If you’ve ever had thoughts of the world as we know it coming to an end, chances are they didn't involve all of humanity turning into rhinoceroses. It’s also pretty likely that when you picture the one last human left to fight the good fight for all Mankind, you don’t picture a guy like Berenger.
This guy is flawed, and we know it from the moment he enters:
BERENGER is unshaven and hatless, with unkempt hair and creased clothes; everything about him indicates negligence. He seems weary, half-asleep; from time to time he yawns. (1.1.27-29)
Okay, so Clark Kent/Superman, Berenger is not. Ionesco paints him as a man who is sort of shambling through life with no real direction. We quickly learn that he’s a bit of a drunk, he’s always tired, and he’s not the most ambitious of human beings:
JEAN: You reek of alcohol.
BERENGER: I have got a bit of hang-over, it’s true!
JEAN: It’s the same every Sunday morning—not to mention the other days of the week. (1.1.68-71)
That’s our hero, ladies and gentlemen, a drunk who lives life in a bit of a haze. Despite that (or maybe because of it), Berenger stands out from the other people in the play. Jean decides that Berenger needs to take some steps to start moving in the right direction. Jean’s advice includes tips on dressing, visiting the theatre and museums to better his mind, and cutting back on the drinking.
Basically, Jean is telling Berenger that he needs to dress and act more like Jean.
If Jean is the prototypical man in this French town, we know immediately that Berenger is something different.
Hint: keep this in mind. It might seem like just a little thing at the top of the show, but the exchange between Berenger and Jean in Act I hints at Berenger’s individuality.
Individuality and quite a bit of stubbornness play key roles in Berenger’s character makeup. But hey, that doesn’t mean he’s a bad guy. Sure, he isn’t the biggest fan of work (he’s late and he ducks out as soon as an excuse to do so presents itself), but there are a lot of folks out there that probably feel the same way about their jobs.
In the end, it’s Berenger’s individuality that allows him to hold onto his humanity as everyone around him turns into rhinos. Whether he is the best man to be the champion for the human race is debatable, but come on guys, when stampeding megafauna are around, that ain’t the point.
Berenger is an average guy who is unwilling to give in to the crowd. He starts off as a yawning, uninterested drinker who doesn’t really look interested in fighting for anything (unless it’s another drink), but in the end, he rails against all of those who have abandoned him and proclaims that he will never give in. He has a moment of doubt (the true heroes usually do), but in the end, he sticks to that not-giving-up thing:
BERENGER: Now I’ll never be a rhinoceros, never, never! I’ve gone past changing. I want to, I really do, but I can’t, I just can’t. I can’t stand the sight of me, I’m too ashamed. I’m so ugly! People who try to hang on to their individuality always come to a bad end! [He suddenly snaps out of it.] Oh well, too bad! I’ll take on the whole lot of them! I’ll put up a fight against the whole lot of them, the whole lot of them! (3.1.1286-12993)
Depending on how you look at this, Berenger is either noble, or ridiculous, or 100% both. Nothing that Berenger has shown us throughout the play makes us believe that he has what it takes to stand up and fight against a world of rhinoceroses.
In fact, the idea that a guy like Berenger could restore the human race is a little (yeah, you know what’s coming) absurd. Still, he’s not willing to give in, and that is something.
As you’ll see when you delve into the “Symbols ” section of this play, Berenger is seen by many as the “Everyman” who must stand up to tyranny. Like the Nazis. You didn’t see any sort of Superman swooping in to give Hitler a knock on the head. Anyway, even if it proves futile, the act of resistance is crucial. Normal, everyday people must cling to their humanity.
So sure, it could be easy to simply write Berenger off as a symbol and to brush him aside decades after Nazism was routed, but it seems that Berenger was more than just a symbol for the times (source).