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Rhinoceros

Eugène Ionesco

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Study Questions

What do the various contradictions of the characters say about them, and about the world of Rhinoceros? Consider Berenger and Jean, for example.

Despite being foils, Berenger and Jean seem to trade places often throughout the play. After Jean counsels Berenger on how to lead a better life, Berenger asks Jean to accompany him to the museum and a play, but Jean declines because he is going to take a nap and has to meet a friend for a drink. While he rationalizes his decisions as mere lapses, it is clear that Jean's resolve is not as powerful as he would like others to believe. Rather, he exercises his will only when it can gain him power, and not when it asserts his individual humanity; his appreciation for culture, it seems, is only an exercise in self-improvement in order to gain power. Berenger, on the other hand, appears totally passive and apathetic at first, but he shows hints of commitment and responsibility even early on: he loves Daisy; he visits Jean to apologize for their fight; he tries to resist alcohol (though he usually fails). At the very least, he is always aware of his escapist tendencies. While contradictions are an inherent part of any complex literary (and real-life) character, in Ionesco's play these contradictions can be characterized as absurd. Berenger, for instance, defies his strong individualist stance by parroting the exact language of others to indicate that he, too, is a victim of either collective consciousness or of absurd coincidence.

Do the rhinoceroses maintain their human identities, or are they strictly savage beasts?

The first rhinoceros about whom we have some knowledge is Mr. Boeuf. He trumpets tenderly to Mrs. Boeuf upstairs in the office and tries to reach her. She recognizes him, showing that not all his humanity is gone. Her love and devotion is so strong, even, that she resists practical advice about insurance and a divorce and jumps on her husband's back. The Boeufs are clearly an exception; their relationship is the only evidence of true love and commitment to one other person in the play. Later, Berenger, Daisy, and Dudard discuss the problem of how to dispatch with the rhinos when they include former loved ones and relatives. It is clear that others have devolved into far more violent creatures; the rhino-personality is what they make of it. Jean epitomizes this. His irascible temper, desire for power, and misanthropy manifest themselves in a wild, harmful rhino that tries to mow down Berenger. Yet the rhinos later develop into beautiful, melodic creatures, as Ionesco tries to make the audience see how one's judgment can be altered by public perception.

Discuss Ionesco's dramatic techniques of repetition and parallelism.

At many points in the play, a number of characters say the same thing either simultaneously or nearly simultaneously, such as "Oh, a rhinoceros!" or "Well, of all things!" Characters often echo previous dialogue, as well. These repetitions are indications of a collective consciousness at work, and of the triviality of everyday language and emotion. No one seems too be disrupted by the appearance of a rhinoceros, so they remark on it with appropriate levels of disinterest. Ionesco also stages two separate dialogues at the same time, most prominently in the first act, when Jean tutors Berenger and the Logician tutors the Old Man. While the dialogue does not exactly match up, each set (the tutor or student) speaks about similar topics. The Logician's atrocious mishandling of logic shadows the incompatibility of logic with human emotion and alienation in Berenger's conversation.

Trace the progression of harm and violence in the play and the characters' reactions to it. Use John Stuart Mill's "harm principle" from On Liberty as a starting point (the harm principle states that individual freedom should be preserved so long as it does not directly harm anyone else).

What is the function of Ionesco's use of comedy? Does it distract us from the idea at hand, or call more attention to it?

No full-blown rhinoceroses appear directly on-stage. Aside from the physical difficulties this would present, why does Ionesco refrain from showing us what an actual rhino looks like?

Daisy says that you can only predict something once it has happened. Many characters in the play make incorrect assumptions, and then rationalize these after they have been disproved. Discuss the implications of these retroactive "predictions."

What is Ionesco's take on the workplace? How does this influence the rest of the play?

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