What is the meaning of life and death? Is life simple or complex? Is life logical or contradictory? What is the function of intelligence? Why do we have art, music and literature? Do they make life bearable? Beautiful? What is the most meaningful thing in life? Is it one’s upbringing, or is it relationships? Paloma and Reneé ask these questions throughout the novel, but the answer only comes at the end. Life does have meaning. Death is part of life. Intelligence should exist to serve others and yes, art, music and literature make life both bearable and beautiful. The meaning of life is found through relationships with other people, not through discussing the empty thoughts of dead philosophers. The meaning of life transcends the artificial structures of class that societies try to impose. Paloma tells Reneé that the important thing about life and death is “what you are doing in the moment of your death.” Reneé ends her life having learned to love and Reneé’s death teaches Paloma that love is indeed the meaning of life.

Barbery uses carefully chosen symbols to illustrate her themes. Life is complex and often contradictory; and beauty may be hard to define. The hedgehog is an obvious metaphor for both Paloma and Reneé, a rough exterior concealing a thing of inner beauty. Reneé’s camellias represent beauty. When the former drug-addict tenant Jean Arthens returns to pay Reneé a visit, he tells her that envisioning her camellias in his mind helped cure him of his addiction. He thanks her for telling him the name of the beautiful flowers. Animals enrich lives. Reneé and Paloma find much more pleasure in observing the dogs in the apartment building than the people that live there. Both Reneé and Ozu have cats from which they derive a great deal of pleasure. In fact, as she is dying, Reneé does not conjure up images of Marx or Tolstoy, but her camellias. The things that have brought beauty to her life are simple: her cat, Leo; her friend, Manuela; her dead husband, Lucien; her friend, Kakuro; and her child in...

(The entire section is 828 words.)