Rhinoceros | Study Guide

Eugène Ionesco

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Rhinoceros | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


In Rhinoceros for what purpose does Ionesco set Act 1 in a small, provincial town?

Ionesco set Act 1 in a small, provincial town to emphasize that the absurd occurrences in this act could happen anywhere, not only in Paris or a big city but in the towns where members of the audience might live. The town seems very normal with people—like the grocer and waitress—going about their daily routines. But even in this normal setting, absurd things happen, including two sightings of a rhinoceros and people's responses to these sightings. In fact, what happens to these characters in the play comes about partly because of their desire to conform to what is normal or expected in a small-town setting. So in a way, having the play start in a normal town is appropriate.

In Act 1 of Rhinoceros for what purpose does Ionesco have Jean and Berenger continue talking even though the sounds of the rhinoceros are almost deafening?

Despite the loud noise of the rhinoceros, Ionesco has Jean and Berenger continue talking to emphasize the strength of normal routines. The two friends are discussing a birthday party while a waitress asks them what they want to drink. Such a scene is normal, something people do often. However, the habit of conforming to this normal behavior is so strong that it takes a charging rhinoceros making a clamor to break it. Jean and Berenger are eventually forced to stop their usual talk and take notice of the rhinoceros. The scene shows how people can view a routine and trivial situation as being important, and a strange and extremely significant event could be just a distraction for those not aware of life around them.

Early in Act 1 of Rhinoceros in what ways is Jean's advice to Berenger selfish?

Jean takes pride in being a sterling member of society, who is impeccably dressed and has high moral standards. Because of this, he is ashamed of being seen with Berenger, who dresses sloppily and has a lazy attitude. Jean says as much when he tells Berenger, "I feel ashamed to be your friend." Jean feels superior to Berenger. Giving advice to Berenger could be seen as a way for Jean to reinforce his own sense of superiority. In essence Jean is trying to make Berenger like himself. Jean says Berenger should "wear a hat, a tie like this, a well-cut suit, shoes well polished." All of the apparel Jean mentions is the type of clothing he is wearing.

In Act 1 of Rhinoceros how does Ionesco show social conformity in response to the first sighting of a rhinoceros?

Ionesco shows conformity through the use of language, specifically the repetition of banal phrases. When people first see a rhinoceros, several of them say the identical phrase, specifically, "Oh, a rhinoceros!" As the rhinoceros gallops away, several townspeople each say, "Well, of all things." Then they repeat this phrase in unison as a chorus twice. By doing this Ionesco emphasizes how most people conform to an expected, or normal, way of seeing things and expressing their thoughts. The only person who does not say banal phrases is Berenger, who does not fit in with the townsfolk or society in general. Also, all of the townsfolk, except for Berenger, have the same emotional response to seeing the rhinoceros, namely one of shock. Such an emotional response conforms to what is expected.

In Act 1 of Rhinoceros for what three purposes might Ionesco have Jean and Berenger act differently when seeing a rhinoceros for the first time?

Ionesco has Jean and Berenger act differently when seeing a rhinoceros for the first time for three reasons: First, the contrast of their responses emphasizes the differences in their personalities. Jean is obsessed with being seen as an upstanding member of society. He sees a well-ordered society as something to be valued. Because of this, the rhinoceros seems like an invader disrupting this order. The animal shocks and disturbs Jean. In contrast, Berenger takes the rhinoceros in stride. He is not concerned about maintaining a well-ordered society and does not see the rhinoceros as a threat. Also, Jean sees himself as being always right, a person who has an explanation for most things. However, seeing a rhinoceros galloping through town is not easily explained and this disturbs him. On the other hand, Berenger admits he does not have an explanation for everything and often doubts himself. Seeing a rhinoceros does not jar his worldview. Second, Jean's and Berenger's contrasting responses to the rhinoceros lead to a disagreement between the two friends, which eventually escalates into a heated argument. Ionesco uses this development to advance the plot. Berenger feels bad about the argument and apologizes to Jean in Act 2, Scene 2. Finally, Ionesco uses the different responses of Jean and Berenger to emphasize how these characters change as the play develops. Eventually, Berenger becomes horrified by the rhinoceroses while Jean comes to accept them as he transforms into one of the beasts.

In Act 1 of Rhinoceros in what ways does Jean accuse Berenger of faults that Jean himself has, and why does Jean do this?

Jean accuses Berenger of seeing himself as "some superior being." However, Jean is the person who sees himself as superior to Berenger. Later, Jean accuses Berenger of thinking he can explain everything. In reality Jean believes he has the correct answers to life's questions. Finally, Jean calls Berenger a liar. Jean, however, seems to be the person who lies. For example, he claims he has high moral standards and accuses Berenger of being a drunkard, but Jean also drinks and seems uneasy when Berenger points this out to him, suggesting that Jean might drink a lot. Jean feels compelled to see himself as a perfect person. Because of this, his faults—such as a superior attitude—are projected onto other people, specifically Berenger.

In Act 1 of Rhinoceros for what purpose does Ionesco have Jean talking to Berenger and the logician talking to the old gentleman at the same time?

Ionesco has Jean talking to Berenger and the logician talking to the old gentleman at the same time for the following reasons. First, by pairing these dialogues, Ionesco is emphasizing a sort of teacher/student relationship between Jean and Berenger and between the logician and the old gentleman. The logician is considered to be an expert in his field, a person who imparts wisdom to the student eager to learn. Jean also sets himself up as an expert who shares his wisdom with his student, Berenger. Such a relationship is between a supposedly superior person (teacher) and an inferior person (student). Because the teacher may be an expert, he can take a position beyond question, or so he thinks. The goal of the logician is the self-improvement of his student, the old gentleman. According to the logician, learning syllogisms is a key skill for the old gentleman to acquire. Jean also wants Berenger to improve his life in a specific way, which Jean sees as vital for his friend to learn. Ionesco shows that the wisdom the logician has to impart to his student is pure nonsense. It does not help the old gentleman come to the truth, but to ridiculous falsehoods. For example, the logician and old gentleman—through the use of a syllogism—conclude that the gentleman's dog must be a cat. Acquiring such a skill is absolutely useless. The wisdom Jean imparts to Berenger is also silly. Dressing well, going to plays, and not drinking liquor will not necessarily improve Berenger's life. These qualities could make Berenger more pompous like Jean, but not wiser. Finally, having overlapping conversations increases the sense of people talking gibberish almost contrapuntally in a kind of mad language.

In Act 1 of Rhinoceros how is the second rhinoceros sighting similar to, or different from, the first rhinoceros sighting?

With both the first and second rhinoceros sightings, people respond by using banal phrases, such as, "Oh, a rhinoceros!" and, "Well, of all things." By doing this Ionesco emphasizes the rigidity of people's conformity. Seeing a rhinoceros a second time is probably more alarming and disturbing than the first sighting because it suggests that a rhinoceros rampaging through town could become a pattern. However, people's responses are about the same for both sightings. They have no way of expressing concern about the second sighting in an individualistic way. However, the two rhinoceros sightings are different because the destruction has increased with the second sighting. The second rhinoceros kills the housewife's cat. In contrast, the first rhinoceros only scares the housewife. Many townsfolk respond to the cat's death by using banal phrases, such as, "Poor little thing." These expressions are a superficial way to comfort the housewife. In fact, when Jean and Berenger start arguing, the townsfolk soon forget about the housewife and focus on the argument.

In Act 1 of Rhinoceros for what purpose does Ionesco include Jean and Berenger's argument about African and Asiatic rhinoceroses?

Ionesco includes Jean's and Berenger's argument about African and Asiatic rhinoceroses to emphasize how people can be distracted by the trivial and thereby ignore what is important. People have just witnessed rhinoceroses charging through their town, destroying property, and killing at least one animal. However, instead of focusing on this phenomenon and trying to figure out why this is happening, people focus on the argument as a form of distraction in which they can play unthinking parts. They get embroiled in the trivial and thereby lose site of the big picture. Indeed, people's penchant for controversy and taking opposing sides could be seen as a reason why they are turning into rhinoceroses. They are concerned about proving their position as right and the opposing position as wrong. Because of this, people ignore the grieving housewife and pay attention to the silly dispute. Berenger seems to be the only person who seems uneasy about this tendency. He tries to apologize to Jean, believing his friendship with him is more important than the difference between African and Asiatic rhinoceroses.

At the end of Act 1 of Rhinoceros, why does Berenger fail to keep his resolution to reform his life?

Berenger fails to keep his resolution to reform his life because of his guilt about having an argument with Jean. Berenger berates himself saying, "I shouldn't have got into such a rage!" To ease the pain of his guilt, Berenger decides not to go to the museum but instead takes a drink. Ionesco shows that Berenger is more concerned with maintaining good interpersonal relationships than with adhering to a principle for his own self-improvement. Perhaps Berenger feels lost in society because he is surrounded by people who don't share his sense of humanity. In contrast, Jean values maintaining a position of superiority over others by adhering to a strict code of moral behavior rather than developing a good relationship with Berenger.

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