Eugene Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros”: True Means Resides in Action not WordsEugene Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros”: True Means Resides in Action not Words
I awoke sweating.Breathing heavily, I glanced over at my clock and
read the time. 4:00 AM. I wasn’t sure if this was reality or not so I ran my
palm over my scalp. No bump. A sigh of relief came over me. “Phew,” I said,
“it was only a dream.”
This is a dream I have had often throughout the past couple of years.
Each time, the bump in my dream gets bigger and bigger and each time I wake up
I’m more and more frightened that the dream was real. “I will not be a
rhinoceros,” I tell myself over and over. “I will not.”
These words I tell myself are nearly meaningless though. They are words
and nothing more. Futile attempts to ease the pain of my “rhinocerotic” life.
The only way to really not become a rhinoceros is by making the existential
decision not to do so.
A main theme in Eugene Ionesco’s, Rhinoceros, is that true meaning
resides in action rather than in mere words. A resistance to taking action then
results in one’s becoming a rhinoceros. Jean illustrates this in the beginning
of Act 2, scene 2, when we see Jean and Berenger bickering. Berenger feels that
Jean isn’t looking or feeling well and threatens to get him a doctor. Jean
resists by saying, “You’re not going to get the doctor because I don’t want the
doctor. I can look after myself.” (pp. 62) This refusal comes from his
arrogant view of himself as a “Master of his own thoughts,” (pp. 61) and
“Having will-power!” (pp. 7) By seeing the doctor, Jean would have put
himself in the position of taking responsibility for his actions and seeing that
he wasn’t always the “master of his own thoughts” and that his will-power was
actually quite weak. It would be admitting the meaninglessness in his futile
attempts to remain a human. He didn’t want to see that he, in fact, was
becoming a rhinoceros.
Had Jean agreed to see a doctor, he may have been saved. By seeing the
doctor, Jean would have come to terms with his becoming a rhinoceros. After
coming to terms with his current state, he could then change his subsequent
state to one of taking action to be an individual.
Berenger, however, illustrates the power in making an existential
decision. The trumpeting call of the rhinoceros was a persuasive one, but
Berenger was able to resist it through his commitment and determination. In the
beginning of Act 3, Berenger and Dudard are speaking after Berenger was awakened
from a nightmare. Dudard proposed the possibility that Berenger could turn into
a rhinoceros. Berenger refutes this possibility by saying, “If you really don’t
want to knock yourself, you don’t.” (pp. 73). The knocking yourself he is
speaking of is the growing of a horn and turning into a rhinoceros. He again
reiterates this by saying, “…If one really doesn’t want to, really doesn’t
want to catch this thing, which after all is a nervous disease-then you don’t
catch it…” (pp. 76) Berenger is explaining to Dudard how through making an
existential choice, one can avoid becoming a rhinoceros.
Ionesco then uses Dudard to ignite Berenger’s desire to not become a
rhinoceros when Dudard says to him to prove his will-power and stop drinking.
This leads Berenger to his realization that he despises rhinoceroses and his
determination to not be like them. It now becomes imminent that Berenger will
achieve his “moment of commitment” though he still possesses some doubts.
The ultimate commitment occurs at the very end of the play when Daisy
finds the rhinoceroses more and more attractive and Berenger finds them more and
more disgusting. When Daisy eventually joins them and Berenger is left by
himself. Only then does he make his true existential decision by saying, “I’m
the last man left, and I’m staying that way until the end. I’m not
This is the decision that all of us must make. We must resist our
temptations to make up meaningless decrees for ourselves and take responsibility
for our actions. Existentialist decision allows us to act to overcome our
weaknesses and remain productive humans. This is the only way to end our
nightmare. This is the only way to know we will never have to wake up with a
bump on our heads. We must always believe in ourselves and what is right. We
must realize that as we act, so shall we become.