Grenouille is born to a fishwife mother in Paris in the early eighteenth century. He is delivered behind his mother's fish stall and is immediately abandoned to die. The baby, who strangely has no scent, cries out and is saved by onlookers. His mother is executed for this attempt and for her previously successful infanticides, leaving Grenouille, a bastard, alone in the world. He is brought up in a sort of home orphanage, tended together with several other orphans by an emotionally damaged woman named Madame Gaillard. At the age of eight he is given in apprenticeship to a tanner, Grimal, where he is almost worked to death. After having survived anthrax, and thus becoming more useful in a tannery, he is treated marginally better and is given some slight freedom. Grenouille roams the city of Paris, searching for new scents, because he has the most gifted nose in the world.
On one of his olfactory jaunts around the city, Grenouille finds the most delicious scent he has ever encountered, that of a adolescent girl. He finds her scent from a long distance, and he follows it until he is very near her in the dark. She senses him, and as she turns around to see him he strangles her. He then takes the opportunity to smell her scent to his heart's content. It is the happiest he has ever been. He leaves the body and feels no remorse.
One night he delivers some goatskins to Baldini the perfumer. He begs the old man to let him work for him, after showing the master that he has a wonderful nose and a great memory for mixing perfumes. Baldini is so impressed with the scent that Grenouille creates that he buys his apprenticeship from Grimal. While working for Baldini, Grenouille makes the best scents Paris has ever smelled, and Baldini becomes very rich. Grenouille falls ill again, but he survives once Baldini tells him there are other ways to distill and preserve scents to be learned in the south of France. This news revives Grenouille, and he lives. Eventually he leaves Baldini to go learn distillation methods in Grasse.
On the way to Grasse, Grenouille makes a detour for seven years to a mountain cave, where he ponders the scents he has known in his life thus far. Descending from the mountain looking like a wild man, he is rehabilitated by a slightly mad pseudo-scientist nobleman who believes that he is a prime example of a vicitm of fluidum letale. After a farce of a scientific "proof" is enacted, Grenouille slips away and goes to Grasse.
There he works in a small perfumery, learning different methods of distillation, but especially cold enfleurage. He now begins to distill scents other than flowers, such as inanimate objects. He moves onto animals, finally realizing that he must kill them in order to get their scent properly. Now he has a goal; he has found a scent to match the girl he killed in Paris, another red-head here in Grasse named Laure Richis. He devises a plan to create a scent of her essence, but he needs other scents to buoy up and extend her scent, to make it truly wonderful.
Grenouille thus proceeds to kill twenty-four teenage girls in the region of Grasse, and he distills their scent by cold enfleurage. Finally he murders and obtains the scent of his prize, the best-smelling girl, Laure. He is caught for his crimes but, by using the master scent he has created, he is believed innocent by all and released. Feeling depressed and suicidal because there are no greater scents to be discovered or distilled, Grenouille goes to Paris to die. He douses himself with the master scent and is then devoured by a mob.