What is the theme of the short story "A Rhinoceros, Some Ladies, and a Horse" by James Stephens?

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"The Rhinoceros, Some Ladies and a Horse" by James Stephens is a satirical piece, and a merry-go-round of a story.  There is a great deal of exaggeration, comedy, double-meanings, and absolutely ridiculous situations described by the narrator, James.

It seems that Stephens uses James' voice to poke fun of those who are foolish, bullies, scam artists, and those who are overly self-important and foolish.

First we meet the bosses, and James.  James has a very unimportant job of an errand boy, and admits that he's not very bright.  He is portrayed as being quite young and inexperienced when he reckons that his managers, both at least thirty years old, will be dead of old age "in about a month."  While this is right on the nose regarding how the young often view anyone over twenty-five, James' observations count a great deal in proving his obvious intelligence.

We hear of the women who visit the managers, described as "music hall ladies" (another name for actresses), probably looking for a break into acting.  Their "howls of joy" behind closed doors would suggest that these ladies of questionable reputation are granting sexual favors to further their careers.  However, young James is naive, and the reader must look for meaning "between the lines."

When going to the zoo, two larger boys force James into the rhinoceros’ cage.  In this case, Stephens is drawing attention to bullies.  When they take advantage of James, he escapes without injury.  Meeting them later, they ask how he survived and he tells them a tall tale.  To draw the attention away from their part in the present circumstances, they create a scene and blame James, thereby bullying, and refusing to take responsibility for what they have done.

On another occasion, a well-known woman (Maudie Darling), obviously some kind of celebrity, is scheduled to visit.  At first the men are angry because she is late, threatening to toss her out when she arrives. When she does show up, they extend to her every courtesy.  They're very brave before she arrives, but have no spine when it comes to taking a stand.  As the managers and the woman break up their meeting--with all kinds of foolish compliments flowing back and forth--Ms. Darling turns her nonsensical attention to James.  He has some difficulty understanding her (they tell him later she was quoting "Spokeshave"--Shakespeare??), and once again James shows his smarts by avoiding her clutches and hiding under the table.

In the last incident, a stranger gives James the reins of his horse, commanding the young man to watch it, even while James is supposed to be running an errand for the managers.  To avoid this overly friendly horse, James "pinches" apples for the animal.  When he is caught, there is a lot of double-talk between the husband and wife who own the apple cart.  The man is hen-pecked by his wife (she repeatedly tells him to shut-up), and the wife seems to have designs on getting James to live with them so she can get his paycheck.  When it appears that he will be more trouble than he is worth (especially because he's Protestant and will be doing "holy" things that will distract the rest of their family--a statement by Stephens regarding Catholicism), they "cut James loose."

Left once again to his own devices, James is relieved of the horse, loses his job, and leaves the scene feeling outraged, something any intelligent person would do in light of the stupidity he has just witnessed.