Reading Guide Questions
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
True life is elsewhere
One French critic called The Elegance of the Hedgehog "the ultimate
celebration of every person's invisible part." How common is the feeling
that a part of oneself is invisible to or ignored by others? How much does
this "message" contribute to the book's popularity? Why is it sometimes
difficult to show people what we really are and to have them appreciate us
This book will save your life
The Elegance of the Hedgehog has been described as "a toolbox one can look
into to resolve life's problems," a "life-transforming read," and a
"life-affirming book." Do you feel this is an accurate characterization of
the novel? If so, what makes it thus: the story told, the characters and
their ruminations, something else? Can things like style, handsome prose,
well-turned phrases, etc. add up to a life-affirming book independently of
the story told? To put it another wayRenée Michel's waycan an encounter
with pure beauty change our lives?
By any other name would smell as sweet.
Both Renée and Paloma use stereotypes to their benefit, hiding behind the
perceptions others have of their roles. Our understanding and appreciation
of people is often limited to a superficial acknowledgement of their
assigned roles, their social monikerssingle mother, used car salesman,
jock, investment banker, senior citizen, cashier
While we are accustomed to
thinking of people as victims of stereotypes, is it possible that sometimes
stereotypes can be useful? When, under what circumstances, and why, might we
welcome an interpretation based on stereotypes of our actions or of who we
are? Have you ever created a mise en place that conforms to some stereotype
in order to hide a part of yourself?
"One of the strengths I derive from my class background
is that I am accustomed to contempt." (Dorothy Allison)
Some critics call this novel a book about class. Barbery herself called
Renée Michel, among other things, a vehicle for social criticism. Yet for
many other readers and reviewers this aspect is marginal. In your reading,
how integral is social critique to the novel? What kind of critique is made?
Many pundits were doubtful about the book's prospects in the US for this
very reason: a critique of French class-based society, however charming it
may be, cannot succeed in a classless society. Is the US really a classless
society? Are class prejudices and class boundaries less pronounced in the US
than in other countries? Are the social critique elements in the book
relevant to American society?
Hope I die before I get old
Paloma, the book's young
protagonist, tells us that she plans to commit suicide on the day of her
thirteenth birthday. She cannot tolerate the idea of becoming an adult,
when, she feels, one inevitably renounces ideals and subjugates passions and
principles to pragmatism.
Must we make compromises,
renounce our ideals, and betray our youthful principles when we become
adults? If so, why? Do these compromises and apostasies necessarily make us
hypocrites? At the end of the book, has Paloma re-evaluated her opinion of
the adult world or confirmed it?
- Kigo: the 500 season words
Japanese language counts twelve distinct seasons during the year, and in
traditional Japanese poetry there are five hundred words to characterize
different stages and attributes assigned to the seasons. As evidenced in its
literature, art, and film, Japanese culture gives great attention to detail,
subtle changes, and nuances.
How essential is Kakuro's
being Japanese to his role as the character that reveals others' hidden
affinities? Or is it simply his fact of being an outsider that matters?
Could he hail from Tasmania and have the same impact on the story?
Circumstances maketh the woman
Adolescent children and the poor are perhaps those social groups most prone
to feel themselves trapped in situations that they cannot get out of, that
they did not choose, and that condition their entire outlook. Some readers
have baulked at the inverse snobbery with which the main characters in
The Elegance of the
Hedgehog initially seem
to view the world around them and the people who inhabit it.
Is this disdain genuine or a
well-honed defence mechanism provoked by their circumstances? If the
later, can it therefore be justified? Do Renée's and Paloma's views of the
world and the people who surround them change throughout the book? Would
Paloma and Renée be more prone to fraternal feelings if their circumstances
"Unprovided with original learning, unformed in the habits of thinking,
unskilled in the arts of composition, I resolved to write a book." (Edward
In one of the book's
early chapters, Renée describes what it is like to be an autodidact. "There
are days when I feel I have been able to grasp all there is to know in one
single gaze, as if invisible branches suddenly spring out of nowhere,
weaving together all the disparate strands of my readingand then suddenly
the meaning escapes, the essence evaporates, and no matter how often I
reread the same lines, they seem to flee ever further with each subsequent
reading, and I see myself as some mad old fool who thinks her stomach is
full because she's been attentively reading the menu. Apparently this
combination of ability and blindness is a symptom exclusive to the
accurately does this describe sensations common to autodidacts? What are the
advantages and disadvantages of being self-taught?
Much has been made of the
book's philosophical bent. Some feel that the author's taste for philosophy
and her having woven philosophical musings into her characters' ruminations,
particularly those of Renée, hampers the plot; others seem to feel that it
is one of the book's most appealing attributes.
What effect did the
philosophical elements in this book have on you and your reading? Can you
think of other novels that make such overt philosophical references? Which,
and how does Hedgehog
resemble or differ
A Bridge across Generations
Renée is fifty-four years
old. Paloma, the book's other main character, is twelve. Yet much of the
book deals with these two ostensibly different people discovering their
How much is this book about the possibilities of communication across
generations? And what significance might the fact that Renée is slightly too
old to be Paloma's mother, and slightly too young to be her grandmother have
on this question of intergenerational communication?
Some stories are universal
has been published in thirty-five
languages, in over twenty-five countries. It has been a bestseller in
France, Spain, Germany, Italy, South Korea, and America. In many other
countries, while it may not have made the bestseller lists, it nonetheless
has enjoyed considerable success. In the majority of these cases, success
has come despite modest marketing, despite the author's reticence to appear
too often in public, and her refusal to appear in television, and despite
relatively limited critical response. The novel has reached millions of
readers largely thanks to word-of-mouth.
What, in your opinion, makes
this book so appealing to people? And why, even when compared to other
beloved and successful books, is this one a book that people so frequently
talk about, recommend to their friends, and give as gifts? And what, if
anything, does the book's international success say about the universality
of fictional stories today?
The Elegance of the Hedgehog
a text written above all to be read and to arouse
emotions in the reader."
In a related question,
The Elegance of the
Hedgehog has been
described as a "book for readers" as opposed to a book for critics,
reviewers, and professors.
What do you think is meant by
this? And, if the idea is that it is a book that pleases readers but not
critics, do you think this could be true? If so, why?
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Europa Editions.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.