Rhinoceros, by Eugene Ionesco [...] theme of individuality vs. conformity and how it applies in today's world. Throughout history, individuals have felt torn between conforming to established tradition and social mores, and showing their individuality by rising up against conformity and tradition. In "Rhinoceros," Ionesco illustrates what can happen to a society that is so eager to conform; it cannot see a balance between the individual and the whole. Today, there is more acceptance of individuality in some areas, but in many, conformity is still the rule of the day, and individuality is seen as frightening and even unnatural.
Individuality and Conformity
In "Rhinoceros," Jean is the conformist, and Berenger is the non-conformist, and is clearly shown from their first entrance on the stage. Jean is perfectly groomed, and Berenger is a mess. At one point Jean says, "JEAN: [interrupting him] I'm just as good as you are; I think with all due modesty I may say I'm better. The superior man is the man who fulfils his duty" (Ionesco 7). This is the crux of the argument between conformity and individuality, and is the underlying theme of conformists everywhere "The superior man is the man who fulfils his duty." Conformity is based on the thought that one must fulfill one's duty before anything else - at all costs, while individuality is based on the good of the one ultimately affecting the good of the many. Individuality is also based on the ability to think for oneself, rather than following the conventions of the masses in an effort to conform to societal mores and pressures. Throughout history, those who have continually created the best and most lasting results have been those who are not afraid to stand up for what they believe in, rather than conforming to tradition and societal pressures.
For example, in looking back at our own history, the men who first stood up against British rule in the colonies were certainly non-conformists who hoped for something better than taxation and government without representation. If all of America had done nothing but conform to the rules of the British, we would still be a British colony, and still subject to their governmental whims and policies. These individuals broke the mold, and spoke out against wrongs they felt needed to be righted. However, there were many citizens who did conform to the mold, and felt we should not break with England, no matter the hardships we had to face. These conformists felt it was better to "go with the flow" rather than "rocking the boat." However, our constitution guarantees us the right to speak freely and voice our opinions by providing us freedom of speech, and this helps protect those who want to show their individuality by speaking out against societal pressures and wrongs. Our constitution, in effect, guarantees us the right to be an individualist rather than a conformist, and so the value of individuality cannot be ignored.
In some ways, Berenger is torn regarding his non-conformity. He recognizes the need to fit into society, no matter your beliefs, and the pressure to conform to "normality," whatever that is. He notes, "BERENGER: I understand what you mean, at least I'm trying to. But you know -- if someone accused me of being a bad sport, or hopelessly middle class, or completely out of touch with life, I'd still want to stay as I am" (Ionesco 75). Thus, Berenger hopes to remain true to himself, but he still wants to continue to at least function with some sense of knowing he belongs in his little town, with his little group of friends. Often, those who feel they are right ostracize the non-conformist, and it is a difficult position for them to maintain. For example, Henry David Thoreau became a vocal non-conformist when he first refused to pay the poll taxes in his community, and was then jailed briefly as a result. Thoreau became a vocal advocate of individuality vs. conformity, and even wrote an essay titled "Civil Disobedience" regarding the rights of individuals to speak out against societal wrongs. He wrote in his essay, "I was not born to be forced" (Thoreau 60), and this could be the battle cry for any non-conformist. Force and conformity often go together, and that is one reason the individual must fight for their right to disagree at all costs. However, during the play, Berenger comes across one of the major paradoxes of non-conformity. He muses, "BERENGER: But when you're involved yourself, when you suddenly find yourself up against the brutal facts you can't help feeling directly concerned -- the shock is too violent for you to stay cool and detached. I'm frankly surprised, I'm very surprised. I can't get over it" (Ionesco 79). Personal involvement can be quite difficult, and standing up for your convictions (not conforming) can be quite unpleasant at times, as Thoreau's time in jail clearly indicates.
Thoreau's writings on civil disobedience and individuality highly influenced many others when they had to face conforming to current treatment, or speaking out as individuals on the wrongs they saw occurring around them. For example, Mahatma Gandhi spent two years in jail during his fight for rights and independence from British rule in India. During this time, he read Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience," and later acknowledged it helped prompt his own idea of "passive resistance" (Brower 6-7). Gandhi was not afraid to stand up for what he believed in, and speak out for the rights of the individual. Gandhi did not conform to the British ideal of a subjugated subject, and eventually, the people who rose up with him won their freedom from oppressive British rule. Thoreau continues, "A very few -- as heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men -- serve the state with their consciences also, and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and they are commonly treated as enemies by it" (Thoreau 49). Therefore, individuality can be dangerous, as both these men's experiences clearly show. The state can jail non-conformists, denounce them, and in many foreign countries, even kill them. However, the more they repress individuality, the more they illustrate the need for non-conformity, and the idiocy of simply accepting injustices in the name of conformity and fear.
There is one question regarding individuality, especially when it affects more than the individual, and that is, what individual can play God and decide what are good and what is evil? Ionesco recognizes this and addresses it in "Rhinoceros." He writes, "DUDARD: The evil! That's just a phrase! Who knows what is evil and what is good? It's just a question of personal preferences. You're worried about your own skin -- that's the truth of the matter. But you'll never become a rhinoceros, really you won't... you haven't got the vocation!" (Ionesco 80). Does Berenger have the knowledge, or even the right to decide if turning into a rhinoceros is good or bad for those around him? Does he have the right to keep the citizens of his town from conforming and becoming "one of the herd?" No, he only has the right to speak out against what he sees as wrong, and urge others to speak out and resist, if they feel the same way. Fear should never cause conformity, and free speech guarantees the ability to speak out about beliefs, even if no one else agrees with them. Some ideas are simply too far-fetched to gain popular support, but the individual still has the right to spout them, even if no one bothers to listen, or to agree.
In the end, the danger of too much individuality is shown when Berenger is left totally alone, an individual at the cost of his friends. He is left alone in the world, and begins to feel he is quite wrong for not going along with everyone else. He cries out "People who try to hang on to their individuality always come to a bad end! [He suddenly snaps out of it.] Oh well, too bad! I'll take on the whole of them! I'll put up a fight against the lot of them, the whole lot of them! I'm the last man left, and I'm staying that way until the end. I'm not capitulating!" (Ionesco 107). Today, this fate can still befall the individual, when society places more emphasis on conforming rather than changing or growing. The individual may feel isolated and alone if their ideas place them too far away from "normality," and they may even face repression from the government.
Ultimately, supporting civil disobedience, or individuality, or non-conformity, or any other action that is far from conformity is a blessing to the people, and to the government. Thoreau stated, "There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher an independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly" (Thoreau 67). Thus, our government is still…