Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

by Patrick Suskind

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Perfume is a study of the darker side of human nature. It centers on a superhuman, Grenouille, whose extraordinary nose shows him certain truths about the world to which others are oblivious. His view of life is inevitably “colored” by his sense of smell, and he is determined to use this sense to achieve his ambitions as no other human can.

It is important to note that Patrick Süskind is a German author brought up in the post-World War II era. His writing is dark, and his characters are like those in the Grimm fairy tales, with heroes as guilty as the villains. Heroes are heroes only because circumstances favor them.

Grenouille apparently is evil by nature. Those around him are not necessarily any less evil. Circumstances simply favor them, giving them the social position, money, or background to exploit people like Grenouille. The Grenouilles of the world must rely on their wits and will in order to succeed. If he were alive today, Grenouille likely would become a rags to riches hero, a respected virtuoso, and a scientific curiosity. It is doubtful that he would be much happier, given his nature.

Grenouille may bring evil, but it is not undeserved. His victims are not innocent bystanders. Even the girls he kills are all part of the society that at best ignores and at worst hates him for being different. Grenouille’s mother killed her other babies and tries to kill him. Grimal the tanner, the Marquis de La Taillade-Espinasse, Maître Baldini, and Maître Druot are all selfish cheaters, taking advantage of Grenouille for their own profit. Fortunately for Grenouille, these people are so self-centered that they do not notice that he is using them for his own selfish plans. Like a tick, he takes what he needs from others, living off them and accepting some amount of discomfort in return.

Perfume actually is a satire of a cautionary tale. Its moral is that no one is innocent. Even though people may identify one person and call him evil, he really is no more evil than anyone else—he simply does not hide it as well. Süskind’s implication is that although the incidents of Perfume might have taken place two hundred years ago, the results would be the same today.

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