Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

by Patrick Suskind

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What does humanity's behavior in Perfume by Patrick Suskind suggest about humanity as a whole?

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The first answer given offers some very good insights in response to this question. I'd like to add that I think one major theme related to the portrayal of humanity in this novel is the notion that the most compelling human impulse is desire. The impulse of desire is one that is reflected in the behavior of many characters in the novel, most notably Grenouille, the murderer mentioned in the title.

Grenouille desires to possess the elusive scent of a virgin's skin in order to apply it to his own, which lacks any human scent. But what Grenouille really wants is to be loved. Having been rejected from infancy for the unusual reason of not having a human smell, he grows up with a skewed impression of human social interaction. The love given to infants and children shapes their personalities, and Grenouille's lack of loving care shapes who he becomes, including his hatred of people and his self-imposed social isolation.

The father of Grenouille's intended final victim is so filled with the desire to protect his daughter that he disguises her and hides her away, but he doesn't realize that Grenouille's desire to possess the girl's essence is so powerful that virtually nothing can stop him from finding and killing her. Grenouille's desire to possess something he has never known is far stronger than this man's compassion and love for his daughter; yet, ironically, compassion and love are also things Grenouille has never known. He knows only the pure focused state of wanting something he doesn't have, a scent, and the admiration and ecstasy this instills in him, and it drives his every action forward.

Desire in the sexual or romantic sense is, to Grenouille, an impulse and emotion that is also foreign to him, and so it is fitting that he creates a perfume to fill others with this kind of desire. The bottled elixir is the very essence of desire, but Grenouille can never experience it directly, only as something outside himself, like a suit of clothes. The perfume does create an illusory sort of glamor, like a magic spell of love, that surrounds Grenouille, but it proves too potent and ultimately causes his destruction. A small amount of the perfume causes people to admire him, then to feel pity and forgive him; then a bit more is applied, and they love him; they they are driven mad and ultimately devour him with their bare hands.

If there is a final message about the nature of humanity in this novel, it is that desire for the unattainable is the strongest impulse, and it fuels and inspires unfathomable extremes of human behavior.

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Fabulous question!  You are right in suspecting that people's behavior can tell us something about humanity, especially in Perfume. Now, it's important to start with the full title of the work (because that is significant):  Perfume:  The Story of a Murderer.  Once we look at the behavior of the people here, their behavior will show something quite dark about humanity:  that people can easily be puppets, controlled by instinct... and something as simple as a scent.

Let's look at some specifics from the story where people are controlled by instinct.  Controlled by instinct, the people brand Jean-Baptiste Grenouille because he has a lack of smell.  Controlled by instinct, even Grenouille's mother (who births him in a fish market) wraps him up in order to destroy him or make him invisible.  Controlled by instinct, Grenouille kills his first virgin to gain the scent and then must kill more to increase his elixir. Just look at the control Grenouille inspires during the orgy that gets him out of execution:

Grandfather with virgin, odd-jobber with lawyer's spouse, apprentice with nun, Jesuit with Freemason's wife--all topsy-turvy, just as opportunity presented.

Here we see, point blank, that ALL members of humanity, regardless of class or religiosity or gender, are easily controlled by instinct.  While Grenouille feels successful in his escape attempt, he is also disgusted with this truth about humanity.  It is even true about HIMSELF, as he is controlled by his addiction to scents. 

We can also see "humanity as a whole" in Grenouille at the very end of the story.  Grenouille covers himself with his most successful scent (made from the skin of virgins, the very same one that helped him escape death) and returns to the slums where he began.  And what happens?  He is absolutely devoured by the inhabitants of those slums.  This is the way he is killed. Do his nice clothes matter?  No.  Does his talent for making fine perfume matter?  No.  Does his talent for fooling even the smartest of people matter?  No.  Grenouille himself cannot rise above the condition of humanity: people are controlled by instinct.  For, controlled by instinct, the people of the slums kill Grenouille.

Further, the eventual reaction of the town (again, ruled by instinct) is horrifying!

The town had forgotten it in any event, forgotten it so totally that travelers who passed through in the days that followed and casually inquired about Grasse's infamous murderer of young maidens found not a single sane person who could give them any information.

Once the threat is gone, the people instinctively return to their normal lives.  They no longer have "thoughts" about the tragedy.  It makes it easier to go on living, especially by people who are easily controlled.  People here are either too "busy" to deal with the past tragedy or too "shallow" to deal with the past tragedy or they "bury" the past tragedy, all in order to go on living as happily as possible. 

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