And even as he spoke, the air around him was saturated with the odor of Amor and Psyche. Odors have a power of persuasion stronger than that of words, appearances, emotions, or will. The persuasive power of an odor cannot be fended off, it enters into us like breath into our lungs, it fills us up, imbues us totally. There is no remedy for it.
This passage expresses a main idea of this novel: a person's odor (or, in Grenouille's case, his utter lack of it) affects others' opinions more than any other sensory perception. It is necessary to believe this idea if the reader is to believe that it was the scent of the adolescent girls who Grenouille killed, and not their appearances, voices, attitudes, personalities, or social contexts, that made them lovable or desirable. Grenouille distills, literally, the essence of very young womanhood in his final scent--at the cost of twenty-five young lives. It is this scent that enables him to escape from execution, even though he has duly been convicted of the crimes.
If the reader accepts this point of view, it means that, to a significant extent, we live in a chemical world that we only dimly perceive or understand. That is, the overriding reason that we might like or dislike another human being is odor--not shared interests, visual cues, or more intangible notions such as goodness or virtue. This is one of the main reasons Perfume veers away from realism into the realm of fantasy.
"Impossible! It is absolutely impossible for an infant to be possessed by the devil. An infant is not yet a human being; it is a prehuman being and does not yet possess a fully developed soul. Which is why it is of no interest to the devil. Can he talk already, perhaps? Does he twitch and jerk? Does he move things about in the room? Does some evil stench come from him?"
While this is the first time it is signaled that Grenouille has no personal smell, this passage also indicates a prevailing idea among the people of Paris at time of Grenouille's birth: that infants were not fully human beings. Grenouille's mother even reflected that sometime, maybe, she would be married and have some "real children"(p. 5). She did not believe that her illegitimate children were real, since she could not support them and she did not have a husband to give the children a name.
Father Terrier argues from his theological position, which might seem no less cruel, that infants are, even when baptized, not complete souls. This idea of the inhumanness of infants, especially inconvenient ones, means that babies like Grenouille can be given to loveless tenders like Madame Gaillard, and then worked nearly to death when apprenticed, as Grenouille is treated by Grimal. It is ironic that a society like this one has a set of laws protecting infants like Grenouille from infanticide, and even executing mothers who attempt it (such as Grenouille's mother), but still has the belief that infants are not yet human beings. This passage shows how Grenouille was marginalized and considered subhuman from his birth.
The very fact that she thought she had spotted him was certain proof that there was nothing devilish to be found, for the devil would certainly never be stupid enough to let himself be unmasked by the wet nurse Jeanne Bussie. And with her nose no less! With the primitive organ of smell, the basest of the senses! As if hell smelled of sulfur and paradise of incense and myrrh! The worst sort of superstition, straight out of the darkest days of paganism, when people still lived like beasts, possessing no keenness of the eye, incapable of distiguishing colors, but presuming to be able to smell blood, to scent the difference between friend and foe, to be smelled out by cannibal giants and werewolves and the Furies, all the while offering their ghastly gods stinking, smoking burnt sacrifices. How repulsive! "The fool sees with his nose" rather than his eyes, they say, and apparently the light of God-given reason would have to shine yet another thousand years before the last remnants of such primitive beliefs were banished.
This is Aristotelian thinking on Father Terrier's part. Aristotle (termed "The Philosopher" by the medieval scholastics) wrote extensively on the senses in animals and humans, and determined sight to be the highest and most important of the senses (see Aristotle on biology). Baser senses, such as taste and smell, were more developed in some lower animals, and therefore were considered to belong more to the body than to the spirit. The assertion, too, that early human beings were unable to distinguish colors has its roots in ancient literature. Early examples of literature (such as the poems of Homer) contain relatively few color terms compared with later examples (a famous quotation being the "wine-dark sea" of the Iliad, which seems not to distinguish between purple and deep red and blue, no matter how poetic the image). This idea that color perception has changed in biologically modern humans has been rejected, however, but a theory has arisen that gradations in color terminology emerged with the ascendancy of market cultures. But Father Terrier would have taken the old, accepted notions of the hierarchy of senses, denigrating judgments based on smell. The author here is noting the short shrift the olfactory powers have gotten throughout history, especially in comparison to sight.
The cry that followed his birth, the cry with which he had brought himself to people's attention and his mother to the gallows, was not an instinctive cry for sympathy and love. That cry, emitted upon careful consideration, one might almost say upon mature consideration, was the newborn's decision against love and nevertheless for life. Under the circumstances, the latter was possible only without the former, and had the child demanded both, it would doubtless have abruptly come to a grisly end. Of course, it could have grabbed the other possiblity open to it and held its peace and thus have chosen the path from birth to death without a detour by way of life, sparing itself and the world a great deal of mischief. But to have made such a modest exit would have demanded a modicum of native civility, and that Grenouille did not possess.
In this quotation, Süskind turns the idea of Father Terrier on its head; instead of asserting that infants are not yet complete people, as the church and Grenouille's mother might have said, the author here attributes powers of understanding and volition to the newborn Grenouille that the baby could not possibly have had. A newborn making a "mature" decision is ridiculous, and this suggestion makes Grenouille all the more monstrous. While it is horrifying enough to have circumstances in which a child's cry is the death warrant of its own mother, to say that the child willed such a thing is even more monstrous. Later, the author makes clear that it was not an adult decision but a "vegetative" one. Nevertheless, Süskind still calls it a decision, laying guilt and blame on the character of Grenouille from the beginning.
In addition, that the circumstances of Grenouille's birth meant that he could not have both love and life makes clear that Grenouille will be warped from the beginning. This preposterous overestimating and undervaluing of young human life is characteristic of the grievous errors that the people of this society make. There is nothing of the modern idea of innate human rights and understanding of children's needs and actual abilities, and the lack of this idea creates circumstances such as Grenouille being the cause of his mother's death and his surrender to uncaring people such as Madame Gaillard and Grimal. This kind of societal folly is illustrated again in the story of the Marquis. While Grenouille is certainly a pathological personality, the world around him is full of so many illogical beliefs and contradictions that the little perfumer's single-mindedness seems sane in comparison.
Which is why the façon de parler speaks of that universe as a landscape; an adequate expression, to be sure, but the only possible one, since our language is of no use when it comes to describing the smellable world.
This is an important element in this novel, revealing the paucity of vocabulary and modes of expression in English (and in the novel's original German as well) for scents and their effects. Compared to visual or even auditory phenomena, olfactory events and states are underrepresented or left entirely undescribed. Süskind, a writer with a gift for description, is left with the few words and expressions in the language for describing Grenouille's fantastic scent world, and he has to make forays into the realm of the visual (such as describing some scents as colors) to find enough material to fully show the reader Grenouille's experiences. That this situation points out that the world of scent is similarly unknown to humankind is possibly a bit of a cliché for a novel, but the point is nevertheless well made.
He was after all only an apprentice, which was to say, a nobody. Strictly speaking, as Baldini explained to him--this was after he had overcome his initial joy at Grenouille's resurrection--strictly speaking, he was less than a nobody, since a proper apprentice needed to be of faultless, i.e., legitimate, birth, to have relatives of like standing, and to have a certificate of indenture, all of which he lacked.
This is another example, among many, of the ways Grenouille was marginalized his entire life. Pre-Revolutionary France was not not a meritocracy, and not even Grenouille's genius at perfume-making could erase the ugly, and socially unacceptable, circumstances of his birth. Everything about Grenouille underlines his lack of humanity; his ugliness, his lack of desire for love, his extraordinary ability to smell, and even his name all separate him from the rest of the characters in the novel. The fact that Baldini does help Grenouille get the papers of a journeyman in the end is only so that Baldini can be rid of Grenouille forever. Because of his lack of scent, we are led to believe, Grenouille never makes a real connection with another human being so that someone would do something out of love for Grenouille. In order to get such reactions, Grenouille finds later, he needs to manufacture an artificial scent tailored to the reaction he wants. No one sees Grenouille as human, not even himself; the reader is left to wonder whether this perception has been correct or not.
The more Grenouille had become accustomed to purer air, the more sensitive he was to human odor, which suddenly, quite unexpectedly, would come floating by in the night, ghastly as the stench of manure, betraying the presence of some shepherd's hut or charcoal burner's cottage or thieves' den. And then he would flee farther, increasingly sensitive to the increasingly infrequent smell of humankind. Thus his nose led him to ever more remote regions of the country, ever farther from human beings, driving him on ever more insistently toward the magnetic pole of the greatest possible solitude.
This manifestation of Grenouille's pathological slant of mind shows that his mania is increasing. Having been freed of the horrible scent-soup of Paris, he finds that he prefers the smell of nothingness (humanly speaking, which is like the smell of himself) to the smell of his own kind. Our fascination with Grenouille's choice may be predicated on the idea that it is normal for human beings to want association with each other; for one not to want it, as shown by Grenouille's desire to get as far from the smell of people as possible, is to be less than human. That we still sense some sympathy for Grenouille, who has been so ill-used all his life by his fellow human beings, leads the reader to question if it is valid to think that someone is less than human because he chooses to live as an extreme hermit.
We are familiar with people who seek out solitude: penitents, failures, saints, or prophets. They retreat to deserts, preferably, where they live on locusts and honey. Others, however, live in caves or cells on remote islands; some--more spectacularly--squat in cages mounted high atop poles swaying in the breeze. They do this to be nearer to God. Their solitude is a self-mortification by which they do penance. They act in the belief that they are living a life pleasing to God. Or they wait months, years, for their solitude to be broken by some divine message that they hope then speedily to broadcast among mankind.
Grenouille's case was nothing of the sort. There was not the least notion of God in his head. He was not doing penance nor waiting for some supernatural inspiration. He had withdrawn solely for his own personal pleasure, only to be near to himself. No longer distracted by anything external, he basked in his own existence and found it splendid. He lay in his stony crypt like his own corpse, hardly breathing, his heart hardly beating--and yet lived as intensively and dissolutely as ever a rake had lived in the wide world outside.
The idea that a being like Grenouille can live "dissolutely" by himself (which seems to be a contradiction in terms) conjures up the similarly diseased fantasy lives of other serial killers. But what makes this psychotic personality crave only its own company? Grenouille exhibits such massive egoism that he can only find happiness in creating a world in which he himself dominates. Nothing in the world, outside of his head, gives similar satisfaction. Not even the final scent he makes out of the odors of the twenty-four girls brings Grenouille the happiness that he had while living alone in the cave. A personality so warped as to find nothing truly pleasurable outside the bounds of his own mind is perhaps one of the manifestations of insanity; or, perhaps, as Süskind seems to posit, one of the manifestations of evil.
One Sunday in March--it was about a year now since his arrival in Grasse--Grenouille set out to see how things stood in the garden behind the wall at the other end of town. He was ready for the scent this time, knew more or less exactly what awaited him . . . and nevertheless, as he caught a whiff of it, at the Porte Neuve, no more than halfway to the spot beside the wall, his heart beat more loudly and he felt the blood in his veins tingle with pleasure: she was still there, the incomparably beautiful flower, she had survived the winter unblemished, her sap was running, she was growing, expanding, driving forth the most exquisiite ranks of buds! Her scent had grown stronger, just as he had expected, without losing any of its delicacy. What a year before had been sprinkled and dappled about was now blended into a faint, smooth stream of scent that shimmered with a thousand colors and yet bound each color to it and did not break. And this stream, Grenouille recognized blissfully, was fed by a spring that grew ever fuller. Another year, just one more year, just twelve more months, and that spirng would gush over, and he could come to cap it and imprison the wild flow of its scent.
Here Laure, the red-haired daughter of M. Richis, is compared to a growing tree. To compare her scent to a "sap" dehumanizes her completely. Laure is, to Grenouille (and, perhaps, to everyone around her) only the product of the desires she incites in others. For Grenouille especially, Laure is only a source of a scent, which develops and changes in a predictable pattern over tim. He monitors her and knows, somehow, that the changes which will take place within the next year will convert her scent to its peak of desirability. Grenouille, as usual, takes no notice of her humanity, as he takes no notice (or does not believe in) his own humanity. Showing the poverty of scent-words in language, Süskind has to resort to describing the scent in visual terms, here in terms of color.
But to eat a human being? They would never, so they thought, have been capable of anything that horrible. And they were amazed that it had been so very easy for them and that, embarrassed as they were, they did not feel the tiniest bite of conscience. On the contrary! Though the meal lay rather heavy on their stomachs, their hearts were definitely light. All of a sudden there were delightful, bright flutterings in their dark souls. And on their faces was a delicate, virginal glow of happiness. Perhaps that was why they were shy about looking up and gazing into one another's eyes. When they finally did dare it, at first with stolen glances and then candid ones, they had to smile. They were uncommonly proud. For the first time they had done something out of love.
This scene at the end of the novel, in which the mob consumes Grenouille because of the irresistable lure of the scent of the twenty-five young women, combines, interestingly, the two main human desires for food and for sex. If the smell of the young women is the distilled essence of desire, in excess (for Grenouille covers himself with the scent, rather than just dabbing it on as he does when he escapes from his execution) it creates an irresistible desire to eat the person wearing it. This, perhaps, alludes to an underlying idea that all human desires are really one--or, on a darker side, the desire for such complete dominance expressed in actually eating the other. Sex and food are necessary for life and the continuance of the species, but they are combined and perverted by this artificial distillation of scent into one of the greatest of human taboos, cannibalism. It could be viewed as a lesson on the base desires of humanity and their ultimate darkness, or as a musing on the nature of desire in general and its folly.
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
You might consider the chemistry of scent as well as the biological and chemical interactions involved with producing a specific scent. You might also consider the impact that scent has on the human brain.