Rhinoceros | Study Guide

Eugène Ionesco

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Rhinoceros | Act 2, Scene 2 | Summary



Act 2, Scene 2 takes place in Jean's apartment and in the hallway outside his apartment. Berenger knocks at Jean's door and calls his name but doesn't hear a response. Finally, Jean gets out of his bed, opens the door, and returns to bed. Berenger wonders why his friend is not at work and apologizes for the argument they had the day before about the rhinoceros. At first Jean doesn't remember the argument and then admits he doesn't feel well. His voice is hoarse and he has a cough.

In a way, Berenger says, he and Jean were both right about the rhinoceroses because some have one horn and others have two horns. But what really matters is that the rhinoceroses exist, not how many horns they have. Although Jean repeats he doesn't feel well, he becomes defensive when Berenger suggests what might be wrong. Jean says he has a headache and Berenger points out a small bump on Jean's forehead. Concerned, Jean goes into the bathroom to check out the bump. When Jean returns to his bedroom, Berenger notices his friend's green skin and heavy breathing. These observations again make Jean defensive. Berenger suggests that Jean should see a doctor, which makes Jean angry. Berenger becomes alarmed when he sees Jean's skin getting greener and harder. Jean gets annoyed and tells Berenger to mind his own business.

Berenger replies that he's just trying to be a good friend. Jean says, "There's no such thing as friendship." Berenger points out that Jean is being misanthropic, and Jean agrees, saying he likes being nasty to people. Jean explains that people disgust him, and he'll run them down if they get in his way. Berenger becomes alarmed as Jean's skin turns greener. Jean sees this change as an improvement. Feeling warm, Jean goes back into the bathroom, where he laughs about Mr. Boeuf turning into a rhinoceros. Failing to see the humor, Berenger says Mr. Boeuf probably did not want to become a rhinoceros. However, Jean thinks Mr. Boeuf might have chosen this change. When Jean comes out of the bathroom, his skin is greener than ever and his voice is so hoarse it's almost unrecognizable.

Jean claims Mr. Boeuf saw his change into a rhinoceros as a good thing. Berenger can't believe Jean means this and says the rhinoceroses might destroy humans' moral standards. Jean is sick of moral standards, seeing them as confining. Instead, he sees the law of the jungle as superior. Jean begins pacing like a caged animal. Berenger asserts that human civilization should be preserved, but Jean thinks it should be destroyed. As Berenger claims Jean can't mean what he's saying, Jean returns to the bathroom. Jean then sticks his head out, showing his bump has grown into something about the size of a rhinoceros horn. Alarmed, Berenger says Jean must be mad. Jean lunges at Berenger, who gets out of the way. Jean then charges into the bathroom.

Berenger enters the bathroom and exclaims that Jean's horn is getting longer. Jean yells, "I'll trample you down!" Frightened, Berenger shuts the bathroom door and shouts, "He's a rhinoceros, he's a rhinoceros!" Berenger steps out onto the stairway landing and yells for the police. An old man pokes his head out of a doorway and tells Berenger to be quiet because he's disturbing the peace. Berenger shouts for the porter, but when the porter's door opens, the head of a rhinoceros sticks out. Then the old man's door opens, and two rhinoceros heads stick out. In a panic Berenger heads back into Jean's apartment. The closed bathroom door shakes from Jean pushing against it. When Berenger looks out a window, he sees a herd of rhinoceroses heading down the street. Terrified, he goes to various exits, but the sight of rhinoceroses always stops him. The bathroom door is about to break loose. Surrounded by rhinoceroses, Berenger pushes against the back wall, which yields, and he flees down the street.


Process of Change

In Act 2, Scene 2 Ionesco focuses on how the themes of strength and trends affect the process of Jean changing into a rhinoceros. The author sees Jean's belligerence and inability to admit fault as the key to his transformation. In Act 1 Ionesco showed Jean possessed these traits through his superior attitude toward Berenger and his insistence on knowing what was best for his friend. In this scene the author shows Jean sick in bed, thereby making a direct connection between his attitude in Act 1 and his illness in Act 2, Scene 2. Ionesco reinforces this connection as Jean becomes more like a rhinoceros. When Berenger suggests what might be ailing his friend, Jean stubbornly refuses to admit anything is wrong, asserting, "I'm sound in mind and limb." Later, when Berenger points out that Jean's subconscious might have something to do with his illness, Jean again refutes this suggestion, saying, "I think straight. I always think straight." Jean continues to reaffirm his strength. The more he does this, the more he changes into a rhinoceros.

As seen in the previous scenes, Ionesco sees the rhinoceros as representing a brute and destructive force. Rhinoceroses are shown charging mindlessly, destroying whatever gets in their way. The author sees people who join group actions and ways of thinking as having the same effect. By refusing to see the error of joining the trend, Jean blocks out the horror of his transformation. He thinks whatever state he is in must be the right one. The fact that other people, such as Mr. Boeuf, have changed into rhinoceroses only confirms the righteousness of this transformation. Jean has always been very assured of his own position and the positions of others in society. He is proud of this role and most likely sees others who perform their expected roles as praiseworthy. So for Jean, belonging or conforming to the whole is vital. He has no tolerance for being different, unlike Berenger. When he learns that others are changing into rhinoceroses, he feels the need to conform. He and the other rhinoceroses must have discovered a better form of existence, which does away with a civilized worldview, as evidenced by his claim, "When we've demolished all that, we'll be better off!"

Ionesco further develops the symbol of broken objects to convey the destruction of civilization. As Jean changes into a rhinoceros, he destroys more and more things. He trashes the mirror and other objects in the bathroom. During this change, Berenger and Jean talk about how people transforming into rhinoceroses will destroy moral standards, which have "taken centuries of human civilization to build up." Berenger sees such destruction as a terrible thing; Jean sees it as an improvement. Consumed by his own righteousness, Jean considers his impervious attitude as superior to being human and caring for others. The symbol of the broken objects is a visual representation of Jean's new worldview.


It is important to note that Jean's unquestioning belief in the rightness of the crowd connects directly with the potential for fascism. Ionesco witnessed firsthand people readily adopting fascist ideas. Anything that opposed their views should be destroyed. If this meant destroying the civilized world, so be it. Ionesco witnessed millions of people conforming to this wrongheaded fascist ideology, despite its cruelty.

In Act 2, Scene 2 Ionesco uses absurdity as a theme to focus on the process of Jean changing into a rhinoceros. Such a transformation is unthinkable and absurd, but Berenger sees it happening to his friend, similar to how Ionesco saw people he knew become fascists. Adding to this absurdity is the fact that Jean has apparently chosen to change into a rhinoceros. Although the transformation of people into rhinoceroses could be seen as an epidemic, it does not seem like an epidemic that forces itself on people. Rather, people apparently use their free will to accept it. Jean suggests as much when he asks, "And what if he [Mr. Boeuf] did do it on purpose?"

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