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Edward Said once wrote that “modern Western culture is in large part the work of exiles” (Said 137). Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog is one outgrowth of this exilic culture: the novel follows Renée Michel, a concierge who is characterized as an exile from her upper-class French society. She is rudely ignored by most and even appears to be downtrodden. And yet, Renée does not resent her exile; while she is certainly cut off from her society, she takes advantage of her isolation by partaking in intellectual activities which might seem unfit for a concierge.
Renée’s characterization thus exemplifies the way that exile can be both alienating and enriching, and demonstrates the theme that humans require isolation to discover their true passions.
In order to properly analyze Renee’s exile in The Elegance of the Hedgehog, one must first understand the condition of exile. According to Edward Said, “exile is a solitude experienced outside the group” (Said 140).
That is, exiles are cut off from their society, family, and most places that would serve as “home” (Said 137). Traditionally, exiles are shunned in these ways as a result of their difference in some respect; they might have strange clothes, unusual interests, or some other quirk. The crucial point is that humans who are different in some way are often exiled by others – and since almost all humans are strange in some regard, many humans undergo exile at some point in their lives. Notably, however, an individual who simply chose to isolate himself or herself from society would not satisfy Said’s understanding of an exile.
Said illustrates this by creating a distinction between exiles and expatriates – he writes that whereas “expatriates voluntarily live in an alien country,” exiles are forcibly banished from their homes by more powerful actors (Said 143). According to Said, “exile is not, after all, a matter of choice: you are born into it, or it happens to you” (Said 146). However, while Said does not accept the existence of self-exile, he certainly acknowledges that exiles can choose to exacerbate or deepen their own isolation by distancing themselves even further from society (Said 147). While the initial exile is involuntary, then, an individual can choose to increase his or her alienation from society (as Renée does in The Elegance of the Hedgehog).
Human beings are affected by such isolation in contradictory and complex ways. Clearly, exile is alienating. By definition, it is the sensation of being estranged from most – if not all – other humans. This is necessarily painful; as Said writes, it is a “crippling sorrow” (Said 137). For this reason, “exiles look at non-exiles with resentment … they belong in their surroundings, you feel, whereas an exile is always out of place” (Said 143). However, the same tragic and jealous exile may enhance humans’ characters and allow their best traits to flourish uninhibited by societal norms. Said writes that the condition of exile can be enriching in that it allows its victims to develop a “triumphant ideology,” or a life philosophy which celebrates their individual passions and strengths regardless of society’s condemnation of these very attributes (Said 141). Such a triumphant ideology often begins as a coping mechanism developed by individuals whose unusual quirks prevent them from fitting into society. Once the individual has been exiled, he or she celebrates these quirks as beneficial so as to provide him- or herself with a sense of comfort. Thus, this individual’s true passions are only developed as a result of his or her freedom from society. In this way, exile can be both excruciatingly painful and beneficial.
Given this background knowledge of exile, one can proceed to examine how Renée’s characterization in The Elegance of the Hedgehog exemplifies the ways that isolation can be both alienating and enriching. Muriel Barbery accomplishes this theme by foregrounding two of Renée’s character traits throughout the novel: her resemblance to a stereotypical concierge and her intellectual passions. Because of her physical appearance, settings, actions, and social status, Renée dupes others into thinking that she is nothing more than a stock concierge character. This causes the upper-class individuals around her to write her off and even to exile her. However, her internal dialogue and her actions reveal that she uses this isolation to her benefit: as a result of the abundance of time she has to herself, she is able to explore intellectual interests such as phenomenology and classic literature – intellectual interests which she would never be able to explore had her exile not freed from society’s expectations of concierges. Thus, Renée’s characterization demonstrates Said’s argument that although being isolated from society feels terrible, it also facilitates the development of a “triumphant ideology” which celebrates one’s true passions. In other words, humans sometimes require isolation to explore what truly fascinates them.
The first method by which Barbery reveals Renée’s exile is through descriptions of her lower-class physical appearance. Renée describes herself as “short, ugly, and plump,” with bunions on her feet (Barbery 19). This description affects the reader’s perception of Renée in several ways. First, Renée’s self-described ugliness has the effect of further alienating her from her building’s cohabitants, who are wealthy and, presumably, well-dressed and in possession of the resources necessary to improve their appearances. This independently establishes a physical contrast between Renée and the rest of her society, contributing to the sense that Renée’s difference makes her an outcast. For as Renée recognizes, “to be poor, ugly, and, moreover, intelligent, condemns one, in our society, to a dark and disillusioned life, a condition one ought to accept at an early age” (Barbery 47). Renée’s appearance therefore demonstrates her distance from social norms. Second, Renée’s less-than-stunning looks allow the reader to envision her as a stereotypical concierge. As Renée proclaims, “it has been written somewhere that concierges are old, ugly and sour” (Barbery 19). That Renée’s physical appearance perfectly embodies this stereotype is significant because, as Barbery explains, concierges are traditionally relegated to a low social status (this point will be analyzed in greater detail later). Renée’s appearance thus illustrates her exilic status both by demonstrating her failure to conform to societal norms and by casting her as a stereotypical concierge who is cut off from upper-class lifestyles.
Barbery combines these descriptions of Renée’s appearance with the element of setting in order to further demonstrate that Renée seems to be no more than a simple concierge. Specifically, Barbery elaborates on some of Renée’s possessions and uses these descriptions to reflect on Renée herself. For instance, Renée’s narrative contains the following comments on her cat:
I live alone with my cat, a big, lazy tom who has no distinguishing features other than the fact that his paws smell bad when he is annoyed. Neither he nor I make any effort to take part in the social doings of our respective species. (Barbery 19)
This description of Renée’s setting is notable first and foremost because it highlights a direct parallel between the cat and Renée’s character. Just like her bland cat, Renée has unappealing physical characteristics and refuses to participate in social structures. This quote is thus an explicit recognition by Renée of her exilic position. Moreover, as Renée writes, “it has been branded … that … concierges have rather large dithering cats who sleep all day on cushions covered with crocheted cases” (Barbery 19). Renée’s possession of such a cat, therefore, associates her in readers’ minds with preconceived notions of a stereotypical concierge. Barbery thus uses the literary elements of setting and characterization in tandem to convey Renée’s isolation from her building’s social norms and her embrace of concierge stereotypes.
A third indicator of Renée’s exile is her actions – Renée actively attempts to fit the role of an average concierge. For example, Renée writes that, because “it has been decreed that concierges watch television interminably while their rather large cats doze,” she plays her television loudly to give off the illusion that she is constantly watching it – just as one would expect a concierge to do (Barbery 19). In fact, she goes so far as to buy “a second television set” to “bleat away … inane nonsense fit for the brain of a clam” for the sole purpose of “[perpetuating] the charade of social hierarchy” (Barbery 20-21). That Renée would go to such extents to perpetuate the illusion that she is nothing more than a simple concierge clearly characterizes her as attached to her isolation.
After examining her appearance, settings, and actions, it should be clear that Renée goes out of her way to meet the expectations held by her society about concierges. As summarized by literary critic Linda McClain, “she is all too willing to play to social prejudices by behaving as her assumed betters – the residents of the building – expect her to behave” (McClain 873). Her willingness to live up to these societal stereotypes is significant in that her position as a simple concierge independently distances her from her building’s wealthy, non-concierge residents. This fact is made evident by the judgments Barbery shares about concierges’ social status – over the course of the novel, Barbery makes clear her belief that the wealthy members of the apartment building do not consider concierges to be on their level. For example, when Renée’s husband, Lucien, dies, Renée presents the following observations about the exilic status of a concierge:
To rich people it must seem that the ordinary little people – perhaps because their lives are more rarified, deprived of the oxygen of money and savoir-faire – experience human emotions with less intensity and greater indifference. Since we were concierges, it was a given that death, for us, must be a matter of course, whereas for our privileged neighbors it carried all the weight of injustice and drama. The death of a concierge leaves a slight indentation on everyday life, belongs to a biological certainty that has nothing tragic about it and, for the apartment owners who encountered him every day in the stairs or at the door to our loge, Lucien was a non-entity who was merely returning to a nothingness from which he had never fully emerged, a creature who, because he had lived only half a life, with neither luxury nor artifice, must at the moment of his death have felt no more than half a shudder of revolt. (Barbery 74)
In this passage, Renée pontificates on the apathy with which her building’s residents regard concierges. Concierges are treated as mere proletariats with simple lives that are void of emotion. As such, they are structurally exiled from social institutions in the sense that even their deaths are regarded as insignificant. By taking the aforementioned steps to fit into the role of such a traditional concierge, then, Renée is ensuring her isolation from society. In this sense, Renée chooses to deepen her exile. This demonstrates Said’s point that while exile is initially involuntary, it can be voluntarily exacerbated; while there are elements of Renée’s exile which are beyond her control (e.g. her poor background and her physical shortness), she could certainly choose to act less like a stereotypical concierge (e.g. by forgoing the second television).
Renée’s complicity in her exile raises the question of why she does not attempt to break free from her isolation. Clearly, her exile is alienating in a sense. After all, the above passage clearly illustrates the anger which Renée feels in regards to her exile; what could feel more estranging than the knowledge that you are a “non-entity” whose death is irrelevant (Barbery 74)? Still more evidence of Renée’s alienation comes when she describes her preparation for her first outing with Kakuro Ozo, a wealthy resident of the building. This outing represents an important break from Renée’s isolation; rather than staying in with her cat for yet another night, she is venturing out with an upper-class gentleman. Because she has been exiled for so long, however, Renée feels “intimidated and frightened to [her] inner-most core” as a result of what she feels is the “inappropriateness and blasphemous nature of [her] presence here” (Barbery 198). Renée’s alienation, then, is every bit as terrible as Said suggested it might be: her isolation is so totalizing that she feels terrified and even blasphemous whenever she ventures outside of her isolated bubble.
So why – in the face of such a cruel exile – does Renée choose to exacerbate rather than alleviate it? In short, Renée’s isolation from society has a silver lining: it is intellectually enriching in that it grants her the freedom to explore her unorthodox passions. As Renée puts it, “there was only one thing I wanted: to be left alone, without too many demands upon my person, so that for a few moments each day I might be allowed to assuage my [intellectual] hunger” (Barbery 42). Barbery uses Renée’s actions to more specifically illustrate the way that Renée takes advantage of her exile to enhance her mind and, to borrow Said’s terminology, develop a “triumphant ideology.”
It is helpful here to return to Renée’s description of her home life. While Renée has the aforementioned television that plays the banal material with which others would expect a concierge to busy herself, this is merely a front for the numerous intellectual activities in which she engages. Under the cover of the decoy television’s noise, she can watch Death in Venice or read Marx without the building’s residents suspicion (Barbery 21). Renée’s consumption of such intellectual materials is only possible because of her exile; as she notes early on, “[traditional] concierges do not read The German Ideology,” meaning that if she were to integrate herself into society, she would no longer be able to enjoy her intellectual interests (Barbery 18). Because she is isolated and ignored, however, she is free to enlighten herself behind closed doors. Similarly, Renée has delicate tastes and likes to cook complex dishes which society would deem unfit for a concierge. Therefore, she purchases “pauper’s victuals” such as cheap ham, calf’s liver, and carrots, thereby “[nourishing] both the consensual cliché [of being a concierge] and [Renée’s] cat Leo” (Barbery 20). She buys these cheap foods exclusively to fool her building’s residents into thinking she is a stereotypical concierge. But while her cat feeds on the foods which Renée’s cohabitants think she is eating, Renée is “free – without … anyone suspecting a thing – to indulge [her] own culinary proclivities” (Barbery 20). Once again, Renée takes advantage of her exile to explore her true (culinary) passions.
Muriel Barbery’s characterization of Renée Michel thus illustrates Said’s argument that exile can be both alienating and enriching. Although Renée surely suffers from her alienation, she is also left free to peruse intellectual and culinary interests which would otherwise be unavailable to a concierge. She therefore develops what Said calls a “triumphant ideology” by recognizing the benefits of her isolation and celebrating her passions. It is for this reason that Renée is called a “hedgehog”: on the outside, she appears to be an exiled and rough concierge, when in fact she is an intelligent and cultured woman with intricate inner emotion s that she hides away from the world. By living such a “solitary life of concealed elegance,” Renée serves as evidence that human beings require isolation to enjoy their deepest interests (McClain 864). For while not all people are concierges with a secret affinity for phenomenology, almost everyone has unusual interests which are best developed free from society’s judgement.
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