Readers' Guide: The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

book cover for
by:Muriel Barbery

Category: FICTION
Guide Created By: JoanP
Discussion Leader(s): JoanP & Eloise
Read our archived discussion of this book

Study Questions

* Marx Preamble ~ pgs.17-27

1. A concierge who reads Marx! Might one suspect she is contemplating subversion or joining a union? Why is she reading his German Ideology?
"Mankind would do better to confine itself to its own needs." Does it appear that Mme. la Concierge is doing just that? Do you understand the title of this chapter: "Whosoever sows desire harvests oppression?"
3. Do you think Renée fits the stereotype of the typical French concierge? How has Muriel Barbery so carefully and clearly described her?
4. How does the tone and the attitude of the second narrator contrast with that of the concierge?
5. Would you say Renée and Paloma are both hedgehogs? What might they each be hiding from, or frightened about behind their protective cover?
6. What did you learn about the German occupation of Guernsey in these pages? How do you think the Islanders managed to survive the occupaton for five years?
7. Is it so unusual for an adolescent to think about suicide? Do you think Paloma's dream of a " delicate slipping away" jives with her actual plan? How can it possibly achieve social justice?
8. What is an autodidact? Or - "the most recent eructation of the ruling corporate elite." Shall we keep a vocabulary list of unfamiliar words? Which ones have you noted?

On Grammar ~ pgs. 133-170

1. According to psychoanalists, what does an involuntary act signify? What is it about the new tenant that causes the concierge to shudder at their first meeting at the elevator?
2. What made the tenant suspect that this lowly employee, the concierge, would know the source of her comment regarding happy/unhappy families?
3. Why is Paloma so taken with Mr. Kakura Ozu? Is it believable that he would confide his suspicions in this child - that the concierge is not what she appears to be?
4. What had Paloma observed earlier that made her think Mme. Michel is not a "real" concierge? How can she see what no one else can see, "the refinement of the hedgehog" in the concierge? Does she exaggerate her elegance here?
5. What is it about M.Paul Nguyen that makes Renée forget to hide who she really is? Is there something straightforward about the Japanese that causes this response, not just Mr. Kakura Ozu?
6. Why does Manuela's description of the new sliding doors delight Renée? Is it the doors, or the conversation they are having about the doors?
7. How do Madame Michel and Paloma view the importance of proper grammar? Did you agree with Paloma's views on education as expressed in her debate with her French teacher, Madame Fine?<
8. How does Paloma regard those who "know neither the enchantment nor the beauty of languages"? Does Madame Michel regard such people in the same way?
9. Why does Madame Michel admire M. Kakuro for having only one of everything? What does this tell her about him? Do you have matching end tables, lamps? Do you tend to buy things in "twos"?
10. Do you agree with the Japanese, that you can only savor a pleasure if you understand it is ephemeral?

Camellias ~ pgs.31-129

1. Do the cited instances of class prejudices have less of an impact on those of us who do not live in classed-based societies, or is this a universal tendency? Is it only the rich who look down on the poor? How do the have-nots regard the rich in these pages?
2. Do you agree with Mme. Michel's definition of an "aristocrat"? Do any of the tenants at 7, Rue de Grenelle fit this description?
3. Is Paloma's cynicism and her constant criticism of her family normal for a twelve year old girl? Why is she keeping two separate notebooks? Do you think she is seriously considering suicide or just the idea of the effect it would have on others?
4. Do the philosophical musings help you to understand Renée Michel, the way she thinks, learns and arrives at conclusions - or do they get in the way? How have Kant's views of what we can know of the world, influenced Renée in her pursuit of education?
5. Contrast Paloma and Renée's early educational experience. Does Paloma seem to be into books the same way that Renée was at her age?
6. Is it fair to say that Renée learns from books while Paloma from her observation of others? How do Renée's reading habits compare to your own?
7. It has been said that Paloma and the concierge mirror one another in the conclusions they reach on the meaning of life - and death. From their journal entries, can you cite any specific similarities in thinking?
8. Is Paloma asocial, a "loner"? Does she turn to anyone for companionship or guidance? How does she compare to Mme. Michel, holed up in the back room of her loge?
9. How did you react to Paloma's visit to her grandmaman in the nursing home? Were you appalled, or did you find yourself agreeing with her observations?
10. Do you detect a slight shift in your own attitudes towards life or death - or somewhere in between? Are you contemplating any life changes, even small ones? Do you still drink that "nasty" coffee, par example?

Summer Rain ~ pgs.173-238

1. Why does Mr Ozu treat Madame Michel with more consideration and interest than other tenants in the building? Why does his interest make her feel naked? If she didn't want to dine with him, why do you think she accepted?
2. Why do you think Tolstoy has left such an impression on Renée? Is it the romance? Do they have a similar world view? Is this what interests the new tenant?
3. "If you have but one friend, make sure you choose her well." Were you surprised about the way Manuela took over the preparations for the "date"? Would Renée have managed this without her?
4. Do you find that Paloma's reaction to the school choir reveals a different side to her character that wasn’t apparent before? What is it about the choir that overcomes her? How is this a worthy entry for her Movement notebook?
5. Following her makeover, why does Renée worry that she looks like "a real lady"? Why does she consider it "blasphemous" to enter his apartment? How does M. Ozu react to her new look? To her obvious uneasiness?<
6. What more do we learn of Paloma's schoolmates in this chapter? Were you surprised to learn that she has a best friend? Do you see any similarities between the two narrators' close friends, Marguerite and Manuela?
7. What is in Mr Ozu’s personality that makes him the first person to break through Renée’s hard shell? What effect does he have on Paloma? Do you detect a glimmer of hope for her future?
8. What is the purpose of Art, as described here? Can you compare the effect of her school choir on Paloma and Renée's response to Pieter Claesz's still life?
9. What shared tastes were revealed during the rather humorous, embarrassing bathroom episode? Do you detect a blossoming friendship - or romance, even? Has a "summer rain" revived our concierge?
10. Did you find Paloma's entry in Profound Thought #13 rather surprising, considering the disturbing revelation during the meeting with her mother's psychoanalyst?

Paloma ~ pgs.241-315

1. Has Paloma entered the concierge's loge to hide from the world, just as Renée seems to be emerging from her camouflage?
2. Do you think Renée has any business resenting the affectation of the rich, like Colombe, who dress as if they are poor? What of intelligent people who disguise themselves as ignorant?
3. Why is Renée dismayed as she reads the final draft of Colombe's thesis? Do you think that Renée too has an obligation to use her acquired knowledge to contribute to the common good? Does Renée believe that?
4. Why do kids burn cars? Why does Paloma want to burn the apartment? Do the answers to both questions relate to Renée's situation?
5. Were there instances of "laconicism" and humorous exchanges that you enjoyed in these chapters while attempting to grasp the deeper philosophical implications?
6. Why is the movement of the falling rosebud so special to Paloma? Do you see Beauty in a fallen rosebud yet to blossom - or does it make you sad?
7. Why did Renée turn down Kakuro's invitation to celebrate his birthday? Was it the photo of his beautiful wife, Sanae? Would she have faced the real reason had Paloma not forced the issue?
8. How did Renée's tearful revelation affect Paloma? (A doctor or a writer - are they nearly the same?)
9. What did Kakuro tell Renée at dinner that changed everything and caused her not to sleep that night?
10. "Suddenly class struggles seem less important." Were they ever really as important as Renée believed them to be? Do you believe class differences are real or imagined?

My Camellias< ~ pgs.316-325

1. Do you find yourself wishing that the book ended before the "My Camellias" chapter? Did the preceding chapters prepare you for such an ending?
2. How did the swings in mood and tone from scenes of comedy to moments of tragedy affect your reaction to the novel? Was it important or distracting to hear from the altenating narrators?
3. Who are Renée's Camellias? What new information was revealed in her final thoughts of each of them?
4. Why does Renée believe that Manuela will feel remorse for the dry cleaning incident? And then, why did Manuela collapse with the words, "forgive me" on her lips?
5. What are Renée's final thoughts of Kakuro - and "what might have been"?
6. Why does Renée begin to cry at the thought of Paloma, the daughter she never had? What does she wish for her?
7. "The important thing is not the fact of dying, but what you were doing in the moment of your death." What does Renée say she was doing?
8. Do you think it was significant that Renée died while trying to help the homeless drunk who ran into the traffic?
9. Why does Paloma feel shame when she learns of Mme. Michel's death? Did she ever really intend to commit suicide? Had she understood its meaning until now?
10. On what note does the author choose to end the story? Were you affected or changed in any way by this book?
11. How would you rate this novel on the whole, the writing, the storytelling, the message? Would you be interested in reading another novel by the same author?
12 Do you feel that the translation from the French text reflected the exact meaning the author wrote? Were there hard to understand words or sentences? How do you rate this translation?

Related Links

An Interview with Muriel Barbery | Hôtels particuliers | French-English Dictionary | Glossary of Posted Definitions