Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer Summary and Analysis of Chapters 23-34

Chapter 23 begins Part Two of the novel. Grenouille is on the road to the town of Orleans, walking away from Paris. He is enjoying the diminished human scents the farther he gets from Paris. He enjoys the absence of human scent so greatly that he begins to travel only at night. He avoids people completely, and he sleeps out in the open as far from human habitation as possible. The purity of the air, compared to the olfactory squalor and confusion of Paris, gives Grenouille's nose some much-needed relief.

After a while, Grenouille's plan to go directly Grasse "unraveled in freedom, so to speak, as did all his other plans and intentions. Grenouille no longer wanted to go somewhere, but only to go away, away from human beings" (117). Grenouille now only wants to get to a place where people and human habitation can no longer be smelled. He finally gets to a volcanic peak in the Massif Centrale of the Auvergne called Plomb du Cantal, at which he finds the midpoint of isolation, the point at which all human beings are equally and maximally distant from him. At the end of Chapter 24, Grenouille is standing on the top of the six-thousand-foot peak, screaming and leaping for joy that he is finally alone, in a place where he is completely free of human odor for the first time.

He decides to stay in what he considers this "blessed region" (121) for some time. He finds a very small trickle of water, just enough to keep him alive. He manages to eat small salamanders and snakes, whole and raw. He finds a deep natural tunnel into the mountain, at the back of which there is a crevice where he can lay on his horse blanket in total darkness and isolation. He is so happy to find this place that he weeps with joy.

He spends his days in what can only be described as olfactory meditation. He begins with a review of the people and scenes of his youth, the smells of Madame Gaillard, Father Terrier, Jeanne Bussie, the Cimetière des Innocents, and finally the "homicidal odor of his mother" and the stench of Grimal the tanner. As he "wallowed in disgust and loathing ... his hair stood on end at the delicious horror" (124).

Rid of these horrid odors, and reveling in an imaginary world of justified anger and disgust, he then imagines himself as Grenouille the Great. He has a creation fantasy in which he is god and ruler, and his inner world completely takes over his life. He spends all his days in fantasy, and he only leaves the cave for his barest human needs. His pleasures are entirely the review and imagination of odors that he has collected in his lifetime, stored in the imaginary purple castle of his heart. He drinks of the odors with the delectation of a gourmet, and finds complete peace and happiness.

Incredibly, Grenouille lives in this cave for seven long years. He nearly freezes to death at some point, but the weather warms and he is saved. The snow lies so deep once that he cannot get down to the lichen on which he feeds. A raven falls dead at the mouth of his cave, and he eats it. Other than these events, nothing outside of Grenouille's mind occurs to him for this long time. But in Chapter 29, Grenouille has a horrible dream that he has had a personal body odor which he could not smell. This shakes him to the core and makes him leave the mountain so that he will not have this horrifying dream again. Grenouille performs several tests to see if he can smell himself, on his clothes or skin or in the cave where he has lain for seven years. He now knows for certain that he has no smell and that his existence makes no mark on the olfactory world. This shakes him so completely that he puts on what is left of his rags of clothes, and leaves the Plomb du Cantal.

Down in the town of Pierrefort, he frightens everyone with his extremely wild and unkempt appearance. He is taken in by the marquis de La Taillade-Espinasse, an extremely eccentric, scientifically inclined nobleman. The Marquis has a theory of fluidum vitale and fluidum letale, based on the premise that the earth emits a lethal gas which all creatures try to get away from by growing. Grenouille, in his wild state, fits exactly what a man contaminated by fluidum letale supposedly looks like. (Grenouille told the townspeople that he had been captured by robbers and held captive in a cave for seven years.) The Marquis brings him to a Freemason lodge in Montpellier to exhibit him to other scientific men as a case for him to cure by ventilation with fluidum vitale.

The Marquis brings Grenouille home and puts him in a "ventilation chamber" at the top of his house. He is fed only on earth-removed food (duck broth, bread from mountain wheat, and the like) and kept there for five days. Then he is washed and groomed, and a new set of clothing and shoes are made for him. The Marquis makes him learn to act like a gentleman, but before he is presented again as a cured case Grenouille fakes a fainting spell, pretending to be enervated by the smell of a perfume made from violet roots.

Grenouille is sent to the best perfumer in the city, which is exactly what he wants. At the perfumer's workshop, Grenouille creates a perfume which smells like a human being--not like a cologne, but like a basic human odor--out of excrement and rotting food covered with fresh, oily scents. He also makes a rather simple, innocent-smelling scent which smells just like the first scent, but is for a person with a discernible human odor.

Grenouille tries out this scent on the unknowing populace, and he discovers that he smells like other people for the first time in his life. Since he smells like other people, he can move among them and, eventually, he thinks, create the smell that will make all people in the world love him. He is presented by the Marquis as a total success to an assemblage of scientific men, so the Marquis's theories become accepted. Grenouille stays on in Montpellier for a few weeks, where he is celebrated by society. He gives the formula for the perfume to the Marquis, who pays him fifty louis d'or.

One morning in March, Grenouille slips out of town, not wearing his now-customary "human" perfume, and he is not noticed by anyone. The Marquis is annoyed, but goes on to even further flights of fancy in pursuit of his fluidum vitale theory. He walks up a mountain, followed part of the way by his disciples, in a snowstorm. He casts his clothes from him, believing he will descend in few weeks from the mountain as a young man. His body is never found.


In Chapter 26, Süskind notes the inadequacy of language to describe smells: "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" (125). It is clear that language, as it is today, is a poor tool for describing odors. This does not matter much for Grenouille, who does not usually describe them to anyone else; he lives and relives the odors quite successfully in his mind. The world of smells is separate and distinct from most of human language and interpersonal dialogue, but it nevertheless rules humanity through its power to entice or repulse.

It is difficult to imagine how Grenouille would enjoy the remembrance of smells in such an intense way that he could drink them like wine, as described in Chapter 27, but he apparently has a strong enough nasal palate that the simile works. Earlier in the novel, Süskind has Baldini compare the smell of Nuit Napolitaine, Grenouille's first created scent, to a melody or a symphony. The only ways of describing scent seem to be in terms of the other senses. This inadequacy underscores Grenouille's difference from all mankind, and his mania becomes to the reader all the more alien.

But Süskind seems to insist, at least for the purposes of this book, that we sense certain smells unconsciously, especially from other people, and that our actions are ruled by our gut reactions to these unconsciously absorbed scents. This is a major theme of the novel, and it defines how Grenouille is perceived by others: "For scent was a brother of breath. Together with breath it entered human beings, who could not defend themselves against it, not if they wanted to live. And scent entered into their very core, when directly to their heads, and decide for good and ill between affection and contempt, disgust and lust, love and hate. He who ruled scent ruled the hearts of men" (155).

That Grenouille manages to deceive others, by his ingenuity and delicate nose, into making a smell which he can wear in order to have a smell like another human being, completes his disguise as a human-looking devil. He can appear to be like everyone else by taking on human form (from an olfactory perspective), and thus he saves his sanity for a while. For when Grenouille awakes on the mountain from the horrible dream, he knows that he is not like other people. How a human being could not emit any smell (which is probably impossible) is not explained; but when Grenouille knows it, he knows that he is a monster.

A couple of symbols underline these themes. When the raven dies at his cave and he eats it, we might think that this casts Grenouille as a raven-like character, perhaps because ravens eat carrion and can symbolize death. Ravens also are known for leaving their offspring to die by starvation, which recalls Grenouille’s mother’s actions toward her own children. Later, when Grenouille makes a human odor using excrement and rotting food in addition to fresh scents, we are reminded of the dark and deadly aspects of human character.

Thus, when Grenouille resolves to make a perfume by means of which the weakness of humanity, its susceptibility to smells, will be exploited by him for his own ends, he does so because he believes that he is evil (155), without really knowing what that evil consists of, other than the absence of normal human smells and his desire to capture smells from others. What Grenouille wants is not so different than what many human beings want, but he is so warped and damaged that his desires have been perverted, so that now his wants manifest themselves in domination over people and the gratification of his only pleasure, the enjoyment of scents. This Grenouille considers evil, without understanding the cosmic or theological idea of badness. The result of Grenouille's desires, however, will be irredeemably evil actions of murder.

An interesting side note is that, so far, all the figures of authority in this novel are hypocrites. Father Terrier, who is supposed to care about the material and spiritual well-being of the orphans of his parish, recoils in horror when the infant Grenouille tries to smell him. He gets rid of the baby as soon as possible. Likewise, Baldini's bluster and assertions that he is a master scent-maker are lies; he is past all his creative powers, and becomes rich only because of Grenouille's genius. He continues to insist to his apprentice, Chenier, however, that his powers have never diminished. The marquis de La Taillard-Espinasse is perhaps the greatest hypocrite of all, because he willfully manipulates the "evidence" of Grenouille's recovery to his own pseudo-scientific purposes. This, of course, adds to the cynicism of the novel, but also creates sympathy for Grenouille. The "normal" human beings whom Grenouille moves among are not particularly admirable, so Grenouille's abnormality and crimes seem much less heinous by comparison.