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Rhinoceros | Themes


Strength of Belief

It's interesting to see how Eugène Ionesco plays with the concept of strength. Ultimately, the strongest character when it comes to sticking to one's principles is Berenger—who is self-deprecating and whom other characters label as weak because of his drinking. But Berenger is the only person so sure of humans' superiority over rhinoceroses that he refuses to succumb to society's demands to conform and turn into a rhinoceros like everyone else. The strength of his beliefs serves him well as he becomes the last man standing.

In contrast, the characters who might normally be seen as the strong members of society are unable to resist societal expectations. For example, Jean, the smug member of the bourgeois; Dudard, with his total faith in science; and the logician: all three of these characters are weak when it comes to standing up for personal beliefs and defending them against the crowd. All of them become confused even as Berenger becomes more resolute in his convictions.

The conformity of day-to-day life prepares the characters to easily conform to the trend of becoming rhinoceroses. People often work rather mindlessly at dead-end jobs, doing what is expected from bosses like Mr. Papillon. People use banal expressions even when responding to surprising events like rhinoceros sightings, often speaking in unison like some sort of mindless chorus.

Ionesco highlights the absurdity of conformity by normalizing the trend of becoming a rhinoceros. Mrs. Boeuf can ride on the back of her husband, now a rhinoceros, without inciting any comment beyond "she's a good rider." Daisy suddenly sees rhinoceroses as beautiful and can easily accept Botard's transformation as "sincerity itself."

What Ionesco is saying is that people are not used to being different like Berenger, so they feel compelled to join the pack. As a result, something as ridiculous as being a rhinoceros can become a craze. However, because a rhinoceros is a brutal animal, this trend results in the destruction of civilization and human morals, such as love. Before Daisy joins the rhinoceroses, she says, "I feel a bit ashamed of what you call love—this morbid feeling." This conformity to a brutal way of behaving can connect politically to the rise of fascism in the mind of someone who lived it, such as Ionesco.


The process of people turning into rhinoceroses is absurd. However, Ionesco believes absurd events happen all the time in a world devoid of meaning and logic. The rise of fascism could be seen as an example. Fascist Nazis concocted an absurd theory on the superiority of the Aryan race, which had no basis in reason or scientific fact. Even so, millions of people adopted this theory, which resulted in widespread destruction and the deaths of millions of Jews and other minorities during the Holocaust of World War II.

So without logic or reason to depend on, how can humans find meaning? Absurdists claim that there is no meaning, only frustration in trying to find it. Berenger doesn't look for the meaning behind becoming a rhinoceros; he doesn't seek to explain his gut feeling not to do it. He sees the futility of using reason to explain reality perhaps because reality itself is absurd or beyond explanation.

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