Rhinoceros | Study Guide

Eugène Ionesco

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Rhinoceros | Act 2, Scene 1 | Summary

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Summary

Act 2, Scene 1 takes place in a law office. An employee named Dudard and the secretary, Daisy, try to convince another employee, Botard, that a rhinoceros trampled a woman's cat. Dudard shows a newspaper article as proof, and Daisy insists she saw the rhinoceros. Even so, Botard rejects their claims. Priding himself on his rational, methodical mind, Botard says the supposed sightings of the rhinoceros are unscientific and therefore have been made up. He says he never trusts newspapers because journalists fabricate stories all the time.

Berenger enters a little late, and Daisy sneaks him the time sheet, which he signs. Berenger also says he saw at least one rhinoceros, but Botard implies it was a hallucination brought on by excessive drinking. When Berenger expresses doubt about seeing one or two rhinoceroses, Botard points this out as a sign that Berenger is lying. Although the office chief, Mr. Papillon, is concerned about the rhinoceros sightings, he tells his employees they need to stop arguing and get to work. The employees try to focus on their jobs, but bickering soon resumes between Dudard and Botard about the rhinoceros. Berenger mentions to Mr. Papillon that Mr. Boeuf is absent from work, which annoys the chief. In fact, Boeuf will never appear in human form.

Soon Mrs. Boeuf enters. Flustered, she informs Mr. Papillon her husband is ill with the flu. After sitting in a chair to calm herself, Mrs. Boeuf says a rhinoceros chased her to the law office. The beast is on the first-floor entrance to the office. Suddenly, trumpeting and a crashing sound is heard as the stairs crumble from a heavy weight. Daisy and Berenger attend to Mrs. Boeuf and try to calm her down. Meanwhile, Mr. Papillon, Botard, and Dudard go to the landing and spy the rhinoceros down below. Berenger and Daisy soon join them. Berenger focuses on whether the rhinoceros is Asiatic or African, while Daisy shows sympathy for the beast. Botard claims the rhinoceros is part of an infamous plot and points to Dudard, saying, "It's all your fault!"

Mrs. Boeuf comes to the landing and is shocked when she recognizes the rhinoceros is in some way her husband. She faints, and Berenger, Dudard, and Daisy carry her to a chair. Botard asserts that the union will stand by Mr. Boeuf, even if he has changed into a rhinoceros. Hearing the rhinoceros's trumpeting, Mrs. Boeuf says, "He's calling me." Daisy wonders how everyone will get out of the office, now that the stairs have been destroyed. She calls the fire department.

Rising from her chair, Mrs. Boeuf says she will not abandon her husband and runs to the landing. Startled, Berenger, Dudard, Mr. Papillon, and Botard follow her. Berenger tries to restrain Mrs. Boeuf but she jumps, leaving him holding her skirt. Based on the spectators' descriptions, Mrs. Boeuf lands astride on the back of the rhinoceros and rides away. Daisy informs her coworkers that the fireman cannot come immediately because they are attending to other emergencies involving rhinoceroses throughout the town. Apparently as many as 32 rhinoceroses have been reported. Dudard and Daisy challenge Botard to explain the rhinoceroses, but he has trouble doing so. Finally, Botard claims it's all part of a sinister plot that he's aware of and will eventually unmask when the time is right. Dudard accuses Botard of bluffing.

The firemen arrive and hoist a ladder to an office window. Daisy is the first to climb down the ladder. Mr. Papillon tells his employees work will resume as soon as possible. He then heads down the ladder holding business papers under his arm. Before Botard descends, he gives a short speech about taking up the mystery with the proper authorities. He then climbs down the ladder. Dudard and Berenger try to outdo each other with politeness, each of them insisting the other go down the ladder first. In the end they exit via the window together.

Analysis

Thematic Interrelation

In Act 2, Scene 1 Ionesco interrelates the theme of strength of belief with the theme of absurdity. The author presents Botard as representing supposed certitude. Botard is an ex-schoolteacher with a strong leftist, populist ideology. He prides himself on his analytical ability and being able to see things in a scientific manner. Because of this, he rejects any reports about rhinoceroses as irrational nonsense. However, most of the characters would agree that a rhinoceros roaming through the streets is irrational. The main difference between Botard and the others is his sense of feeling right. Even though Daisy and Berenger have actually seen the rhinoceros, Botard insists they are mistaken and has no doubt about his viewpoint. In fact, his defense of his position becomes absurd. He ends up thinking of sinister plots being hatched that somehow involve the rhinoceros. Berenger, Daisy, and Dudard all view Botard's explanations as ridiculous, which they are. Ionesco seems to be saying any rational explanation of the absurd is in itself absurd. However, because of his rigid worldview, Botard cannot deal with the absurd and stubbornly continues to uphold his rational position, no matter how outlandish it may seem.

Ionesco also interrelates the theme of absurdity with the theme of conformity to trends. The author accomplishes this through banal comments from the characters, Mr. Papillon's focus on work, and Berenger's and Daisy's differences. Some of the most humorous parts of this scene are conveyed through banal comments, such as when characters realize Mr. Boeuf has transformed into a rhinoceros, Dudard asks, "Is he insured?" Later, when Mrs. Boeuf rides away on the rhinoceros, characters make more commonplace remarks, such as Botard claiming, "She's a good rider." Despite the amazing, absurd situation, most of the characters fall back on banalities to deal with it. They conform to the expected responses. As a result, these banalities seem absurd and ludicrous. Another example happens at the end of the scene, where Dudard and Berenger try to outdo each other with politeness. They still conform to social conventions even when a rhinoceros epidemic seems to be spreading.

Conformity versus Individuality

Ionesco uses Mr. Papillon's obsession with work to convey conformity. As expected, Daisy and Dudard are alarmed by the rhinoceros sightings and want to talk about it. Although Mr. Papillon is also somewhat alarmed, he orders people to get back to work. So for Mr. Papillon, the standard of work must be upheld no matter what crisis is taking place. For him people should always conform to this standard. By the end of the scene, Mr. Papillon's attitude becomes so extreme it ends up being absurd. A rhinoceros has destroyed the stairs, Mrs. Boeuf has ridden off on the rhinoceros, and other people are apparently changing into rhinoceroses. Even so, as Mr. Papillon is about to leave the office via a ladder, he remains focused on getting work done and orders Berenger to bring him some business letters to take home with him.

Ionesco mainly shows individuality through Berenger and Daisy. The author again depicts Berenger as a person who doesn't fit in with society. He shows up late for work and has to secretly sign the time sheet to avoid being reprimanded. Also, Berenger and Daisy often respond differently than the other characters. When Mrs. Boeuf collapses in a chair, Daisy and Berenger tend to her instead of following the others to the stairway landing to gawk at the rhinoceros. Later, when Dudard wonders if Mr. Boeuf was insured, Daisy confronts him, asking, "How can you collect insurance in a case like this?" When Mr. Papillon and Botard get ready to climb down the ladder, they show a selfish concern about how the appearance of these rhinoceroses will affect them and their worldview. However, Berenger mentions that he plans to visit his friend Jean to make up with him concerning a quarrel. So Berenger's focus has nothing to do with the rhinoceroses but rather is about interpersonal relationships.

Ionesco also introduces trends through the side stories that are part of the action. Although her husband has transformed into a hideous beast that destroys things, Mrs. Boeuf feels drawn to be with him. When the rhinoceros calls her by trumpeting, she leaps onto his back and rides off with him. The author is pointing out how people tend to join in with something despite its brutality. Apparently, other people are following the urge of joining the rhinoceroses. According to Daisy, seven rhinoceroses were sighted in the town in the morning, but since then the number has increased to 32.

Civilization versus Destruction

Ionesco continues to develop the symbol of rhinoceroses by showing that people actually change into these animals in the play. So the rhinoceroses not only represent brute force and a thick-skinned callousness but also people adopting these attitudes. The author hints at this through an interchange between Mr. Papillon and Daisy. When he makes an unwanted advance on Daisy, she responds by saying, "You keep your horny hands off my face, you old pachyderm!"

In general the rhinoceroses are linked with destruction. When the housewife first saw a rhinoceros in Act 1, she dropped her basket containing a wine bottle. In this act a rhinoceros destroys a stairway. Ionesco is gradually building up the symbol of broken objects, which represents the destruction of civilization. Botard alludes to this when he wonders how people can turn into destructive beasts in a civilized country.

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