The Elegance of the Hedgehog

by Muriel Barbery

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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 spirit, Paloma. “A camellia can change fate,” Reneé decides. Beauty makes life bearable.

The Japanese culture so admired by both Reneé and Paloma reveals beauty both in the simplicity of its poetry (haiku) and in the complexity of the Japanese tea ceremony. While French interior decorating is ornate and superfluous, Japanese interiors are simple and elegant. Although sashimi is a simple but basic food in Japan, Ozu tells Reneé that the sashimi she is choking on costs 30 Euros apiece. Another seemingly incongruous symbol of beauty is grammar. Reneé is highly offended when a note addressed to her contains a comma rather than a colon after the salutation. Paloma is horrified when her English teacher uses a split infinitive. The precision and rules of grammar are beautiful to both Reneé and Paloma. Language possesses rules one should be able to count on and to misuse even the most simple of these rules is an affront to beauty. Paloma declares that there is nothing more beautiful than nouns and verbs.

Throughout the novel, Barbery exposes her disdain for the French class structure. The chasm between Reneé and her tenants is wide. Reneé criticizes her wealthy tenants for being completely ignorant that people of a lower class even exist. When Reneé’s husband, Lucien, dies, the tenants react rather indifferently, yet when the food critic Monsieur Arthens has a heart attack, the tenants cannot do enough to help the family. As Reneé and Mr. Ozu leave the apartment building to go to dinner, they...

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pass two tenants that do not even recognize Reneé, who is dressed in the fine clothes that Ozu has given her. Ozu tells her, “It is because they have never seen you. I would recognize you anywhere.” At the end of the novel, when Madame Josse learns that it is the concierge who has been hit by a truck and not one of the tenants, she sighs with relief.

Barbery develops this dichotomy of the classes through the minor characters, the tenants, who do not possess one redeeming quality among them. The tenants are vacuous and insensitive, stereotypes of the society which Barbery is satirizing. The working-class people, Reneé and Manuela, can enjoy pâté de fois gras or read Anna Karenina. The chambermaid and concierge discuss art and literature while the wealthy, educated Madame Josse is more concerned with watering her plants than expanding her mind. While Reneé ponders the symbolism of Japanese film, Madame Josse quotes Flaubert without having a clue as to the meaning of those quotes. The wealthy are not the only ones to blame, however. Reneé has her own prejudices and she, too, has not made any effort to explore a deeper relationship with any of her tenants. Her family history is to blame, in part, but her own insecurities and fear are the basis for her being the hedgehog.