Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

by Patrick Suskind

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What global issue in Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is similar to one in Hamlet?

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The global issue shared by Patrick Süskind's novel Perfume: The Story of a Murderer and Shakespeare's tragic play Hamlet arises from the protagonists' intensely personal issues of their alienation from the worlds in which they live. Hamlet, an intellectual, lives in a world of action. Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, a supremely talented olfactory artist, lives in a world of sometimes overwhelming odors that rejects him for having no odor of his own.

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Hamlet is as out of place in his world in Elsinore as Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is in Paris.

Shakespeare's Hamlet is an intellectual, a thinker, who is born into a country, a city, and even a castle that is defined by action.

In Patrick Süskind's historical novel, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is born into in a country just coming into its own artistically at the beginning of the Enlightenment, and into a city ideally suited to his olfactory talents, but it is a city that eventually rejects him, and which he, in turn, rejects as well.

Throughout his life, Hamlet is surrounded by people of action. Hamlet's father was King of Denmark, and he most recently defeated Old Fortinbras, King of Norway in battle, and took his lands. Hamlet's uncle, Claudius, killed Hamlet's father to usurp his throne and marry his queen. Laertes, Ophelia's brother, directly confronts Claudius over the death of his father, Polonius, and conspires with Claudius to kill Hamlet. Young Fortinbras, the son of Old Fortinbras, has organized an army to recover the lands lost by his father to Hamlet's father.

Hamlet has sworn to avenge his father's murder, but throughout the play he does nothing to effect this revenge.

In a moment of self-realization, Hamlet compares himself to Fortinbras, and finds himself lacking.

HAMLET. How all occasions do inform against me
And spur my dull revenge! ...Examples gross as earth exhort me.
Witness this army, of such mass and charge,
Led by a delicate and tender prince,
Whose spirit with divine ambition puff'd,
Makes mouths at the invisible event,
Exposing what is mortal and unsure
To all that fortune, death, and danger dare,
Even for an eggshell. ...How stand I then,
That have a father kill'd a mother stain'd,
Excitements of my reason and my blood,
And let all sleep, while to my shame I see
The imminent death of twenty thousand men... (4.4.34–62).

The people who Hamlet kills are killed without a thought, impulsively, by accident (Polonius), and by subterfuge (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern). Hamlet's killing of Laertes was in the heat of the moment, as was Hamlet's killing of Claudius, not as an act of revenge for Claudius having killed Hamlet's father.

When Hamlet has an opportunity to kill Claudius and avenge his father's death while Claudius is alone, Hamlet hesitates, and rationalizes himself out of the situation (3.3.76–98).

Hamlet's indecisiveness, his over-thinking of situations in which he finds himself, his inaction, and his self-alienation from the world in which he lives are the causes of his own death.

Jean-Baptiste Grenouille was born in Paris.

In the period of which we speak, there reigned in the cities a stench barely conceivable to us modern men and women. ...And of course the stench was foulest in Paris, for Paris was the largest city of France. And in turn there was a spot in Paris under the sway of a particularly fiendish stench.... Here, then, on the most putrid spot in the whole kingdom, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille was born on July 17, 1738. (part one, 1)

In perhaps the most odoriferous city in the world at the time, Jean-Baptiste had no odor. Father Terrier discovered that fact shortly after Jean-Baptiste was born.

He [Father Terrier] hesitated a moment, looked around him to make sure no one was watching, lifted the basket, lowered his fat nose into it.... And Terrier sniffed with the intention of smelling skin, hair, and a little baby sweat. But he smelled nothing. For the life of him he couldn’t. Apparently an infant has no odor, he thought, that must be it. (part one, 3)

Jean-Baptiste became aware of this fact, too, after he emerged from the cave where he had exiled himself for seven years.

He [Jean-Baptiste] did everything possible to extract his own odor from his clothes. But there was no odor in them. It was most definitely not there. There were a thousand other odors: the odor of stone, sand, moss, resin, raven’s blood-even the odor of the sausage that he had bought years before near Sully was clearly perceptible. Those clothes contained an olfactory diary of the last seven, eight years. Only one odor was not there-his own odor, the odor of the person who had worn them continuously all that time. (part two, 29)

However, Jean-Baptiste can smell everything, and he can discern even the slightest nuance in scents and odors

[W]hy should smoke possess only the name “smoke,” when from minute to minute, second to second, the amalgam of hundreds of odors mixed iridescently into ever new and changing unities as the smoke rose from the fire… or why should earth, landscape, air-each filled at every step and every breath with yet another odor and thus animated with another identity-still be designated by just those three coarse words. (part one, 5)

Jean-Baptiste is ridiculed and ostracized for his lack of odor, and he creates a scent for himself so he can move freely throughout the city and mingle with the people who he has come to despise. In time, he creates scents for himself that cause people to think whatever he wants them to think about him. On his way to his execution for killing a teenage girl, for example, Jean-Baptiste puts on a scent he created that causes the people in the streets to declare him innocent and set him free.

Jean-Baptiste moves from "fitting in" to once again "standing out" from the people around him. In time, Jean-Baptiste's skill at making scents that manipulate people proves to be his means of escape from the world in which he has no place.

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How is the global issue of power similar in Hamlet by Shakespeare and the novel Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind?

The perennial theme of power is inextricably linked to ambition. Those who seek power are invariably ambitious, and are often prepared to use underhand means to get what they want. Looking at the world today, one sees numerous examples of people, especially in the worlds of politics and business, who've made a metaphorical pact with the devil in pursuit of what they want.

Such ruthlessness is much in evidence in both Hamlet and Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. In the former, Claudius wants to be king; he also wants to marry his brother's wife, Gertrude. So he murders his brother, Hamlet's father, by pouring poison down his ear while he's asleep in the garden one day. Claudius is so obsessed with power that he's prepared to murder his own flesh and blood in order to get his grubby hands on it.

Grenouille, the wicked protagonist of Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, is similarly driven by an ambition to be powerful. He wants nothing more than to be the finest perfumer in the whole of France and will stop at nothing to achieve his goal, even if it means killing people.

Grenouille works out fairly quickly that he who rules scent rules the hearts of men. Unlike Claudius, he doesn't have to use political manipulation to get what he wants; he simply uses his remarkable ability to sniff out a unique scent to control other people and get them to do his bidding. But the ultimate end is the same: power, and lots of it. Like Claudius, Grenouille might like to think of himself as in control, but in actual fact, he's being controlled by an overwhelming desire for power that has him firmly in its grip.

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