Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog and Tolstoy

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, a novel
with great references to Leo Tolstoy.

I was pleasantly surprised by The Elegance of the HedgehogI imagine that many have described it as being narrated pretentiously – the text is heavily detailed and elaborated. This also means that more concentration is required to read it than with most novels. Here’s how the novel begins:

“‘Marx has completely changed the way I view the world’, declared the Pallières boy this morning, although ordinarily he says nary a word to me. Antoine Pallières, prosperous heir to an old industrial dynasty, is the son of one of my eight employers. There he stood, the most recent eructation of the ruling corporate elite – a class that reproduces itself solely by means of virtuous and proper hiccups – beaming at his discovery, sharing it with me without thinking or ever dreaming for a moment that I might actually understand what he was referring to. How could the labouring classes understand Marx?”

I do appreciate the various snippets of information that Barbery includes, particularly those pertaining to Tolstoy. In fact, one of the two protagonists – Renée Michel – has a cat called Leo, and two other feline characters with Tolstoyan names emerge. I did wonder why there were so many cats in the novel – do all French people have them?!

I would never have predicted the ending. It’s a sad twist in the plot, and you can’t help but wonder if the tramp’s involvement is used symbolically. Throughout the novel Barbery contrasts and equally combines high and low society, and the ending brings this to a close. Does Barbery mean to imply that meddling with the status-quo has nasty consequences?

Despite all of her questionably suicidal tendencies, I related well to Paloma (the second leading character). I generally feel the same way that she does towards noise and modern youth culture, and we both clash with our sisters! However, I’m not convinced that a person her age could be so smart. I also found myself questioning the difference between genuine and superficial intelligence whilst reading this novel. It’s a hard line to define, and I’m not sure which applies to Paloma. I wonder if she would have friends if she didn’t regard intellectual improvement as so important. I wonder the same about myself too.

I’m going away tomorrow, and probably won’t be blogging for a week. I hope everyone reading this is well and enjoying the last few dregs of summer.

It's good to meet you! I started Tolstoy Therapy back in 2012 to share my healing journey through anxiety and PTSD with books. I also climb mountains, go on solo adventures, and write over at

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