The Elegance of the Hedgehog

by Muriel Barbery

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Literary Criticism and Significance

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A best seller in France, The Elegance of the Hedgehog has been well received by American critics with a few caveats. Reviewing the novel in The New York Times, Caryn James wonders if the novel is a “purely European phenomenon, exposing a cultural fault line” or if it will be as successful in the United States as it has been in France. Indeed, it remained on The New York Times best-seller list for quite some time. Michael Dirda of The Washington Post also calls the work “a very French novel” with its heavy emphasis on philosophical themes. Not surprisingly, Muriel Barbery is also a professor of philosophy. Readers of the novel who lack familiarity with the ideas of some of the world’s great philosophers may find those sections of the book tedious. Reneé’s exposé of phenomenology (in philosophy, a study of human experience in which objective reality is not taken into account) might cause most readers to flip the pages to the next section. Paloma’s diary, likewise, contains musings so far above the level of even the most precocious twelve-year-old (such as Paloma) that the character is almost unbelievable. For this reason, Caryn James accuses Barbery of being “too clever for her own good.” When asked why the philosophical references in the novel were included, the author confessed that she never thinks of the reader as she writes. Rather, she writes following her “own sensations and desires.” 

Most critics have high praise for the novel’s unique structure, the dual voices of Reneé and Paloma. One immediately is struck by the similarity between Paloma and J. D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield of The Catcher in the Rye. Almost every critic mentions this similarity and one can envision a bevy of English teachers assigning compare/contrast essays on the subject in the future. Both Holden and Paloma are coming-of-age characters, but there is a much more satisfying ending in this novel than in The Catcher in the Rye. On the other hand, the absence of much action in The Elegance of the Hedgehog could be a hindrance to those young readers who look for more excitement in their reading. In spite of the introspective nature of the novel, however, it is compelling and has a poignant story that draws the reader. It is categorically a work that offers rich material for teaching.

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