Eugene Ionesco, as one of the most prominent writers of the theater of the absurd, had the purpose, in writing Rhinoceros, of portraying absurdity in society, and promoting his existentialist views. Ionesco was a firm believer in the ideals of the absurd theater, and has been called the father of the absurd theater by many critics. Ionesco went to great lengths to express his beliefs through his writing, and it was on account of this that Ionesco disliked false interpretations of his work. “I always want to be 'understood,' that is to say, I want people to fully understand what I tried to say since I tried to say it.” (qtd. in Goosens 1) He used many different literary devices in his writing to assure that his message and beliefs were easily understood and received by his audience.
In order to understand the play, Rhinoceros, one must consider the views of the writer, Ionesco, and how he integrates them into his writing. As a writer of literature of the absurd theater, Ionesco was considered a believer in existentialism and absurdism. Existentialism was a philosophical tendency of the 19th and 20th centuries. Existentialists stressed individual existence, subjectivity, individual freedom, and free choice. Existentialists have argued that there is no objective, rational basis for important decisions. They stress the importance of individualism in deciding questions of morality and truth. (Encarta) The ideology of existentialism is thought to encompass absurdism, however, absurdism is more specific concerning the meaning of life. Absurdism was a belief that life was basically meaningless, and therefore absurd. It was this assumption that led absurdists and existentialists to humanism and individualism. These are the ideals that Ionesco attempts to get across to his audience.
Ionesco’s choice of setting in Rhinoceros is vital to the theme of the play. Ionesco chose a small town in which to set his most famous play because he wanted his readers to realize that he was not writing specifically about one town, rather, he was writing about any town in any place. Berenger says, while speaking with Dudard:
If only it had happened somewhere else, in some other country, and we’d just read about it in the papers, one could discuss it quietly, examine the question from all points of view, and come to an objective conclusion… But when you’re involved yourself, when you find yourself suddenly up against the brutal facts, you can’t help feeling directly concernedthe shock is too violent for you to stay cool and detached. (Ionesco 98)
Through the character, Berenger, Ionesco is indirectly telling his audience to apply the message which he was trying to get across to their own lives, to think about the “rhinoceros” in their own societies before it was too late, and they find themselves in Berenger’s position.
Ionesco uses satire to mock both individualism and conformity in Rhinoceros. He does this in an attempt to make the audience understand his belief that one of the absurdities of society was that one could believe in two conflicting ideologies at the same time. Botard, who is characterized in the play as a stubborn older man, who refuses to believe or listen to anyone else because he thinks that he knows and understands everything on his own without anyone else’s help. It is out of his individualism that he rebels against the idea of anything that he does not understand, such as people becoming rhinoceroses. Once Botard realizes that his disbelief gets a negative reaction, he acts out his urge to rebel by becoming a rhinoceros. The irony in this is that in Botard’s attempt to be rebellious by becoming a rhinoceros, he is actually conforming. Ionesco also effectively mocks individuality and conformity in Berenger’s internal conflict. In the last scene, when Berenger is left alone by Daisy, he is obviously fighting conformity, yet wanting to conform at the same time. Berenger says, “I should have gone with them… now I’m a monster, just a monster… I want to, I really do, but I can’t.” (Ionesco 130) Then he changes his position completely and says, “Oh well, too bad. I’ll take on all of them… I’m the last man left, and I’m staying that way until the end. I’m not capitulating.” (Ionesco 130) The play is thick with irony and dark