The Elegance of the Hedgehog

by Muriel Barbery

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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 she flushes the toilet in Ozu’s apartment and this action sets off the music of Mozart’s Requiem. For the first time in her life, she is able to laugh at herself. For the f irst time in her life, she has her hair styled for a dinner date with Mr. Ozu to celebrate his birthday. Also for the first time, she enjoys dressing up in the beautiful clothes and shoes with which Ozu has gifted her for their outing. After dinner, when he kisses her hand, she acts like a giddy school girl dreamily contemplating what might become of their relationship in the future. Reneé is blossoming; she is becoming a real woman. She is just beginning to live, and then she dies. Paloma Josse decides to live when Reneé dies. She promises the dead Reneé that she will not commit suicide and she will not burn down the...

(This entire section contains 1067 words.)

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building. Just before she dies, Reneé muses that if she had had a daughter, it would have been Paloma, and she pleads “with all my strength I implore that your life be worthy of all that you promise.” The poor little rich girl Paloma has finally realized that although life may be mostly despair, there are “odd moments of beauty” to be savored. By the end of the novel, Paloma has grown from a type of female Holden Caulfield into a young woman who can search for and appreciate beauty in the world. Gone is the morose and sullen preteen whose main accomplishment every day was to come up with one profound thought. She is still philosophical and introspective, but she has dropped the haughty and vindictive attitude she exhibited in her therapist’s office when she called him “Mr. Permafrost Psychologist” and threatened that if he did not tell her mother that she was fine, she would spread nasty rumors about him “among the Parisian political and business elite.” She has grown from a critical and judgmental know-it-all to a girl who is heartbroken over the death of her kindred soul. In this sense, Paloma is a coming-of-age character.Kakuro Ozu is an educated and refined Japanese gentlemen who moves into 7 Rue de Grenelle. Reneé and Paloma, aficionados of Japanese culture, are thrilled. Could he possibly be related to Reneé’s revered filmmaker Ozu? His son or nephew, perhaps? Kakuro Ozu is a mysterious character. He appears seemingly out of nowhere, but he immediately unmasks both Reneé and Paloma. Since he is a foreigner, his mind is not crippled by the French class system that could never entertain the possibility of an educated and refined concierge. Ozu is intuitive and wise. The most subtle actions of Reneé and Paloma are enough to reveal to him that neither of them are what they are pretending to be. He is respectful, however. Carefully, he sends Reneé a book, hoping her excited reaction will reveal to him what he suspects. He cunningly engages Paloma in a conversation in Japanese, revealing what he has suspected about the precocious girl. He encourages both Paloma and Reneé to celebrate who they really are, but he is also firm. When he tells Reneé that she does not have to be afraid anymore and that they can be whoever they want to be, he repeats himself three times to make certain that Reneé has understood. When Reneé is killed, Paloma’s family does not have a clue how to console her. It is Ozu who suggests that he and Paloma go to Reneé’s loge for a moment of silence and respect. It is Ozu that reveals to Paloma “what suffering looks like on a wise face.”




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