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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 147

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The Lesson by Eugene Ionesco has a few themes, mainly examining the dynamics between people and psychology. The professor and the pupil represent archetypes—not specifically Jungian, but in the general definition of the term—in which the professor is a personification of authoritarianism, whilst the pupil represents a prey. The Lesson analyzes the psychological and social elements of a dominant-weak dynamic. The angrier and more aggressive the professor becomes, the further the pupil goes into a quiet and timid state.

Another theme is the elitist behavior of the intellectual. Upon meeting the pupil, the professor already assumes that the pupil is ignorant. The professor shows his intellectual prowess by dominating the pupil, which the latter cannot counteract. Ionesco used the character of the professor to criticize the intellectual elite of his day and show how it was the intellectual class that birthed authoritarian and totalitarian leaders.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 543

The Lesson satirizes totalitarianism in education, politics, language, psychology, and sexuality. This play is typical of Eugène Ionesco in its parodies, irony, nonsense, and themes of contradiction, proliferation, repetition, circularity, interchangeability, and futility.

The Professor exhibits the tendencies of bourgeois consciousness, especially reductive reasoning, to oppress and destroy the best in human nature—the Pupil—based upon repression of instinct, represented by the Maid. However, this description is itself reductive, for the free, imaginative spirit of the play transcends its own conceptual structure, through absurdity. The absurd shatters the order of rational consciousness and shocks or seduces it into at least a momentary acceptance of a larger reality, as when the self-contradicting Professor accepts from his Pupil the answer that seven plus one is sometimes nine: “We can’t be sure of anything, young lady, in this world.”

Some critics see the Professor as modeled on Ionesco’s father and some of his teachers in Romania who were Nazis. At the end of the play, the explicit reference to a Nazi swastika points to a historical case that exemplifies on a world scale the psychodynamics of the repressed, provincial teacher, the Professor. The way he teaches makes him deadly whatever political form his opinions may take, and he is killing pupils every day.

The other characters, also, are what Ionesco calls archetypes. The most resonant lesson of The Lesson is conveyed by its circular structure and embodied in the stout Maid, or instinct, who opens doors, is the strongest authority, and is on the stage both first and last. The cyclical structure of the play implies continual recurrence, an archetypal pattern of human behavior.

In his reductive, totalitarian lecture on philology, the Professor equates language with geography, making the lecture a metaphor of conquest that evokes the rise of Adolf Hitler. His language is out of control. The Maid, one of the common folk, does not altogether approve of what he does—he goes too far—yet she is loyal, forgives him, continues to serve him, and puts the armband around his arm. She hints that she might become his lover. Her relationship to him is subordinate in her social role as maid, dominant in her instinctive role as mother, and devoted in her sexual role as “little Marie.” She reinforces the indications in stage directions that the Professor is sexually frustrated and perhaps inclined to impotence, for she refers to gossip that he is “something of a priest at times.” The language of the play is frequently sexual, its rhythm is a movement to climax, and the lesson is a mock seduction culminating in a rape.

The Professor tries to compartmentalize his mind and exclude the Maid from the lesson, saying that it is not her department. He justifies himself as a force of disintegration necessary to progress and identifies integration with the Pupil, who can add but not subtract. Ironically the Pupil is the better teacher. They sit facing each other at the table as archetypal opposites in contradiction, like hemispheres of a polarized brain. The Professor cannot force the Pupil to submit to his notion of progress, his ideology, except by killing her. The difference between ideology and integrated reality, the Professor and the play, is the absurdist factor.