Rhinoceros | Study Guide

Eugène Ionesco

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Rhinoceros | Act 1 | Summary

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Summary

Act 1 takes place in a square of a provincial town, which includes a grocer's shop and a café. Berenger and Jean meet at the café. Jean is impeccably dressed, but Berenger has an unkempt appearance with disheveled clothes and messy hair. They sit at a table on the café's terrace. Soon Jean begins criticizing Berenger for being a drunkard and for his sloppy look. Berenger seems to have a bored, uncaring attitude about himself and about life in general. Soon they hear a noise of a beast galloping and panting, which quickly gets louder. Jean sees a rhinoceros on the loose and shouts, "Oh, a rhinoceros!" The waitress, grocer, and grocer's wife all make similar exclamations about seeing a rhinoceros.

A housewife runs out into the square carrying a cat and a basket. Frightened by the rhinoceros, she drops her basket, scattering the contents and breaking a bottle of wine in the process. An old gentleman rushes into the café, and a logician positions himself near the grocery entrance. The noise of the rhinoceros fades away as all of the characters, except for Berenger, exclaim in unison, "Well, of all things!" The housewife claims the rhinoceros gave her a scare. The logician comments that fear is irrational and, because of this, a person should "yield to reason."

Jean is astounded by Berenger's disinterest about seeing a rhinoceros. As the logician explains what a syllogism is to the old gentleman, Berenger explains to Jean why he is so indifferent about the rhinoceros sighting. The rhinoceros probably escaped from a zoo or a traveling circus. Jean refutes both explanations. Berenger then gives whimsical explanations, such as the rhinoceros coming out from under a stone. Jean accuses Berenger of making fun of him. Even though Berenger denies it, Jean seems insulted when Berenger contradicts him. Jean asserts that a rhinoceros roaming around a town is dangerous and shouldn't be allowed. Berenger agrees that a rhinoceros should not be allowed free, but he doesn't think the topic is worth arguing about. Berenger then sees his coworker, a young woman named Daisy, pass by and seems ashamed about her seeing him unkempt.

Jean again criticizes Berenger for drinking so much. In response Berenger claims drinking helps him endure the anguish of feeling out of place in life. The logician continues to explain a syllogism to the old gentleman by giving an example. Berenger confesses he barely has the strength to keep living. Jean encourages Berenger to start thinking, believing this will make him feel more alive. Knowing Berenger cares for Daisy, Jean exhorts him to pull his life together to attract her. Berenger should stop drinking, educate himself by going to the theater and museums, and dress properly. As the old gentleman attempts to understand the syllogism example offered by the logician, Berenger agrees to change. However, when Berenger invites Jean to accompany him to the theater, Jean declines by saying he has to rest.

The sound of a rhinoceros galloping is heard coming from the opposite direction. Berenger, Jean, the logician, the old gentleman, Daisy, and other townsfolk are astounded when they see the rhinoceros. As the noise of the galloping rhinoceros fades away, the housewife enters, holding a dead cat. She wails about the rhinoceros trampling her cat, and everyone shows some sympathy for her.

Jean asserts that the rhinoceros they saw was different from the first one. He claims the first rhinoceros had two horns, identifying it as Asiatic. However, the second rhinoceros had one horn, identifying it as African. Berenger accuses Jean of speaking nonsense because he didn't have time to notice the horns. According to Berenger, the Asiatic rhinoceros has one horn and the African has two horns. Jean and Berenger get into a heated argument about the subject. Other townsfolk begin to ignore the grieving housewife as they get involved in the dispute. Jean and Berenger insult each other, and Jean leaves in a huff. Berenger feels bad about arguing with his friend. Even though Jean's inability to admit being wrong is infuriating, Berenger feels he shouldn't have lost his temper. Some of the townsfolk continue to debate about the number of rhinoceroses. The logician informs them that what matters is presenting the discussion in the correct manner, instead of whether they saw one rhinoceros or two. This approach doesn't satisfy Berenger because it doesn't answer the question being discussed. When the housewife carries away her dead cat in a box, the grocer and café proprietor insist they will not stand for their cats being run over by rhinoceroses, no matter how many. Berenger continues to regret quarreling with Jean and orders a double brandy.

Analysis

Contrasting Characters

Ionesco begins Act 1 by showing the contrast between the main characters. Jean is shown as a person who has his act together. He is very well dressed and seems to have high morals. He doesn't drink to excess, he cultivates his mind by reading and going to plays and museums, and he practices self-control. Jean proudly states, "I'm strong because I have moral strength." In contrast, Berenger seems to be falling apart. He dresses sloppily, is unshaven, and seems apathetic about most things in life except for Daisy. To cope with his malaise, Berenger drinks excessively. He complains about his body feeling like it "were made of lead." Then he claims, "As soon as I take a drink, the lead slips away and I recognize myself."

Ionesco intensifies the contrast between Jean and Berenger by showing each character's view of himself. Jean is proud of his high moral character. He believes he is a person beyond reproach and, as a result, cannot ever admit being wrong. Berenger, though, often admits his mistakes. The section where Jean and Berenger argue about the rhinoceros clearly shows this. Jean insists an African rhinoceros has one horn and an Asiatic rhinoceros has two horns. Berenger contradicts his friend, saying the reverse is true. In truth Berenger is correct. Even so, Jean cannot admit even the possibility of being mistaken. Instead, he flies into a rage, calling Berenger a fool. Even though Berenger is correct, he feels bad about losing his temper. Berenger says, "I'm sorry I wasn't more accommodating." Berenger, therefore, is a person who readily admits his fallibility, while Jean is a person who must maintain a veneer of absolute strength that will be tested as the play moves along.

During the argument, Ionesco interjects the symbol of the rhinoceros. For the author the rhinoceros represents brute force, narrow vision, and a pack or mob mentality. Jean insults Berenger by saying, "If anybody's got two horns, it's you! You Asiatic Mongol!" In reality, though, Jean is acting more like a rhinoceros through his belligerent, narrow-minded attitude. Ionesco shows this in the next act when Jean begins to transform into the beast. In response to Jean's insult, Berenger says, "I've got no horns. And I never will have." This statement foreshadows Berenger's resistance to changing into a rhinoceros.

Limits of Reason

Through the logician, Ionesco develops the theme of absurdity. The author does this by emphasizing the limits and misuse of reason or logic. The logician tries to demonstrate the value of logic by explaining to the old gentleman what a syllogism is. However, the logician misuses the syllogism, thereby arriving at a nonsensical conclusion. The logician claims a cat has four paws and that the gentleman's dogs each have four paws. Therefore, the gentleman's dogs are cats. Such a conclusion is completely absurd, thereby showing how logic can be used to create nonsensical lies. As the logician tries to make the old gentleman understand syllogisms, Jean tries to make Berenger reform his life. By contrasting these two threads, Ionesco suggests that Jean's plan to control his own life and Berenger's life is absurd. Life has too many unexpected and inexplicable occurrences to fit neatly into any person's plan. The galloping rhinoceroses provide evidence of this. Seeing a rhinoceros running loose is unexpected and absurd, so Jean and other townsfolk are shocked when they see it. Such a sighting does not fit into Jean's carefully planned life, which unnerves him. In contrast, Berenger takes the rhinoceros sighting in stride. He does not have a strict plan for his life, which allows him to more easily accept the unexpected.

What's Trending

Ionesco conveys the theme of trends mostly through the use and repetition of banal phrases and platitudes that everyone seems to use one after the other. When townsfolk first see a rhinoceros, most of them exclaim, "Oh, a rhinoceros!" Later, many of them say in unison, "Well, of all things." Ionesco repeats this type of pattern throughout Act 1. When townsfolk see the housewife's dead cat, many of them say, "Poor little thing!" By doing this the author emphasizes how people often respond to specific events in a similar manner. Such a response is a type of conformity, because people are responding as a mindless group rather than individually to whatever is happening. Because of this, such a group response is shallow and meaningless. The author shows this through the townsfolk's fickleness toward the housewife mourning her cat. Although they all express sympathy in banal ways, the townsfolk are soon distracted by a silly argument about rhinoceros. The townsfolk fail to show any deep empathy for the housewife. Their banal expression gives the impression of sympathy while providing little.

For Ionesco the dead cat is a part of people's narrow views and their use of brute, mindless strength as represented by the rhinoceros. People quickly forget such innocent victims as they conform to a common identity.

By having townsfolk use the same expressions, Ionesco stresses how they are all conforming as part of a system. Because of this, they tend to blend together and lose their individuality. At times many of the townsfolk can be seen as acting like a machine that follows an interlinked process. When the first rhinoceros gallops away, the proprietor says, "Well, of all things!" Jean says the same comment, which is then repeated by the housewife. Then all three repeat this comment in unison. These people can be seen as one unit or machine responding in a connected way, which culminates in their united response. It is important to note that Berenger usually responds differently than the other characters. When other people comment, "Well, of all things," Berenger says, "It certainly looked as if it was a rhinoceros." No one else makes a similar comment. Indeed, Jean is frustrated with Berenger about his indifferent response to the beast. By doing this Berenger shows he doesn't fit into the system, which eventually helps him resist being changed into a rhinoceros. At one point Berenger states, "I feel out of place in life, among people."

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