Rhinoceros by Eugene Ionesco: A Critical Analysis
Le Rhinoceros is the only play by Ionesco that makes an unequivocal statement.
The play ends on a heroic note but the implication is that there is not much hope for a human
being in a world of beasts.
Ionesco says, “Originally rhinoceritis was Nazism”.
Berenger is himself. He drinks too much. He has slovenly habits, and gives no signs of
unusual intelligence. But he has character. The others change with the times, following the
current fashion, each for his own ends. Botard is a Communist, Dudard an opportunist, Jean a
conformist, Papillion a bureaucrat, and Daisy simply a nice girl. They share no common
ideology. What they have in common is the herd instinct. Berenger is a petit bourgeois
without ambition and without any special talent. But in one respect he is inflexible. He is not
a slave of the social order. Though he has a great desire to be like other people, he is
incapable of conforming. He represents humanity among the animals.
Daisy can afford her lover only a fleeting glimpse of heaven. Her proper habitat is the jungle
along with the rest of the beasts.
Berenger is a 20th century version of the romantic outcast of the 19th century. He lacks the
poetic halo of a Byron or Shelley and has not even the messianic posture of a Strindberg. He
is, nevertheless, the heir of the romantic hero, and embodies the spirit of negation which an
affirmation of man’s most precious attribute, his freedom.
Ionesco detests ‘the reasoning play, constructed like a syllogism, in which the last scenes
constitute the logical conclusion of the introductory sense. He says,
“A play is a structure that consists of a series of states of consciousness or situations which
become intensified, grow more and more dense, then get entangled, either to be disentangled
again or to end in unbearable inextricability.”
In his plays language is reduced to a relatively minor role. In the theatre language is not an
end in itself but merely one element among many; the author can treat it freely. As Ionesco
“To give the theatre its true measure, the words themselves must be stretched to their utmost
limits, the language must be made almost to explode, or to destroy itself in its inability to
contain its meaning.”
Of logic he says,
“Logic reveals itself in the illogicality of the absurd of which we have become aware.”
His theatre is directed against the fallacy that the fruits of human experience can be
transmitted in the form of pre-packed, neatly formulated conceptual pills. That is why his
plays try to destroy the rationalistic fallacy that language alone, language divorced from
experience, can communicate human experience from one person to another.
The technique used by Ionesco in Rhinoceros – Onstage metamorphosis.
Ionesco’s characters may be isolated and lonely in a metaphysical sense, but they are no
means the tramps and outcasts of Beckett and Adamov, and this increases the despair and
absurdity of their isolation- they are lonely inspite of being members of what ought to be an
The presence of companionship and family relationships lightens the despair of Ionesco’s
world. It would be wrong to regard his attitude as wholly pessimistic. He wants to make
existence authentic, fully lived, by putting man face to face with the harsh realities of the
human condition. But this is also the way to liberation. As Ionesco said once,
“To attack the absurdity of the human condition is a way of stating the possibility of non-
absurdity… Nothing makes me more pessimistic than the obligation not to be pessimistic.”
The very statement of the desperate situation constitutes a catharsis, a liberation.
His work constitutes a truly heroic attempt to break through the barriers of human
The disease of rhinoceritis is the condemnation of the Nazi ideology. Not that the allusion is
in any way historical; Fascism is far from belonging exclusively to the past, it is very much a
warning to be heeded here and now. However critics have turned the play into an abstraction
– a “universal parable” on the subject of “conformism”.
One of the leitmotifs of Rhinoceros is the conflict between the ‘ideal of civilization’ and the
‘ideal of nature’.
The picture of the progressive transformation of man into rhinoceros is a warning against the
Fascist “appeal to instinct.
The forces of social order which hold the stage together- the police, the civil service, the
army- are the highest incarnation of the principle of “logical necessity” as conceived by the
bourgeois mind. But once the illusion of logic has disintegrated, as in Ionesco’s view of the
world it has, then nothing remains of these forces but an empty shell.
Ours is a mutinied regiment of reasoners and logicians who exploit the illusion of logic to
justify the unjustifiable. However there is the danger that the same type of logical argument
can be used to justify any form of oppression, cruelty and exploitation (read Fascism). This
ultimately is the theme to which Ionesco is committed- the betrayal of man by his own
Rhinoceros is fundamentally an analysis of this betrayal. The problem is not “What is
Fascism?” but “How does a rational and civilized nation come to accept the Fascist ideal?”.
And Ionesco’s answer is that, accustomed to camouflage all reality behind the illusion of
logic, the bourgeois mind has come to rely on reason to supply an a posteriori justification for
Berenger alone resists the general infatuation: his salvation lies in his positive acceptance of
the irrational. He alone, in his naivete, receives the facts for what they are instead of striving
to demonstrate their “logical necessity”.
In Rhinoceros, Ionesco pitilessly attacked cowardice and ‘running with the crowd’.