The book begins, “In eighteenth-century France there lived a man who was one of the most gifted and abominable personages in an era that knew no lack of gifted and abominable personages” (3). So Grenouille is introduced, even before his birth, as an abominable person. He is born to a fishwife mother, his father unknown, behind the stall of his mother’s fish stand. His mother plans to leave him in the garbage on the ground, like she had done with several of her illegitimate children before Grenouille, but the infant cries out and is found by bystanders.
With this act Grenouille ensures the death of his mother. The authorities arrest Grenouille’s mother, and she is charged with attempted murder. She freely admits that she allowed her previous four children to perish, so she is convicted of multiple infanticides. This leads to her execution by guillotine, the standard method of dealing with mothers who killed their babies in pre-Revolutionary France. The events save Grenouille’s life but leave him completely alone in the world. The only person who could have loved Grenouille was taken away without even holding him.
Because of a series of bureaucratic difficulties, and not because of any religious feeling or duty, Grenouille is given over to the care of a cloister. Father Terrier is the priest in charge of Grenouille, and the child is baptized and given the name Jean-Baptiste (it is not noted whether the good Father meant to be ironic or not in giving the child the name of a beheaded saint).
The baby Grenouille is given into the care of a wet nurse named Jeanne Bussie. She is his third, as the other wet nurses have rejected him because he takes too much milk. With a too-greedy baby a wet nurse cannot nurse more than one child, and that deprives her of her livelihood. So, even among paid wet nurses, Grenouille is unwanted. Jeanne brings Grenouille to Father Terrier, complaining not only that he is too greedy for milk, but also that he is without the normal smell of babies and therefore must be from the devil.
Father Terrier scoffs at this idea, but after the child is left with him, he too begins to feel that there is something odd about the infant. After the child Grenouille makes sniffing noises, suggesting that he is trying to smell the priest, Father Terrier takes the child directly to a woman paid to bring up children in her home. He pays for the child’s care a year in advance, and he leaves quickly, never to return.
At Madame Gaillard’s, Grenouille is given the necessities of life; he is kept warm, meagerly fed, and reasonably safe. Yet, he is given no love of any kind. Madame Gaillard is mentally disabled, having been hit on the head as a child, and has no emotional life whatsoever. When he is at the age of eight, the cloister stops paying for Grenouille’s upkeep, and Madame Gaillard brings Grenouille to the tanner, Grimal, who takes him as an apprentice.
Grenouille knows immediately that Grimal is a man “capable of thrashing him to death for the least infraction. His life was worth precisely as much as the work he could accomplish and consisted only of whatever utility Grimal ascribed to it” (31). Grenouille is worked very hard at the tanner’s, is treated like a domestic animal, and is locked in a closet to sleep. He contracts anthrax but, astonishingly, he survives it. This makes him more valuable to Grimal, as he is now immune to the disease, which is invaluable in a person working with animal hides. Grenouille is eventually allowed a small amount of time off each week to roam the city of Paris.
Grenouille comes alive on his walks in the city, literally following his nose. He smells all the various smells of the city and even his first whiffs of real perfume. While he appreciates the individual components of the perfumes he smells, he comes to a value judgment, at this early age, that these scents are “rather coarse and ponderous, more slapdashed together than composed, and he knew that he could produce entirely different fragrances if he only had the basic ingredients at his disposal” (36).
Jean-Baptiste Grenouille's name explains much about his character. Jean-Baptiste is French for John the Baptist, the apostle who was sometimes mistaken for the Messiah Jesus, but who was but the messenger of the Messiah, in the Christian tradition. Famously, John was executed on Herod’s orders by decapitation (Matthew 14). Thus John went to his grave without his head, as Grenouille's own mother did for her infanticide, lacking the anatomical part which most identifies a unique and wholly human being. Grenouille is without a doubt a marginalized, insignificant, and unwholesome human being. That he is dehumanized by his society, however, does not make him any less human. But the people around him, and he himself, seem to believe that because of his lack of scent he is not really a human being, and his name reflects that. He is the outcast, the other, the handicapped, the incomplete.
The word grenouille in French means "frog". This insignificant creature is, significantly, tailless. This is one major difference which frogs have from most of the rest of the animal kingdom. The name, again, is apt (setting aside the vulgar slur on French nationality), for Grenouille is different from all others. He is not a real human being, or so the author seems to suggest, for he seems to be some sort of sociopath with no feelings for other people. Perhaps most of all, he is without a personal smell. This distances him from other human beings; Grenouille is not human. (By being snatched from an infant death and causing the death of his mother, Grenouille seems to lack a central element of the humanity that all people share with Christ, in Catholic doctrine.) He is missing an important part of what constitutes humanity. His lack of a personal smell is parallel to John the Baptist’s eventual lack of a head--and to the frog’s lack of a tail. Grenouille is profoundly different; he quite alien and, ostensibly, markedly less than other people.
The circumstances of Grenouille’s birth make him worse than a foundling. His mother fully intended infanticide and was caught by the authorities only by Grenouille's chance cry. As an illegitimate child with no known father, he was already disadvantaged, but since his mother was known, Grenouille has to bear the name of a decapitated criminal all his life. He is burdened with the worst kind of parentage, although after his disposal at Madame Gaillard’s, no notice is taken of his antecedents for some time.
The extraordinary assertion of the narrator, too, that Grenouille has the power of volition at his birth sets Grenouille apart from all other people. It is implied that Grenouille chose to cry out, and thus chose his own life and the end of his mother’s. That any volition is possible in an infant is contrary to most modern thinking, and the possibility of putting blame on an infant’s choice seems ludicrous. But, in this novel, Grenouille is “gifted and abominable” and, it appears, hungry for new scents even as a nursling.
The author likens Grenouille to a tick, able to live for a very long time on one drop of blood, waiting and waiting for its chance to fall on its next victim. By the time Grenouille is fifteen, at the end of Chapter 7, he has lived through a horrible, further dehumanizing childhood of abuse and neglect. He has asked for life but no love, and has managed to get just enough to get him to this point in his life. But his freedom to roam the city and smell new smells, partly a result of proving his skills and competence at work, has turned him into a hunter, a collector of scents. It is now that Grenouille, the tick, will fall off his tree limb and come to life.