JEAN: You’re just being a bore with…with your stupid paradoxes. You’re incapable of talking seriously! (1.1.403-404)
This little snippet gives us a glimpse into the relationship between Jean and Berenger. From the get go, they just can’t seem to talk straight to each other. Berenger comes off as uninterested for much of the conversation, and Jean never feels like Berenger is talking honestly or even really listening. Remember, these fellas are supposed to be good friends. If they can’t even communicate like two adults, what’s going to happen for strangers on the street?
JEAN: What, me? You dare accuse me of talking nonsense? (1.1.929-930)
Who doesn’t love a good “How dare you!” moment in a play? As Jean and Berenger’s conversation continues, and each one thinks the other is saying something they may not actually be saying at all, the two friends start to get angry. The breakdown in communication leads them to bicker like little children.
DUDARD: It’s all here; it’s down here in the dead cats column! Read it for yourself, chief. (2.1.67-68)
Yes, the “Dead cats column.” No, not the obituaries. Yes, ridiculous. Beyond that little twist on the journalism trade, this moment highlights another aspect of communication that Ionesco challenges—the written word. Dudard is a slave to what’s written in the newspaper. If it’s there, it must be true. Just like everything you read about celebrities in the tabloids. Duh.
BOTARD: I never believe journalists. They’re all liars. I don’t need them to tell me what to think. (2.1.75)
Whenever Dudard has his moments, it’s important to give Botard his response. Which is, of course, equally absurd. Dudard believes all written communication, Botard believes none. With these two guys, it could become difficult to ever know if anything actually ever happened. Even if it’s in the tabloids.
VOICE OF OLD MAN’S WIFE: Jean, don’t stand there gossiping! (2.2.35)
Minor or major, the bulk of the characters throughout the play seem to have an insatiable thirst to know what is going on with everyone else in the town. Like a middle-school cafeteria. However, without proof, or with refusal of all proof, it’s easy for characters to just devolve into gossip. Especially when they’re talking about who transformed into a rhinoceros. Which is the biggest dish in most middle schools, too.
BERENGER: Can you speak more clearly? I didn’t catch what you said. You swallowed the words. (2.2.388-389)
What happens when you abandon your humanity and decide to change into a rhinoceros? You lose your words, that’s what happens. As Jean gets closer and closer to the transformation, it becomes more difficult for Berenger to communicate with him at all. He just has to guess from the type of snorts he makes.
JEAN: I can hear you perfectly well! (2.1.410)
This is like those moments when you call someone up and you hear them saying “hello” like twenty times, but you accidentally pressed the mute button with your face so they can’t hear you at all. Jean claims he can still understand Berenger, but Berenger can only get the occasional phrase between rhino grunts. Language is falling apart in the scene. These two are no longer speaking the same language. Or even the same species.
BERENGER: You deliberately misunderstand me. (3.1.220)
Berenger’s not even talking to rhino-Jean anymore here. It’s one of those moments when you think you’re being crystal clear but everyone else is either not listening or choosing to take your words in a different way. Which is how Berenger feels when he talks to Dudard in the final act. They’re getting their debate on, and Berenger believes that Dudard is making a point of not getting his point. Yep, better believe another rhino’s about to sprout.
BERENGER: I shall write to the papers; I’ll draw up manifestos; I shall apply for an audience with the mayor—or his deputy, if the mayor’s too busy. (3.1.304-307)
The fact that Berenger still thinks talking and “writing manifestos” are going to make a difference at this point in the play is comical (and is usually seen that way by an audience). Rhinos are storming the streets. What is a manifesto going to do? This is one of those moments in which Ionesco seems to suggest that sometimes action is the only option. Language and communication fail to be an effective tool at some point.
BERENGER: In any case, to convince them you’d have to talk to them. And to talk to them I’d have to learn their language. Or they’d have to learn mine. But what language do I speak? What is my language? French? Am I talking French? Yes, it must be French. But what is French? I can call it French if I want and nobody can say it isn’t—I’m the only one who speaks it. What am I saying? (3.1.1241-1247)
Whew, boy. This is it. This is the moment of the utter collapse of communication in the play. Seriously, what is French? If only one person can speak it, is it still French, and then does it even matter what it’s called? By the end of the play, Berenger is speaking to himself and no one can understand. He’s yelling at nobody (unless, of course, you count the audience). Also, think of the added language disconnect that happens when this play is being performed in English and Berenger is saying he is speaking French. It’s just an added bonus to the language collapse.
DAISY: You shouldn’t have made him angry.
BERENGER: It wasn’t my fault. (1.1.1011-1012)
People are quick to blame others in this play for just about everything that happens. What’s interesting about Berenger is that he goes back and forth between refusing to accept any responsibility (like here) and feeling as though he is the sole person who is responsible for everything. Quite the fickle fella.
BERENGER: I should never have quarreled with Jean. (1.1.1206)
See, right there. One of those dang “shoulds.” Just a couple minutes back, he had nothing to do with the ish, and now he’s on to feeling guilty about the whole argument thing. Just a sneak peak of the utter guilt he’ll take on about everything that goes down with Jean’s transformation. But more on that later.
BOTARD: It’s always the little people who get the blame. (2.1.430-431)
Spoken like a true anti-establishment worker! Botard doesn’t trust “management” or government or anyone with any kind of power, so he is quick to blame them for everything that happens—even people turning into rhinoceroses.
PAPILLON: It’s all the management’s fault. (2.1.435)
This little blame game here is a gem. In the office, Mr. Papillon is in charge, but he still answers to the upper management, so it must be their fault. Like Botard blaming those who stand higher than him on the corporate ladder, Papillon is willing to do the same.
BOTARD: You can’t fool me. I’ll let you know the purposes and the meaning of the whole plot! I’ll unmask the perpetrators! (2.1.574)
This is Botard in his true tin-foil hat conspiracy theory moment. He knows exactly who to blame, and he will tell everyone who that someone is. But he’ll get to it at a later time. It’s not that he doesn’t know, it’s just that now is not the right time to tell everyone. It couldn’t be that he, like everyone else, has absolutely no idea what is happening, right?
DUDARD: If anyone breaks a leg, it will be the management’s responsibility. (2.1.605-606)
Even good old Dudard can’t help but pass the buck to the management. That’s not to say that management shouldn’t be blamed for certain things, but everybody in the office is willing to blame them and hold them responsible for everything. That’s one convenient scapegoat!
BERENGER: But I would like to say how sorry I am for being so insistent […] I acted stupidly. (2.2.76-78)
Berenger acts like the bigger man here and comes to apologize to Jean for the argument they had back at the café. Jean basically just calls him stupid again, and then it’s rhino time. Just keep in mind that Berenger, at this point, blames himself for the quarrel with Jean, which only makes him blame himself when Jean turns into a rhinoceros.
BERENGER: He was the last person I’d have expected to change like that. I felt more sure of him than myself! And then to do that to me! (3.1108-110)
We all know those people who have the infuriating ability to make everything about themselves. Which is kind of what Berenger does here. He blames Jean for doing something directly to him, as if Jean’s transformation was all about Berenger.
BERENGER: You should have been firmer with him, you should have insisted; he was in love with you, wasn’t he? (3.1.813-814)
This time around, when someone transforms, Berenger blames Daisy for a change. He still can’t fully grasp that once people have made up their minds to join the herd, there is almost nothing that can be done to stop them. It’s still gotta be a human’s fault.
BERENGER: I’ve only myself to blame. (3.1.1284-1285)
Poor, poor Berenger. It’s all his fault. It’s his fault Jean transformed, it’s his fault Daisy left, and it’s his fault he’s still human. Luckily, Berenger snaps out of this, puts on his big-boy pants, and stands by his decision to stay human. That’s one way to transform your guilt—well, unless rhinos don’t get that emotion anyway.
JEAN: You mean to say you’ve got a thirst even at this time of morning? (1.1.49-50)
Man, Jean is not above judging his friends. However, his judgment does give us a glimpse into Berenger’s nature. Berenger is a guy, at least at the beginning of the play, who is into drinking…a lot.
BERNEGER: I have got a bit of a hangover—it’s true! (1.1.69)
So, Berenger likes drinking, but he doesn’t seem all that concerned about it. He knows he’s hung over and he knows he wants another drink, and he knows that society sort of frowns on that sort of thing, especially on a Sunday morning.
JEAN: You’re heading for cirrhosis, my friend. (1.1.92-93)
When we need to cite the medical dictionary entry on cirrhosis, we know things are serious (hint: it’s a disease that has to do with drinking). But back to the plot: sometimes, like when medicine comes in, it might be okay to judge. While Jean can get a little high and mighty at times, he does seem to have legitimate concerns about his friend, and he’s willing to put it out there. As long as he’s got some big words to back it up.
BERENGER: That’s very true…it seems to mount from my stomach. (1.1.393-395)
Again, Berenger doesn’t seem overly concerned with his state. But this is the moment when he at least starts to realize that alcohol has come to affect every aspect of his life.
JEAN: Put the glass on the table! You’re not to drink it. (1.1.468)
It’s hard to know if Jean is practicing some tough love here with Berenger or if he’s just acting all superior. In the end, we discover that Jean was not quite the happy, perfect guy he led on to believe (you know, when he turns rhino), so this might be more of a chance for Jean to demonstrate his superiority than a chance to actually help his friend.
BERENGER: I don’t like the taste of alcohol much. And yet if I don’t drink, I’m done for. It’s as if I’m frightened, and so I drink not to be frightened anymore. (1.497-499)
First symptom of an alcoholic: the words that just came out of Berenger’s mouth. The whole fear thing means he pretty much functions like an alcoholic—but wait! There could be a little more to it than just that. After all, why’s he so frightened? Maybe Berenger has a sense that something just isn’t quite right. He doesn’t know of what, but he knows he’s scared. His fears prove to be pretty well founded just a few minutes after this exchange.
BERENGER: I’m conscious of my body all the time, as if it were made of lead, or as if I were carrying another man on my back […]Then, as soon as I drink, the lead slips away. (1.1.508-512)
Again, Berenger justifies his drinking. He also starts to realize how heavy he feels all the time (not rhino heavy, but still), and he starts to believe that change is necessary. Pretty soon, he’ll be agreeing to turn his life around. He talks himself out of all that, but for a few minutes he really looks like he wants to make some changes.
JEAN: I have moral strength. I’m also strong because I’m not riddled with alcohol. (1.1.522-523)
At this point, it might seem like Jean is right about everything, even if he is kind of smug about it all. However, as the play progresses, we see that Berenger is actually the only one strong enough to stand by his convictions.
JEAN: Cut down your drinking. This is the way to come out: wear a hat, a tie like this, a well-cut suit, shoes well polished.
Jean’s advice about Berenger’s drinking and other problems is simple: act more like me, and you’ll be better off. This is the first time Berenger is faced with the idea of conforming in the play.
DAISY: Well all right then, you can have a little glass. It’ll buck you up. (3.1.885-886)
By the end, Berenger has cut back on his drinking, so Daisy uses it as a reward for him. We’re not sure this is the best way to handle things, but regardless of that, it’s clear that Berenger still wants to drink. It’s not as though this play is about him turning over a new leaf when it comes to alcohol or anything. But at least he stands up to the rhinos.
BERENGER: Where can I find the weapons? […]
JEAN: Within yourself. Through your own will. (1.1.604-606)
Jean believes that the power to change oneself can only come from within. He’s like a motivational speaker or a very serious yoga instructor. He believes that a man’s will dictates what a man does. It’ll take Berenger a while to come around on that idea.
JEAN: Come on, exercise your will. Concentrate! (1.1.623)
So sometimes Jean can switch pretty quick from the zen-happy yoga instructor to the boot-camp dude who screams at you until you get to 70 pushups. He seems to think that using your free will and tapping into your will power is like an exercise. Who knows, maybe he’s right. It just seems a little silly at the time, like someone yelling, “Come on, be better at math!”
JEAN: And what if he did do it on purpose? (2.2.299)
Now that we’re onto how it affects the whole rhinoceroses epidemic and not just whether Berenger orders another drink, this whole fate and free will thing is getting interesting. Jean and Berenger argue about Boeuf’s transformation into a rhinoceros, and for the first time the idea that the transformation might have been a choice comes up. This aspect of the fate/free will argument will come to dominate the play.
DUDARD: I’m convinced this is something you can cure if you want to. (3.1.175-176)
This quote is a little bit of a mind-bender if you delve deep enough. Dudard believes that once you’re a rhino you can stop being a rhino just by choosing not to be one anymore. Basically, use your free will and be whatever species you want. But by calling it a “cure,” he implies that turning into a rhinoceros is a disease. Disease often has to do with chance, but there are also things you can do to be more susceptible to disease. So here, being a follower is like the carcinogen of becoming a rhino. Anyway, this one highlights the differences, but also the fine line, between fate and free will.
BERENGER: But if one really doesn’t want to catch this thing […] you simply don’t catch it! (3.1.182-184)
No, he’s not thinking of catching a live rhino, he’s talking about catching the rhino virus. Like two minutes before this, Berenger was convinced he’d come down with the sickness that would change him into a rhinoceros. Now, he’s quickly coming to the “free will” side of the argument, saying that you have a choice to get the disease or not. It’s all about whether you want it.
DUDARD: I consider it’s silly to get worked up because a few people decide to change their skins […] They’re free to do as they like. (3.1.310-313)
On the one hand, seems like Dudard is saying he buys into the free will side of things. But if you go a little deeper, you might find Dudard’s quote a bit chilling. Think about the symbolism: if the rhinoceroses represent the Nazis or the Iron Guard or some other violent dictatorial regime, what is Dudard saying? He’s saying that there is no need to get worked up by watching a few people become part of a totalitarian order, because it was their choice to do so. Hey, it’s none of our business. This is how movements are allowed to start, Ionesco seems to say, with people like Dudard standing by and just watching it happen. Soon it’s too late, and he’s joining in with all the others.
BERENGER: He couldn’t have done it on purpose. I’m sure it must have been involuntary. (3.1.376-377)
Our boy Berenger is a bit of a waffler (mmmm, waffles). One minute he seems to be on board with the whole free will thing. But then if someone has changed who he never thought would change, it’s got to be involuntary. If it is free will, then everyone around him has gone totally mad, as far as he’s concerned.
DUDARD: If he was a genuine thinker, as you say, he couldn’t have gotten carried away. He must have weighed all the pros and cons before deciding. (3.1.562-564)
Again, think about what Ionesco is tackling on the grand scale. Dudard’s argument then is that the hysteria in places like Nazi Germany is not simply based on passion and emotion. There are some people who approach it intellectually, and decide the “reasonable” choice to make is to join up with the masses, even if the masses are screaming for dictatorship and violence.
BERENGER: I still would have thought Mr. Papillon would have had the strength to resist. I thought he had a bit more character! (3.1.392-394)
Yes, the old “never woulda thunk it” again. Think of it as highlighting how at the beginning of the show, Berenger was the one whose character was in question and whose lack of will power was mocked. And now he’s one of the last ones standing!
DAISY: I know he was against it. But it didn’t stop him turning, twenty-four hours after Mr. Papillon. (3.1.623)
This is just a quick look at how weak human will power can be. Daisy is talking about Botard, who earlier was vehemently opposed to all things rhinoceros-related. Now, a little while later, he’s on board with the whole thing and has transformed himself.
Now that’s a slick conspiracy theorist—one who jumps on board with the conspiracy. Even if the conspiracy has a horn.
BERENGER: I’ve got no horns. And I never will have. (1.1.964)
Sometimes, the guy who just likes to lie around on the couch all day and watch TV has some of the most insightful things to say. That’s kind of the case with Berenger early on in the play. He’s a drunk, he lacks ambition, and he doesn’t even really get phased by the first rhinoceros. But when it comes to embracing who he is as a human, he’s on top of it. And he’s not willing to change just because other people think it might be cool.
DAISY: Yes, other rhinoceroses. They’ve been reported all over the town. This morning there were seven, now there are seventeen. (2.1.529-531)
“Hey look at that car that guy is driving. Everyone seems to think it’s the coolest car around. I should probably get a car just like that.” Ah, the birth of a trend. It happens really fast sometimes, and before you know it everyone is driving the same cool car and wearing the same clothes and listening to the same music. That’s what happens with the rhinoceroses. One person does it, someone else joins in, and just like that their numbers start to skyrocket.
JEAN: I only have confidence in veterinary surgeons. There! (2.2.192)
Ionesco gives us a nice little laugh here, and he demonstrates how the transformation gives people at least one moment where they are functioning as two things. Jean is not fully a rhinoceros at this point, since he’s still thinking of things like institutionalized medicine, but he’s already thinking of himself as being an animal. Do rhinoceroses have health insurance?
BERENEGER: It’s just that…it seems to be changing colour all the time. It’s going green.
Berenger is talking about Jean’s skin. Creepy, right? This is the one real visual Ionesco gives us of the entire transformation process. We see Jean’s attitude, beliefs, and language change, but here, we also get to see him changing into something foreign right before Berenger’s eyes. There is no way Berenger can shake this image, and it sticks with him for the rest of the show. Yes, green!
BERENGER: My dear Jean…
JEAN: I’m not your dear Jean. (2.2.229-230)
There it is. Plain and simple. Jean is basically saying, “I am not the man I once was. I’ve transformed into something else.” Shivers! It’s like when your best friend from middle school becomes a goth or a football player when you get to high school, and good little Shmooper that you are, you have to realize that he or she’s not really your friend anymore.
JEAN: I don’t care what you feel. Brrr… (2.2.266)
We get two doses of genius here. First, the emotional change. Jean no longer cares about Berenger’s feelings, and no longer connects to Berenger as a friend or even as a fellow man. Then there’s the physical and linguistic change. Does “Brrr” mean he’s chilly, as an African animal in provincial France? No, just that he’s an African animal making some sort of guttural rhino sound. Language flies out the window at this point. He’s becoming an animal, and animals don’t need a mastery of the French language.
BERENGER: He’s turned into a rhinoceros. (2.2.272)
Thank you, Captain Obvious. Before we chastise Berenger too much for saying something we all got a few minutes earlier, sometimes you have to say something out loud to convince yourself it’s real. “This is the best meal ever,” “That was an amazing goal,” and “Wow, Jon Hamm is handsome,” are just a few examples.
JEAN: You always see the black side of everything. It obviously gave him great pleasure to turn into a rhinoceros. There’s nothing extraordinary in that. (2.2.328-330)
The two supposed best friends can never see eye-to-eye on things. This gives Jean one more chance to show how Berenger is sad and wrong and how he is joyful and right. What a great friend.
DUDARD: In any case you can be sure that Boeuf and the others didn’t do what they did—become what they became—to annoy you. They wouldn’t have gone to all that trouble. (3.1160-162)
Remember how we talked about Berenger’s ability to make everything all about him at times? Dudard finally calls him out for it. “The transformations aren’t about you, buddy!” he seems to say here. Still, maybe it’s that deep, dark egotism that helps Mr. B stay human.
DUDARD: That proves his metamorphosis was sincere. (3.1.5)
We can always count on Dudard to bring reason to a totally insane situation. People are turning into rhinoceroses left and right, but they’ve clearly thought it all out, yes? If they’ve made decisions that they believe in, we should accept it, too. Kind of creepy, but ties the transformation thing back to free will. Way to go, intersecting themes!
LOGICIAN: I’m going to explain to you what a syllogism is. (1.1.344-345)
We’re sure you’re often sitting around hoping someone will just come explain syllogisms to you. That’s what the Logician thinks, anyway. He spends his limited time in the play simply spouting his knowledge to all those around, and they respect him, because, well, he’s a logician. The great thing about this character, though, is that the knowledge he passes on plays right into the absurdity of the world around him. His syllogism proves nothing, betters no one, and has no real effect on the listeners. His knowledge, like much of the life of this small French town, is empty.
JEAN: There are certain things which enter the minds of even people without one. (1.1.429-430)
Even stupid people think about things, even if they don’t realize they’re thinking them. That’s pretty much what Jean is saying here, and he’s saying it to Berenger, so we get a sense he’s hinting his friend doesn’t have too much going on between the ears. Just one more thing Jean gets to hold over Berenger.
JEAN: Then kindly explain why it’s impossible, as you seem to imagine you can explain everything. (1.1.434-435)
Burn! With this zinger (don’t get into a debate with Jean), we get another of those short little lines where Ionesco still manages to pack in tons of good stuff. The key is the word “imagine.” This is Jean’s way of calling Berenger stupid again without coming out and saying it. He’s suggesting that Berenger can only imagine that he actually knows things, because in reality, he knows absolutely nothing.
LOGICIAN: The cat has four paws. Isidore and Fricot both have four paws. Therefore Isidore and Fricot are cats.
OLD GENTLEMAN: My dog has got four paws.
LOGICAN: Then it’s a cat.
Yes, this is that definition of syllogism we were waiting for. The Logician follows all the logical rules of constructing a syllogism: A is true, and B is true, so A is B. His conclusion could be called flawed at the very least. This is a great example of how knowledge can, at times, get you absolutely nothing, and stand at direct odds with common sense. Or maybe the Logician is merely demonstrating that the idea of “cats” and “dogs” is completely arbitrary, and therefore neither has any real meaning. And if cats are in fact dogs, can we really know if anything is what we think and say it is? That, friends, is traveling down the philosophical rabbit hole.
OLD GENTLEMAN: Logic is a beautiful thing.
LOGICIAN: As long as it is not abused. (1.1.542-544)
LOGICIAN: There is a very strong possibility that the Logician is the biggest culprit of logic abuse in this play. Just keep that in mind when you’re reading him discuss his theories.
LOGICIAN: Come on, exercise your mind. Concentrate! (1.1.621)
Just as Jean believes one’s will power can be kicked into gear by yelling, so believes the Logician about the mind. Sure, we all need to work our brains out, but this guy treats others like they’re on some horrible treadmill of mental torture when they can’t figure something out immediately.
JEAN: By visiting museums, reading literary periodicals, going to lectures. That’ll solve your troubles, it will develop your mind. In four weeks you’ll be a cultured man. (1.1.677-680)
You have a headache, do you? Well, take two of these bits of advice twice a day and you’ll be just fine. Jean treats the gaining of knowledge and wisdom like a prescription. He has it down to how many weeks it takes to become “cultured.” This is a man who believes that the way he does things is the only way they should be done. He cannot accept that Berenger could actually be wiser than he is, because Berenger doesn’t go to museums and plays. And what’s wisdom if not that?
BERENGER: He’s always making fantastic statements! Always trying to dazzle people with his knowledge. (1.2.1059-1060)
We’ve got nothing against raising your hand in class and giving the answer. In fact, we encourage it. However, there are those people who spout off bits of trivia just to try to prove how smart they are or just to hear themselves talk. That’s how Berenger sees Jean. And at this point, we wouldn’t really argue with him.
LOGICIAN: Professional logician. My card. (1.1.1088)
There is something beautiful about the world of this play. It’s a world where “being smart” can be your full time job. You just need to have business cards made and talk about stuff that other people don’t really understand.
BOTARD: All you get at the universities are effete intellectuals with no practical knowledge of life. (2.1.185-186)
We know Botard doesn’t trust anyone, but he’s actually bringing up an ongoing debate about the idea of knowledge here. It’s the age-old “book smarts vs. street smarts” argument. Are you knowledgeable because you have learned a lot from books and lectures or are you knowledgeable if you understand the world around you and can navigate it successfully? Maybe you need a little of both like in Good Will Hunting to be really smart. Either way, you can probably guess that Botard is overestimating his abilities in both arenas.
WAITRESS: Oh, a rhinoceros! (1.1.169)
Hey, the play is called rhinoceros, so there better be a rhinoceros sighting. Yup, the waitress’s surprisingly nonchalant, “Oh, a rhinoceros!” How dainty. Anyway, this moment is the first acknowledgment that something from the seemingly natural world has encroached on the human domain.
JEAN: A rhinoceros loose in the town, and you don’t bat an eyelid! It shouldn’t be allowed! (1.1.357-358)
This statement from Jean is kind of like somebody who talks trash about Lady Gaga and then runs home and fashions a dress out of meat. The next time we see Jean after this scene, he’ll be changing into a rhino and joining up with all the others. Which is kind of another version of a meat dress, when you stop to think about it.
BOTARD: How can it be possible in a civilized country? (2.1.425)
There are places in one of the largest cities in Texas (and other places, we assume) that couldn’t be more city-like. There are skyscrapers and huge corporations and lovely little neighborhoods. Sometimes, though, coyotes walk the streets. It’s a crazy thing to see the natural world push its way into “civilization,” and this is what Botard has witnessed. And he just cannot deal.
JEAN: I felt uncomfortable in my clothes. Now my pajamas irritate me as well. (2.2.251-252)
Now that Jean has a desire to join the “natural world” with the rhinoceroses, he can no longer bother with human trappings like pajamas. The animal is coming out in him, and he wants nothing to do with humankind.
JEAN: We’ve got to build our life on new foundations. We must get back to primeval integrity. (2.2.357-359)
There are those who love nature and do want to get back to a more natural way of living (the organic food craze is evidence of that), but there is something that Jean fails to mention. There is a violence and power of destruction in the animals he is looking to join that goes beyond what he is capable of as a man. Remember, the rhinoceroses are not simply the natural world reclaiming its place on earth. These are people who have joined others because they want to trample on stuff.
DUDARD: Perhaps he felt an urge for some fresh air, the country, the wide-open spaces…perhaps he felt the need to relax. (3.1.132)
Just everyday living can be stressful. Trying to go it alone out there isn’t easy. Maybe joining up with the herd would just give you a chance to take things down a notch. You wouldn’t have to worry so much. You could just get out there in the open and do what everyone else does. It’s simple, right? Again, remember the bigger picture here. It’s not just about getting in touch with nature, it’s about turning off your brain and becoming part of an unstoppable, unthinking, uncaring mass.
DAISY: They’ve even got a certain natural innocence, a sort of frankness. (3.1.247-248)
Look out, everybody, Daisy is starting to buy into this whole thing. In like one minute she’s going to be calling them gods and joining up. She sees them as natural and simple at first, and that’s the appeal. It’s not too far off from what Dudard was talking about earlier.
DUDARD: What could be more natural than a rhinoceros?
BERENGER: Yes, but for a man to turn into a rhinoceros is abnormal beyond question. (3.1.453-455)
Don’t you love it when a writer sums up one of his major arguments in two lines? This rhinoceros epidemic is not natural. It’s one thing for animals to take back what was theirs to begin with, and it is an entirely different thing for humans to change themselves into animals. Berenger not only sees this as an affront to humankind, but as an affront to the natural world, as well. Tidy sum-up, huh?
BERENGER: Man is superior to the rhinoceros. (3.1.772)
If we’re talking everyday rhinoceroses, people might be able to debate this point, but for Berenger there is no question. Man has elevated himself and individualized himself, which makes him superior to the animals in the natural world. The problem for him is that those animals are physically more powerful and superior to him in every way. Better stay locked in the apartment, Berenger!
DAISY: They don’t look insane. They look very natural. (3.1.1133-1134)
Again, Daisy is drawn to the naturalness of the whole thing. On the other end of the room, Berenger cannot understand why nobody can see how wrong and unnatural this all is. That is why he is the only human left in the end. He knows, inherently, that something unnatural is taking place. In a way, remaining human puts him less at odds with the natural world than transforming into a rhinoceros would.
GROCER’S WIFE: Oh, you always have to be different from everybody else. (1.1.1035)
She doesn’t know it, but the grocer’s wife just dropped one of the key lines in the play. The need to be different—or the refusal to conform—becomes the controlling idea of Rhinoceros. She sees being different as a bad thing now, but a little difference might have kept her human in the end.
BOTARD: I’m a Northerner myself. Southerners have got too much imagination. (2.1.105-106)
It’s amazing, but people will identify themselves with groups based on just about anything: where they’re from, what sports teams they root for, where they went to school, etc. It’s this sentiment that makes it all too easy for them to join up with everybody else. In a way, they’ve already linked their identities to others. Maybe that’s why Raiders fans are literally the worst.
DAISY: All right. But does it exist or not? (2.1.426)
Nothing like a little existential debate about rhinoceroses to get you going in the workplace. Daisy is talking to Botard here, and she’s really just trying to get him to come to terms with the fact that there are rhinoceroses on the loose. In doing so, though, she raises a larger identity question. How do we know what truly exists? Do we really exist, or are we some computer program? Throw in Keanu and some awesome Kung Fu and we could turn this thing into a horny beast version of The Matrix.
MRS. BOEUF: I recognize him, I recognize him! (2.1.451)
Mrs. Boeuf shouts this when she gets a good look at rhino-Boeuf. While this whole scene is a bit ludicrous, this is actually a nice comment on identity. It suggests that we are more than our appearance and our voice—that there is something about us that transcends the physical. You know, like all the times when Doctor Who regenerates, but deep down he’s still the Doctor.
JEAN: Funny, I didn’t recognize your voice.
BERENGER: I didn’t recognize yours either. (2.254-256)
If Mrs. Boeuf could recognize her husband as a full-on rhinoceros, but Jean and Berenger can’t recognize each other well before Jean’s transformation is complete, what does that say about these two bosom buds? Are they really that good of friends? That’s something to think about when it comes to the power of identity. Maybe the connection between two people helps define who each of those people is. Or maybe not. Or maybe it's just because of how self-centered these two are.
JEAN: I’m master of my own thoughts, my mind doesn’t wander. I think straight. I always think straight. (2.2.140-141)
Take this out of context, and you might think you’re listening to a former nice guy take the step to becoming a comic book super-villain. It sounds like someone justifying something bad they’re about to do. Even as Jean changes, he still claims that he’s no different than he was in the past. He has identified himself as a man who is calm and clear in thought, and he still sees himself that way even as he changes into a rhino.
JEAN: Boeuf led his own private life. He had a secret side to him deep down which he kept to himself. (2.2.314-315)
This is the old “you think you know somebody and then they go transform into a rhinoceros” moment—kind of like the “he was a nice quiet person” moment on the news when they interview the neighbors of someone who has done something even worse than turn into a rhinoceros. Jean’s point is that we can never truly know someone. Deep down, everyone’s identity is his or her own, and what they show the world is not who they really are.
BERENGER: I mean the human individual, humanism…
JEAN: Humanism is all washed up! (2.2.375-376)
Once you put on that uniform or that badge the government assigns you, you are no longer an individual. That is what Ionesco seems to be saying. The coming of the rhinoceroses (or the Fascists, if you want to get more symbolic) means the death of individuality and identity.
BERENGER: I’m frightened of becoming someone else. (3.1.89)
This seems like a great time to talk about werewolf transformations (we know, it’s always a good time to talk about those). In a lot of movies and TV shows the transformation from human to wolf is incredibly violent and painful. There’s a lot of yelling and things happening to bones that just looks gnarly. In a way, this is the pain that comes with losing your identity and becoming someone (or thing) else. This is what Berenger fears and what he refuses to do. He is himself, and he will not give that up. He will not undergo the transformation. He will never howl at the moon!
BERENGER: I’m not joining you; I don’t understand you! I’m staying as I am. I’m a human being. A human being. (3.1.1226-1228)
This is it—Berenger’s final claim to his humanness, his individuality, and his identity. He is the only one willing to hold on to who he is. This has put him in an impossible spot, but one that Ionesco seems to suggest is necessary. Without the Berengers of the world, mankind can get swept up into the kind of mass hysteria that leads to war, death, and destruction on a global scale.