew out of his awareness of the absurd universe, that galvanizes his own metamorphosis into a being committed to free will. Dudard's assertion that Berenger lacks the "vocation" to become a rhino is a pun on Berenger's lack of will, which will prevent him from attaining the powerful status of the rhino, and a petty insult that criticizes Berenger's apathy towards his job (and boosts Dudard's ego as a reminder of his superior position in the office). Berenger's indifference to his job is probably the greatest immunization to the metamorphosis, as he recognizes the absurdity of his boring, insignificant job in an absurd, often insignificant world.
Here, the two characters seem to flip-flop a bit, as Dudard plays the existentialist and Berenger the realist. What we term the absurd, as Dudard observes, is a gray area. Dudard speaks of the impossibility of distinguishing between the normal and abnormal, but he denies philosophy's ability to answer this. Berenger agrees philosophy is of little help in resolution, but he believes that common sense can explain these issues. However, their underlying reasons reveal their true character. Dudard's belief in the superiority of the scientific and the theoretical over "mass opinion" is an ironic return to his regular detachment and surrender to forces beyond his control. He does not think they can solve the mystery of the rhinos, which would normally be an existentialist viewpoint. But in his refusal to try and think about it in a constructive way he foreshadows his eventual surrender to the mass opinion (by metamorphosis) that he denigrates. Berenger's view reaffirms human will and the ability to make meaning in an absurd universe, despite the difficulty in explaining certain phenomena. Still, both men ignore common sense in everyday life; neither makes the obvious conclusion as to why the workmen disappear after a few days.
Ionesco continues to rail against what he sees as an empty bourgeois, middle- class life. Berenger is flabbergasted at Papillon's metamorphoses only because Berenger notes that Papillon had such a good job to live for. His shock also exposes a contradiction in Berenger's character, pointing to the powerful brainwashing that capitalism can impose even on a person with a general awareness of the emptiness of the workplace. Moreover, the stagecraft helps amplify Ionesco's attitude. The physical similarity between Berenger's and Jean's rooms implies that bourgeois life is homogenous, and that collective consciousness is a predictable result. Both men evidently live alone, and both rooms seem little more than prisons, suitable for housing their occupants in between work-shifts.