The Elegance of the Hedgehog Characters

Muriel Barbery


The unique structure of this novel, in which two protagonists are the storytellers, reveals not only the novel’s plot but the characters’ traits as well. Much of what is learned about the characters, therefore, has been revealed through the plot summary. Reneé Michel, the concierge, is fifty-four years old, and in her words, short, ugly, and plump, with bunions on her feet and “the breath of a mammoth.” Reneé may have the breath of a mammoth, but she has the heart and soul of a Renaissance scholar. Self-educated, she has read hundreds of books, but she wonders whether or not she has gained anything from them. She takes comfort in knowing that while she may have become “some mad old fool who thinks her stomach is full because she’s been attentively reading the menu,” she cherishes the “gift of freedom and conciseness of thought” that has come with her autodidactic education. So, hiding behind the mask of a dull-witted concierge who pads about her loge in beat-up bedroom slippers, Reneé indulges her hunger for art, music, philosophy, books, and gourmet food. She had decided early on that her life would be much easier if she hid her knowledge. She states that her one desire in life is to be left alone, but underneath this façade she hides an insecurity and fear of having to navigate in a strata of society far above her own. She fiercely guards her secret identify from the well-to-do residents of her apartment building, but she freely discusses her opinions of Marx and Edmund Husserl with Manuela, the house maid, someone on the same level of society as she. Nor had she hidden her secret from her deceased husband, Lucien, who married the homely Reneé because he did not want “one of those giddy young things” with no brain for a wife. He wanted a woman who was “loyal, a good wife, a good mother and a good housekeeper—a calm and steady companion.” So that is what Reneé became. Lucien watched TV while Reneé read about phenomenology.

The traumatic death of Reneé’s sister, Lisette, and Lisette's baby has caused Reneé to be wary of rich people. Lisette was dishonored and discarded by her rich employers when she became pregnant. Lisette went home to die. When Reneé encounters two individuals who challenge her view of rich people, Paloma and Mr. Ozu, she is forced to rethink her own prejudices. As her relationships with Paloma and especially Ozu intensify, Reneé slowly begins to reveal her human side. In a moment of catharsis, she tells her story to Paloma. Afterward, she is shocked by this unplanned surrender to emotion. She dines with Ozu and is both surprised and embarrassed when...

(The entire section is 1067 words.)