Themes and Meanings
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 480
The Killer in the title of Eugène Ionesco’s play is death itself. Here death is not ennobling, spiritual, or tragic; its occurrence is as nondescript and arbitrary as the figure of the Killer himself. In the very long monologue which ends the play, Berenger offers dozens of arguments—humanistic, practical, existential—against the activities of the Killer, but comes to admit their futility. He sees, as Ionesco himself put it in his stage directions, “the vacuity of his own rather commonplace morality.”
Death may be mundane, but life is not an attractive alternative. Berenger tells the Architect that he can remember experiencing, when he was young, rare moments of a transcendent rapture of joy and otherness. These moments have gone. The Architect, efficient and bored, only half listens, demonstrating the fact that other people are no help.
Any effort to achieve contact is a failure; when Berenger falls instantly in love with Dany and proclaims his highly romantic passion, she barely notices him. Berenger’s one friend is Édouard, a whining, miserable, self-pitying wretch. In the play there are a few characters who are comic (like the old man searching for the banks of the Danube) or sympathetic (like the young soldier with a bouquet of carnations who is cruelly reprimanded by a policeman). Most people, however, are as choleric as Berenger’s concierge or as hateful as Mother Peep, with her vicious political program, or as insensitive as the owner of the bistro. Most people are mindless, and these are the people whom Berenger, by tracking down the Killer, hopes to save. Any organization that people attempt to create, like the Radiant City, which superficially offers a positive alternative to the ugliness of daily life, is fatally flawed internally. There is a kind of heroism in Berenger’s efforts to combat the Killer, but more than a little irony in the cynical indifference that his efforts evoke among those he is trying to save. Another of Ionesco’s protagonists, the Berenger of Rhinocéros (pr., pb. 1959; Rhinoceros, 1959), says wearily at one point, “I just can’t get used to life.” Ionesco’s heroes are driven to despair by their refusal to conform to the limits that life imposes; moreover, their efforts are useless because they all come to the same end.
Ionesco does not offer any ameliorations for the human condition, and his comedy, based on the preposterousness of people and institutions, only serves to emphasize the bleakness of the prospect. His pessimism was not austere and elegant like that of Samuel Beckett; it was marked instead by violence of action and by extravagance of verbal technique. Very little happens in Beckett; in Ionesco, much happens, but it all points to the same end. It leads to a twilit, featureless avenue where the Killer—who never answers any of Berenger’s frantic questions, who only chuckles—waits.