Grenouille (French for "frog") was born in Paris, France on 17 July 1738. His mother gives birth to him while working at a fish stall. She has given birth four times previously while working, which were all either stillbirths or near-dead, so she cuts his umbilical cord and leaves him to die. However, Grenouille cries out from inside the pile of fish heads and guts, and his mother is caught, tried for multiple infanticide, found guilty and beheaded. As a child, Grenouille is passed along different wet nurses, who give him away due to him being too greedy, and then is given to a parish church, which gives him to a wet nurse named Jeanne Bussie. She returns to the parish priest a few months later, saying that the child is possessed by the devil, as he drinks her dry and has no scent. The priest does not believe her, saying that there was no way that the child could be possessed by the devil. He sends the wet nurse away and cuddles Grenouille for a while. Curious, the priest, Terrier, leans in to take a smell. He expects to smell at least a little bit of scent, but he does not. Grenouille wakes up then and starts sniffing at the air, and Terrier feels as if the baby is sniffing at his soul, looking at his deepest secrets. Recoiling, he finds himself thinking of the baby as a devil. He runs out of the parish and across town, and gives the child to an orphanage on the outskirts of the city.
Grenouille has an extraordinary power to discern odors. He navigates the orphanage using only his nose, and barely uses his sight. The other children do not hate him, but they did try to suffocate him several times without knowing precisely why. Grenouille grew up cold and unfeeling; he was unafraid of anything and took punishment easily. When the owner of the orphanage discovers that Grenouille can locate hidden money with his sense of scent, she became afraid and later got rid of him by apprenticing him to a tanner. Later in life, the orphanage owner loses all her money and dies in a disgraceful way that she was afraid of. Grenouille explores the city during his free time, and memorizes all the smells of Paris. He has no bias or preferences against scent and seeks out every smell and every variation of every smell that he can find. He seeks scents for the sake of knowing, and he had no purpose in gathering all the scents but to satisfy his greed for smells. Paris is unhealthy and dirty, with people and their filth cramped in the city's narrow medieval streets. One day, on a day when he had memorized nearly all the smells of the city, he is surprised by a smell quite unlike the dirty, coarse ones he is familiar with. Entranced, he traces it with his nose, and finds that the source of this scent is a young, virginal girl just passing puberty (14–15 years old), who is slicing plums. Grenouille's heart starts beating; it is the start of a passion, but Grenouille, who has never felt anything like love or affection before, does not know what it is. Unnoticed, he gets closer to her, to get a better smell of her scent. The girl feels that something is not right and turns, sees Grenouille, and freezes in terror. Grenouille wraps his hands around the petrified girl's throat and easily strangles her to death, his eyes closed in ecstasy. When she dies, he strips her, lays her down on the ground and smells her scent until it disappears from her body due to death. He does his best to remember every bit of her scent. This is the first time he felt a smell as being "good". In a happy daze, Grenouille returns to the tanner's shop where he sleeps. He decides that he must become a creator of scents, the greatest perfumer in the world, in order to create scents like the scent of the girl. He starts organizing the millions of scents he had gathered in his mental library into thousands of categories, such as fine, coarse, good, bad, fetid, and ambrosial.
In his quest to isolate and preserve scents, he becomes apprenticed to a once great perfumer, Baldini, and proves himself a talented pupil. His superior power to discern and dissect scents helps create wondrous perfumes and makes Baldini the most popular perfumer in Paris. However, Grenouille's ambitions are unmatched by technology: he cannot isolate the scent of inorganic materials, such as glass and iron, with the alembic that they use. At this shock, Grenouille falls ill with smallpox, presumably psychosomatically as a reaction to his body giving up on life as his quest can never be fulfilled. Yet Baldini has grown to cherish Grenouille for his skills and on his deathbed Baldini reveals to him that there are techniques other than distillation that can be used to preserve such odours. At this news, Grenouille miraculously recovers and resolves to journey to the city of Grasse, the home of the greatest perfumers, to continue his quest. After Grenouille leaves, great misfortune falls upon Baldini and his shop is destroyed, where he dies.
On his way to Grasse, Grenouille travels the countryside and discovers that he is disgusted with the scent of humanity. As he travels, he first avoids a city, then towns, then starts avoiding people that he can smell that are miles away. He reaches the Massif Central, and finds a haven where he is liberated from the smell of humans. In the morning he laps at a thin stream of water for a couple hours and eats whatever he can get, including moss. After that, he crawls into a long, deep shaft in the ground, as far as he can get, where he is shielded from all scent except for dirt, rock, and water. There he wedges himself against the stone and falls into a sort of meditation, first imagining himself as the creator of his world—Grenouille the Great—, "seeding" the world with seeds of scent. Later, tired from the act of creation, he retreats into a purple palace with a vast and grand library of scents inside his mind, served by scentless spectres who bring him "vials" of his favourite scents while reading a book of all the scents he had ever smelled. And every day before he falls asleep he is brought the scent memory vial of the plum-slicing girl, and gets drunk with its splendor before sleeping.
One day he wakes up from a nightmare, dreaming of being suffocated by a white fog. He knows that the white fog is his own odor, but he can't smell it. To shake off the confusion he examines his own scent for the first time. Going layer by layer from his surroundings and through his (now tattered) clothes and down to the grime and dirt he is covered in, he soon realizes that he has no scent at all. He is calm at this revelation, and squats in the dirt, simply nodding to himself. After a while, he dons his tattered clothing and leaves the mountain, after seven years of living there.
Grenouille journeys to Montpellier with a fabricated story about being kidnapped, kept in a cave, fed by a basket on a rope, and released after 7 years without having any contact with anyone at all during that time. He catches the eye of the amateur scientist, the Marquis de La Taillade-Espinasse, who uses Grenouille to test his thesis of the "so-called fluidum letale". It was a basic theory that the ground and objects from the ground release a slow poison that causes aging, and that being away from the ground and in high altitudes would counteract that poison. The Marquis combines a treatment of decontamination and revitalization for Grenouille, and subsequently Grenouille looks like a clean gentleman for the first time in his life. However, Grenouille understands after the treatment, when he looks into a mirror, that the fluidum letale has no merit to it, and that his appearance has power. Grenouille in turn tricks his way into the laboratory of a perfumier. There he creates a body odour for himself from ingredients including "cat shit", "cheese", and "vinegar", which imitates human odor. Previously, nobody would notice Grenouille due to his lack of scent, but his new "disguise" tricks people into thinking that it is the scent of a human, and he is accepted by society. This event tells Grenouille how foolish the other humans were, since they were fooled by a simple perfume that he had made, and turns his hate for them into contempt. He decides that he wants to become the God of the world by controlling the world with his perfume, as he had been God in the dreams he had while he was in the mountains. Grenouille runs away from Montpellier, whereas the Marquis wanted to keep Grenouille for his experiments and lectures. The Marquis later disappears after he climbed a tall mountain without gear and clothes in a blizzard to prove his theory of fluidum letale.
Finally moving to Grasse, Grenouille once again becomes intoxicated by the scent of a young girl transitioning through puberty to womanhood: Laure. He believes her scent to be greater than that of the plum-slicing girl, but he also believes that she is not quite mature and plans to wait two more years until he can capture her scent at its peak, when she is sexually mature and her scent is at its purest. From a perfumier's widow and a working journeyman in Grasse, Grenouille learns how to trap scent in oil, not just in water as he did with an alembic, and experiments with animals. He discovers that he has to kill the animals to get a scent that is not polluted with fear and feces. While contemplating the scent of Laure, he is struck by the thought that whatever perfume that he could make would eventually run out. He shakes in fear, then realizes that he has to mix Laure's scent with those of others to make the ultimate perfume; one which will polish the scent into an even greater perfume make him be worshipped as a god. He starts a chain of murders; silently killing 24 beautiful virgin girls that have just reached sexual maturity. The victims were always naked, shaved, and had their virginity intact, which scared the villagers.
Eventually, after two years of murders have passed, Laure's father pieces together the pattern of murders and realises that Laure, the most beautiful and beloved young woman in the city and just going through puberty, is most likely to be the next victim. He flees with Laure to hide and protect her, but Grenouille pursues them and kills Laure, capturing her scent.
Grenouille is apprehended soon after completing his perfume and sentenced to death. On the day of his execution, the intoxicating scent of Laure combined with the backdrop essences of the 24 virgins he murdered overwhelms all present, and instead of an execution the whole town is overwhelmed by a mix of divine reverence and carnal passion, erupting into a massive orgy. The journeyman that Grenouille worked under is accused instead, and he is executed.
Grenouille is pardoned for his crimes, blessed and revered, and Laure's father even wants to adopt him. Grenouille agrees, but has no desire to uphold his agreement. He had lived life in solitude, and found it unbearable. Likewise, he could not live among people. His only desire by then is to go to Paris to die.
In Paris, Grenouille approaches a group of low-life people—thieves, murderers, whores, etc. He is not wearing any scent, so they do not notice him. When they do notice Grenouille, it is when he sprinkles all of his perfume on himself. Overcome with a sudden carnal passion and love, even more so than the people of Grasse, they jump on him with the desire to keep him to themselves. Fighting for Grenouille, they draw knives and butcher him in 30 pieces, consuming his body. After the passion wears off, the people look around and feel slightly disgusted and embarrassed for having just eaten a human being, but they have an overwhelming internal sense of happiness. They are "uncommonly proud. For the first time they had done something out of Love." (quote)