Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

by Patrick Suskind

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The Plot

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Perfume subtitled The Story of a Murder) is the story of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, a man with a phenomenal sense of smell who lives in mid-eighteenth century France.

From the start, there is something sinister about Grenouille. The author calls him a tick and a monster. Misfortune strikes those around him, and there is something chilling about his presence, as though a draft comes into the room when he is around. Only Grenouille realizes that this is a result of his complete lack of scent. He is too willful and ambitious to let fear and censure keep him from his goals. In his mind, he knows that he is Grenouille the Great and that one day he will rule the world through his unique ability.

During his childhood and well into his teens, Grenouille spends his time mentally cataloging the thousands of different scents he comes across daily in Paris. He combines them to form new smells, much as a composer might do with musical sounds. Grenouille is able to “compose” all sorts of new aromas, leading to his success in the field of perfumes. His success is not public, however; not only does he prefer to remain anonymous, but in addition the perfumer for whom he works, Maître Baldini, takes all the credit for the hundreds of perfumes Grenouille creates.

All the significant people in Grenouille’s life are greedy and take advantage of him: Madame Gaillard, who ironically has no sense of smell; Grimal the tanner, who treats Grenouille humanely only after he lives through a disease; Maître Baldini, who never trusts or respects Grenouille despite the incredible riches and renown Grenouille brings him; the Marquis de La Taillade-Espinasse, who uses Grenouille to fund exploration of his personal “scientific” theories; and Druot, who is too busy making love to his former master’s widow to do his share of labor in the perfumery.

None of this seems to bother Grenouille. He has his own agenda and is unaffected by others’ greed; he never learned the difference between right and wrong and learned to be greedy and selfish like those around him. From his youth, Grenouille learned that if he is patient and compliant, things will come to him.

It is Grenouille’s sense of smell that determines his life. He is never fooled by appearances; in fact, he rarely bothers to look at people or things. He does not fear the dark, and he does not learn words that do not express things he can smell.

Grenouille is nearly thirty when he arrives in Grasse, the perfume capital of the world. He has been living for seven years in a cave, reliving his olfactory memories. His ultimate plan is clarified when he catches the scent of a young girl, a scent that he recognizes as beauty. Realizing that it will be a few years before the scent fully develops, Grenouille works and practices his techniques for scent extraction, first on inanimate objects, then on small animals, and finally on young girls. He eventually manages to capture and bottle the absolute essence of beauty, which he plans to use to rule the world. Grenouille discovers, however, that there is no satisfaction in ruling people who do not even understand his power. He realizes that his greatness will never be understood and decides to end his life.

Literary Techniques

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Perfume shares several traditions of the novel genre. The work at the outset presents itself as historical in nature, purporting to deal with a French figure of the eighteenth century no less brilliant than the Marquis de Sade, Louis Antoine Saint-Just, Joseph...

(This entire section contains 447 words.)

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Fouche, and Bonaparte — and no less arrogant, misanthropic, immoral, and wicked.

And while the focus is upon Grenouille as the central figure, Perfume is divided into four parts which treat his development in the fashion of the educational novel (bildungsroman). Part I concludes with the end of his apprenticeship to Baldini and departure from Paris: II deals with his years of isolation and his introduction to the Enlightenment society of Montpellier by the marquis: III represents residence in Grasse while developing techniques for the manufacture of perfumes; and the final Part IV details flight from the site of his scheduled execution to die as on the day of his birth among the odors of Paris. The skills of Grenouille suggest an additional tradition in the genre of the novel where an artist serves as the central figure (ktinstlerroman).

That richness and variety manifested by drawing upon several traditions in the genre of the novel are reflected in the use of the techniques and styles of various literary-historical periods. An omniscient narrative voice that is somewhat aloof predominates in text containing almost no dialog. The eighteenth-century narrative practice which destroys the illusion of objective distance is employed when the author includes the reader in the first person plural, "Since we are to leave Madame Galliard behind us at this point in our story . . ."

In his relationship to Baldini, an allusion to sixteenth-century historical circumstances is made in Grenouille's perceived need for journeyman's papers that will allow him to travel and take work; for this reason he readily agrees to Baldini's conditions, recalling romanticism in his desire "to empty himself of his innermost being, of nothing less than his innermost being, which he considered more wonderful than anything else the world had to offer."

That same literary-historical vein is preserved in the scene of the solitary Grenouille wandering over the landscape beneath the moon and avoiding all human beings in order to be at one with nature; in a solitary, uninhabited region he retreats to a cave atop a mountain in the Auverge to seek proximity to himself.

The style and technique of nineteenth-century realism are reflected in the detailed catalogues as, for example, that of all the foul smells generated by eighteenth-century Paris and its dwellers at the time of Grenouille's birth. At Baldini's we are provided with an elaborate list of all the materials used in the preparation of perfumes and a marvelous description thereof.

Social Concerns

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The novel's sales figures strongly suggest that Perfume spoke, and continues to speak, to the sensibility of the general reader — to expectations, needs, and moods, both conscious and subconscious. The central figure Jean-Baptiste Grenouille inspires respect for his abilities and workmanship, his perseverance, and his success in surmounting his social origins. Further, the creativity of Grenouille evokes a mass appeal which is less rational in its origins; his art generates a sensuous intoxication that envelops the figures about him and finds its vicarious effect in the imagination of the reader. He shares the qualities of a child, narcissistic, egocentric, and irresponsibly self-indulgent. Savoring the headiness of unlimited self-gratification, he is absolutely autonomous and beholden to no one for his power; unfettered by moral constraints, he works his will upon society.

Literary Precedents

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"In eighteenth-century France there lived a man who was one of the most gifted and abominable personages in an era . . ." runs the first line of Perfume in the translation of John E. Woods. These words immediately remind the literate German reader of the opening of another well-known tale: "Toward the middle of the sixteenth century, there lived . . . the son of a schoolmaster, one of the most upright and at the same time one of the most terrible men of his day.'r This is the translation by Martin Greenberg of the first line of the novella Michael Kohlhaas, (1844; German, 1810) by Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811), a work purporting similarly to deal with an historical personality, a lone figure larger than life who confounds the social order of his time. Very reminiscent of Kohlhaas, the avenger who refashions the world, is the scene of the God Grenouille creating his realm on the mountain and directing the sun and the rains.

And further Kleistian touches abound. Amusingly characteristic of this author is Baldini's premonition and the catastrophic consequences thereof. Fearing that there will be a reckoning and he will have to pay the piper for having exploited Grenouille, the perfumer resolves to attend church but fails to do so. That night a section of the bridge beneath Baldini's house collapses into the Seine, and he and his wife disappear with their entire business including the formulae for six hundred secret perfumes, all of which are never to be seen again. Further, the formal style is sometimes reminiscent of Kleist, as is the description of crowd scenes, particularly that of people gathering for Grenouille's execution.

The novel of the artist has its precedents in Cardillac, the Jeweler (1855; Das Fraulein von Scuderi, 1819) by E. T. A. Hoffmann (1776-1822), the story of an artist unable to part from his creations and compelled to murder to recover them until, like Grenouille, he is finally discovered and apprehended. Tonio Kroger (1913-1915; German, 1903) by Thomas Mann (1875-1955) is a novella which details the growing self-awareness of a sensitive, young writer, who envies the normality of solid, middle-class people. The peculiar mixture of art and criminality found in Perfume and Cardillac is similarly present in Mann's Felix Krull (1955; German 1954), an amusing, picaresque novel of the adventures of a confidence man.

And Siiskind borrows a number of familiar literary motifs. The return to civilization and readaptation thereto after seven years in the wilds recalls the nineteenth-century legends associated with Kaspar Hauser and other feral children. The man lacking an odor recalls a classic of German romantic fiction about a fellow without a shadow in Peter Schlemihl's Remarkable Story (1814; Peter Schlemihls zvundersame Geschichte, 1813) by Adalbert von Chamisso (1781-1838). The absence of odor serves as a magic cape rendering its bearer invisible by depriving man and beast of their olfactory facilities; the magic cape or Tarnkappe is associated in German mythology with the dwarfs who inhabit the innermost regions of the earth.

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