Study Guide

Rhinoceros Themes

  • Language and Communication

    Language is a tricky thing when it comes to this play. People fail to connect and communicate throughout it—sometimes, because they’re unwilling to listen to what other folks have to say, and sometimes because they simply refuse to accept that someone could mean what’s coming out of their mouths.

    Here’s what one enthusiast has to say about Ionesco’s use of language: “The breakdown of communication and emotional silence is a result of the meaningless noise that is uttered as language.”

    Meaningless noise, huh? That about sums it up. Ultimately, language collapses in the play. As Berenger loses everyone around him to the way of the rhinoceros, he can no longer communicate with anyone other than himself. And even then, he’s not 100 percent sure he’s saying what he’s actually saying.

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. What is wrong with Jean’s voice when Berenger goes to Jean’s apartment? What does this indicate to Berenger, and how much quicker is the audience to figure it out than our drunken friend?
    2. Why does Berenger to start to question whether or not he is even speaking French?
    3. What role does journalism play in Rhinoceros?
    4. Why doesn’t Botard trust journalists?

    Chew on This

    Okay, so you’re the last person on Earth. Everyone else is a rhinoceros. How do you stay sane? Does language become a vital link to your past?

    The Logician uses language in his syllogism to prove that dogs are cats and cats are dogs. Might this be a trick to demonstrate the arbitrary nature of language? Do words like “cat” and “dog” actually mean anything? If instead it were barking cats who chased meowing and hissing dogs, what would that mean about language?

  • Guilt and Blame

    Football fans know exactly who fumbled the ball, called a play wrong, or didn’t wear their lucky socks to lose the game. Politicians know which other politicians are responsible for things like global warming and poverty. Moms almost want us to forget Mother’s Day so they can give us a guilt-trip. (Just kidding, Mom!)

    So sure, we all blame others for our own problems from time to time. We feel the need to assign responsibility. If we can’t blame others, we’re busy blaming ourselves and feeling guilty over things we maybe didn’t even have control over. In the play, Ionesco toys with the idea of people getting so wrapped up in who’s responsible for what that they get away with not taking any real responsibility for their actions.

    Questions About Guilt and Blame

    1. Why does Berenger think it is his fault that Jean turned into a rhinoceros?
    2. Whom does Berenger blame for Dudard’s decision to turn into a rhinoceros, and how does that response differ from his reaction to Jean’s transformation?
    3. How do blame and guilt affect the collapse of Berenger and Daisy’s relationship?
    4. Is anyone actually to blame for the rhinoceros “epidemic”?

    Chew on This

    Berenger feels guilty for much of what happens in the play. Being drunk, being late, especially being best friends with a dude who goes rhino. Is his ability to feel guilt something that makes him truly human? Is this something that separates him from the others?

    On the flip side, do you blame Daisy, Dudard, and the others for making the decision they made? Do you think their choice to join the rhinoceroses was justified?

  • Drugs and Alcohol

    When people talk about Rhinoceros, they’re not usually going all “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” on it. It’s not that kind of play. However, alcohol comes up again and again, and it’s definitely a major theme. The thing about it, though, is that Ionesco doesn’t seem to make any judgments about alcohol.

    The hero in the play is a bit of a drunk, but he’s the only one who shows a willingness to stand and fight in the end. Berenger is berated for his drinking by Jean, and his willpower is questioned over and over again, but in the end, Berenger’s willpower appears to be much stronger than anyone else’s.

    This doesn’t mean the play is pro-alcoholism or anything like that. It does, however, give Ionesco a chance to delve into the hypocrisy inherent in so many people. You know, those people who judge you for one thing or another while all the time they’ve got way worse stuff—like a rhinoceros gene—hidden in their closets?

    Questions About Drugs and Alcohol

    1. According to Jean, how often does Berenger drink? How much oftener is that than he should?
    2. What does Jean suggest Berenger should do instead of drinking? Might Jean’s suggestions actually better Berenger’s life, or is there something else behind his advice?
    3. What might the reasons be behind Berenger’s drinking?

    Chew on This

    Berenger is clearly a different man at the end of the play than he was at the beginning. He claims he’s been drinking less. Does drinking—or not drinking—tie directly in to Berenger’s change?

    Ionesco specifically made Berenger a drinker who can’t quite get things together in his life. It’s these very flaws that make Berenger more human and connect him to an audience that, regardless of drinking habits, are also flawed.

  • Fate and Free Will

    Being in the right place at the right time. Meeting the lady or lord of your dreams. Being on the verge of declaring bankruptcy and inheriting a billion smackeroos. Is it actually fate, or is it a higher power, or maybe just dumb luck? Is there such a thing as fate anyway? Or do people have free will to change fate?

    Whew, these are big questions. Luckily for us, Ionesco gives us a taste of how to grapple with ‘em.

    Questions About Fate and Free Will

    1. What are Jean’s reasons for changing into a rhinoceros? Does it seem like he has a choice?
    2. How about Dudard? Does his philosophizing put him more or less on the free-will train?
    3. Do you think Berenger had the power to stop Jean, Dudard, or Daisy from changing into a rhino? Why or why not?
    4. What keeps Berenger from changing into a rhinoceros?

    Chew on This

    While Berenger clings to the idea that there is no controlling who changes into a rhinoceros for much of the play—as though it were a disease, which would make it sort of a biological-weakness-fate sort of thing—Ionesco’s take on the matter seems pretty clear. Each person we see make the change makes a conscious decision to do so. So Ionesco makes it plain that you have the choice to either follow or stand up against something that is taking over the world as you know it.

    There is really only one decision that Berenger makes that affects his outcome in the play. His choice to drink, pursue Daisy, or to reconcile with Jean have no true bearing on the situation. The only decision that matters in the grand scheme of things is his decision not to change.

  • Transformation

    Transformation isn’t just for cars that can change into robots. It can also be for people changing into rhinoceroses.

    While transformation is often seen as a positive in the world—like transforming your metaphorical lemons into metaphorical lemonade, for example—that’s not necessarily the case in this play. Remember, the show basically starts with Jean trying to transform Berenger into something he’s not (a non-drunk), and then we see a succession of transformations that are not shown in the most positive light, to put it mildly. (Hey, how would you react to everyone you know going rhino?)

    Transformation isn’t all bad in the play, though. Berenger does definitely change into a different person, and his engagement with the world around him is what makes him the hero of Rhinoceros in the end.

    Questions About Transformation

    1. What’s the reaction when we learn that it’s people who are transforming into rhinoceroses?
    2. Who is the last person to leave Berenger’s side to join the rhinoceroses? What’s different about this transformation process?
    3. How are Dudard’s, Daisy’s, and Jean’s transformations different from each other? Why do you think Ionesco includes multiple transformations?
    4. How is Berenger’s transformation into a better human different from the multiple transformations into rhinoceroses? (Yes, it’s pretty deep.)

    Chew on This

    Before Jean and Berenger fight in Act 1, Berenger seems committed to making changes in his life. The fight upsets him, though, and he decides to hold off on bettering himself. If he had taken this first step of transformation as he said he was going to, might he have been more likely to transform into a rhinoceros? In other words, does his initial weak will become strong will when the stakes are changed?

    By using Jean, Dudard, and Daisy, Ionesco shows a physical transformation, an intellectual transformation, and a religious transformation. But despite the different rationales, each one ends with the same result. Through this, Ionesco is suggesting that all of these things (animal nature, rationalization, and religious zeal) can all lead us to follow the masses instead of remaining true to ourselves.

  • Wisdom and Knowledge

    Some people just love to talk about how smart they are. They’ll sit there and tell you all the things they know and they’ll talk at length about every subject under the sun. They’ll start sentences with phrases like, “Well, actually, what Shakespeare really meant was…”

    Hey, some of those people might actually be really smart. However, if you pay attention, you might find that a lot of them are totally full of it.

    Ionesco litters Rhinoceros with a number of characters who are quick to show off their knowledge but are really just throwing out empty phrases that don’t demonstrate any actual smarts at all. At times in the play, this can be extremely funny, and at other times it can almost drive you crazy.

    Questions About Wisdom and Knowledge

    1. What is a syllogism? (Hint: our friends Merriam and Webster know.)
    2. What sorts of arguments do these folks rely on in claiming they know all about the rhinoceros epidemic?
    3. In the office debate, who is the only person who actually has proof to support his or her arguments? What makes those particular arguments more credible?
    4. If Berenger were an “intellectual” like Dudard, would his decision to stay as he is be more difficult?

    Chew on This

    Ionesco creates the foils of Dudard and Botard in order to show one fellow (Dudard) who is a slave to reason take on a man (Botard) who is a slave to his emotions. In the middle rests Berenger, who prizes both reason and his own feelings. This, like so many other little details about him, makes Berenger the Everyman and a link to the audience.

    The thing that destroys Daisy and Berenger’s relationship in the end is religious zeal. Mere moments before the end of the play, Berenger and Daisy were very much on the same page when it came to the rhinoceroses. But all of a sudden, Daisy has an epiphany and begins to see the rhinos as gods. And that is not a form of knowledge that Berenger can comprehend.

  • Man vs. The Natural World

    Berenger is like the Scott Pilgrim of the whole “Man vs. The Natural World” theme. Instead of Seven Evil Exes, he’s got to battle it out with rhinoceroses.

    There’s a catch, though. While Berenger is surrounded by these seemingly natural creatures, there is nothing natural about their existence. These were people once, and they’ve made the decision to take a different path from the whole humanity thing. Berenger’s fight is more against the idea that becoming one of the rhinoceroses somehow makes you more a part of the natural world than it is with Nature itself.

    Questions About Man vs. The Natural World

    1. Whose transformation stems from an “animal” instinct?
    2. Why do you think the characters spend so much time debating over the number of horns the rhinoceroses have?
    3. What does Papillon mean in English? What does Boeuf mean? How do their animal names make them susceptible to rhinoceros-hood?
    4. How does the setting of the play connect with the natural world? Would the play be different if it were set in a different type of environment, say Paris?

    Chew on This

    At one point, Berenger looks out on the herd of rhinoceroses and comments that it’s always been said that rhinos are solitary animals. Ah, the irony. The rhinoceros is another way for Ionesco to demonstrate how willing people are to give up their individuality to succumb to the will of the group.

    Through Jean, Ionesco places the natural world at direct odds with mankind. Jean doesn’t simply want to become a rhinoceros, he also starts to despise people. It can only be one way or the other, he seems to say. If you make the choice to change, you are now adversaries with humankind.

  • Identity

    You ever have those mornings when you wake up, look in the mirror, and you start to think to yourself, “Who am I and what am I doing?” If so, you’re not alone. If not, you might be: minor morning-time existential crises are just a part of life sometimes. Hopefully once you get your coffee on, you start to feel better about your place in the world.

    For Ionesco’s characters, though, the question never really goes away. Rhinoceros returns to the question of who we are as individuals and as a society time and time again. Every character in the play is confronted with questions of identity when they start to understand what the rhinoceroses really are. In the end, Berenger shouts at the top of his lungs to tell the world that he is still human—he is still the man he was—and he is never going to give up his identity.

    Questions About Identity

    1. Whose pajamas start to itch? What is the significance of this in relation to the whole humanity thing?
    2. Why do you think Ionesco doesn’t give certain characters (e.g. Housewife, Old Man, Logician) actual names?
    3. Without others around you, is it possible to maintain your identity?
    4. Do you think there is real meaning in the Logician hanging on to his boater when he transforms?

    Chew on This

    During his transformation, Jean goes into the bathroom and shatters the mirror. He no longer sees himself as the man reflected there, and therefore he wants nothing to do with it. Soon after he shatters the mirror, he runs out to join the rhinoceroses. The act of shattering the mirror is the act of Jean shedding his identity. And hey, maybe rhinos don’t get seven years of bad luck with that sort of thing.

    At the end of the play, Berenger takes on the identity for all humankind. Sure, he’s functioned as an Everyman throughout, but keep in mind that he does not proclaim himself to be “Berenger!”—he proclaims himself to be “the last man left.” The individuality of his name or character is no longer as important, because he truly is the only individual still standing.