What role does society play in The Elegance of the Hedgehog?

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M.P. Ossa | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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The upper-class, classicist, cosmopolitan and uber rich Parisian society serves as the backdrop to the lives of two very intelligent, yet, very different narrators: Renee and Paloma.

The society under which these two women live sets every rule that there is to be followed regarding who is who, what issues should matter, and what is to be considered "worthy". Moreover, the things that are considered worthy in this society are often superficial and fastidious. This is what sets the frustrated mood of our main characters, and what causes their individual dilemmas. 

Since society decides who is who, and what is important, that means that Renee Michel, her great intelligence, her poise, decorum, and good treatment of others goes completely ignored simply because she is a concierge. Society, and its prejudices, cause Renee to hide her intellect from others so that she can fit the stereotype that society has created of her, just because of what she does for a living. 

I correspond so very well to what social prejudice has collectively construed to be a typical French concierge that I am one of the multiple cogs that make the great universal illusion turn [..] And since it has been written somewhere that concierges are old, ugly and sour, so it has been branded in fiery letters on the pediment of that same imbecilic firmament that the aforementioned concierges have rather large dithering cats who sleep all day on cushions that have been covered in crochet cases.

Even the death of Renee's husband, Lucien, goes unnoticed.  In this case, society basically sets the bar and places a very low value on Renee's existence. In other words, society plays the role of reducing Renee to a by-word at the fashionable 7, Rue de Grenelle

Since we were concierges, it was given that death, for us, must be a matter of course, whereas for our privileged neighbors it carried all the weight of injustice and drama. The death of a concierge leaves a slight indentation on everyday life,[...] for the apartment owners who encountered him everyday in the stairs or at the door to our loge, Lucien was a nonentity who was merely returning to a nothingness from which he had never emerged...

Contrastingly, in Paloma's life, society is illustrated in her parents, who are basically too busy with their wealth and position to really provide substance to her life. Moreover, Paloma is an intellectually gifted child who has come to the realization that all of her wealth and fortune does not amount to anything worthy. This is why she develops a plan to kill herself at the age of 13, and burn the fashionable apartment where she lives in 7, Rue de Grenelle- the workplace of Renee Michel. Paloma describes the rich society to be "as good as rich". This shows that, aside from money, and what it can buy, (an education, a network, and maybe even a title), there is not much else to offer. 

My parents are rich, my family is rich and my sister and I are, therefore, as good as rich. My father is a parliamentarian and before that he was a minister: [...] my mother isn’t exactly a genius but she is educated. She has a Ph.D. in literature. She writes her dinner invitations without mistakes and spends her time bombarding us with literary references 

Hence, society plays the role of giving worthiness to the lives of others based on how much you have, and not on what or who you are as a citizen, and as an individual. 

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