The Elegance of the Hedgehog

by Muriel Barbery
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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1395

The novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog (2006) is composed as a collection of essays and diary entries narrated by its two protagonists, Reneé Michel and Paloma Josse. The author, Muriel Barbery, uses two distinct fonts for each narrator, but as the novel progresses, the identity of the person speaking becomes clear without the different fonts. Reneé is a concierge in a high-class Paris apartment building. She lives in a small loge (apartment) on the first floor. She is the essayist. Paloma is a gifted twelve-year-old whose wealthy family lives in the apartment building. She is the diarist. Both narrators are not what they seem to be.

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The alternating narratives of Reneé and Paloma reveal the mundane daily lives of the people that live at 7 Rue de Grenelle. Reneé describes the individuals who inhabit her apartment building, their pets, their children, their foibles. Antoine Pallières, for example, is reading Marx. Pierre Arthens, the food critic, writes brilliant restaurant reviews. Monsieur Badoise’s dog Neptune peed on Monsieur Saint-Nice’s leg.

Paloma’s diary records her observations about her family, the concierge Madame Michel (Reneé), the families that live in the apartment building, their pets, their children, their foibles. Madame Josse reads Balzac, quotes Flaubert, and is obsessed with her house plants. The Meurisses’ dog Athena looks like a “skeleton covered over with beige leather hide.” Both narrators’ observations are thus remarkably similar. This is because Reneé and Paloma are kindred spirits. They think alike. Day after day, Reneé ruminates on her views of various philosophers and Paloma jots down daily profound thoughts. Unknown to each other at first, however, these two characters experience the world with parallel minds but not parallel lives.

Outwardly, Reneé appears to be a typical concierge—a working-class woman who has taken over the apartment manager duties from her deceased husband, Lucien. She keeps the television turned on during the day, but she rarely watches it. She is secretly, she says, an autodidact—a self-educated person. She reads philosophy, listens to Mozart, visits art museums, and is fascinated by everything Japanese. As a young child, Reneé taught herself to read. Although she left school at twelve years of age (the same age as that of Paloma) her education is vast and varied, very much in contrast with the wealthy, formally-educated residents of her apartment building. The only one that knows the truth about Reneé is her friend Manuela, who is the maid to several families in the building. Reneé’s husband, Lucien, shared her secret, but he is dead when the novel begins.

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Paloma is also an autodidact, and her knowledge rivals that of Reneé. She is much more intelligent and knows far more about music, art, literature, and Japanese culture than anyone suspects. Although she studies Japanese in school, no one realizes she is actually fluent. She, too, has taught herself. Paloma lives with her wealthy parents and older sister, Colombe, a college student. Frustrated, bored, and disgusted with her pampered life, Paloma plans to set the apartment building on fire and kill herself when she turns thirteen.

Midway through the novel, a new tenant moves into the building—Kakuro Ozu. The other residents are oblivious to Reneé’s true nature because they are blinded by the absurd hierarchy of French society, a hierarchy in which a cultured and refined concierge would be an anathema. The Japanese Mr. Ozu is not bound by such stereotypes, however. He suspects that neither Reneé nor Paloma are what they seem to be and he sets out to prove it. He notices that Reneé flinches at the same time as he does over a grammar error, the misuse of the words bring and take. He suspects that she has named her cat Leo after Leo Tolstoy. To test her, he sends her a copy of Anna Karenina to see how she will react.

Stuck in the elevator with Paloma one day, Ozu notices that she does not panic like a normal school girl. He informs her that her mother has told him she is studying Japanese. When he offers to correct Paloma’s pronunciation, she responds in Japanese and he discovers that she is more fluent than she lets on. Immediately, he tells Paloma that he is intrigued with the concierge and that he suspects Reneé is “not what we think.” Paloma agrees. She informs Ozu that “from a distance, she’s a real concierge. Close up...well, close up...there’s something weird going on.” She tells Ozu that she observed a philosophy book drop out of Reneé’s shopping bag one day, amidst the cat food and turnip greens. Paloma comes to realize that Madame Michel “has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside, she’s covered in quills” but on the inside, “she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog; a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary—and terribly elegant.”

Mr. Ozu’s appearance is the catalyst for Reneé and Paloma discovering each other. Paloma knocks on Reneé’s door one day on an errand for her sister. Reneé remarks that Paloma is the younger of the Josse daughters, a girl “who is so discreet and diaphanous that I have the impression I never see her....” She is startled by Paloma’s “trenchant acuity” and “chilly wise way.” How could she have missed this, she wonders. Intrigued, Reneé invites Paloma in for a cup of hot chocolate. Paloma surprises Reneé by asking for tea, which Reneé is also drinking. Together, the two characters experience a type of epiphany. From this point on, the turning point of the novel, they begin to experience and, more importantly, share a joy in living.

Paloma asks Reneé if she can hide out in Reneé’s loge from time to time, to escape her exasperating parents and sister. Reneé agrees, and now Manuela, Reneé, and Paloma are all in on the secret. Mr. Ozu’s friendship with Reneé and Paloma enriches all of their lives. The closer Reneé gets to Mr. Ozu, however, the more uncomfortable she becomes and she abruptly cancels a dinner date with him. She tells herself that there is no way that she, a lowly concierge, can hope to be friends with such a cultured and wealthy individual. He is hurt when she rebuffs him, but soon learns the reason behind it.

One day, Reneé cathartically reveals her story to Paloma while they are enjoying tea. Reneé tells Paloma that her sister, Lisette, left home at age sixteen to care for some rich people’s children. The family did not see her for quite a while. Lisette returned one miserable, rainy night, pregnant, having been dishonored by her rich employer. Lisette lived only long enough to give birth to a sickly child, who also died. Paloma summarizes the traumatic tale that has become Reneé’s mantra: “Don’t fraternize with rich people if you don’t want to die.” This is why Reneé decides she cannot continue her relationship with Mr. Ozu. Out of concern for Reneé, Paloma relates the story to Mr. Ozu. Ozu understands. He invites Reneé to dinner to celebrate his birthday. At dinner, he firmly and pointedly informs Reneé that she needs to get over her past. Stunned, Reneé cannot reply. Ozu repeats himself three times, finally insisting “You are not your sister, we can be friends. We can be anything we want to be.”

The next day, heart in a flutter from her marvelous dinner and the promise that her relationship with Ozu may develop into anything they want it to be, Reneé goes out to buy some brass cleaner. She spies the neighborhood vagrant Gégène climbing out of his cardboard box bed. He is stumbling, drunk. He takes off running into the street. Reneé runs after him and is struck by a dry cleaner’s van.

“This morning, Madame Michel died,” Paloma writes in her journal. Able to feel hurt for the first time in her life, Paloma comes alive. She and Ozu go down to Reneé’s loge. She has no profound thoughts to share today. “How can you have a profound thought when your kindred soul is lying in a hospital refrigerator?” Paloma decides she will not commit suicide or burn the building down. Instead, because of Reneé, she will live on, "searching for those moments of always within never.”

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