Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer Social Change in Pre-Revolutionary France

Baldini, the perfumer, greatly laments the changing of the old order to the newer, more modern laws and customs of mid-18th-century France. What is the old man complaining about? This era, called the Bourgeois Liberal Revolution, saw some great social change in France. The most significant change involved the rise of the middle class, a largely un-landed, urban, skilled middle class who created the majority of the wealth of the country. This group, historically small and undervalued, came to be the most important and powerful group in France. It is important to note that this did not mean that the old classes had changed or fallen away; they endured, but the power of other classes diminished in relation to the power of the rising bourgeoisie.

The France that Grenouille was born into in 1738 was still recognizable as the France of the Renaissance. But by the time Grenouille was an adult, the bourgeoisie had grown to essentially control the internal government of the country through a large and very effective bureaucracy. An example of this in the novel is the treatment of Grenouille and his mother immediately after his birth. There were specific, enforceable laws against infanticide (a crime notoriously under-prosecuted throughout human history, and in some societies ignored), and the justice for Grenouille's mother was swift and specific. She intended to take a life via neglect, allowing a life to expire. In retribution, her life was taken from her. The apparatus of the church was there to receive Grenouille, and there was a precedent for what was to be done with him, at least for a time. The social order of the urban middle class was maintained by the legal system and the church. Since the urban middle class, through taxes, was supporting both of these systems, the sensibilities of this class prevailed in their policies.

The liberal revolution, which involved "people reading books, even women" (57), as Baldini laments, was also a revolution of education. General education for all but the very poorest classes had been steadily growing, and the popular study of philosophy, science, theology, and politics had come into vogue for the wealthy classes. The Enlightenment, an extraordinary period of scientific and philosophical achievement, had begun, and many of its greatest lights came from or lived in Paris. The city was more intellectual than it ever had been before, and the average middle-class person also had more access to wealth and knowledge than ever before.

Why, then, did Grenouille, a loathsome and irredeemable murderer, manage to flourish for so long in this society? The same urban, sophisticated, somewhat jaded society which had protected him from harm in his youth now made no provision for him if he was unable to fit into its economic engine. Like the situation of a Dickens orphan, however, the folk values of village life (which generally provided a sort of safety net for orphans and unwanted children) were not present in Paris, but they had been replaced by a bureaucracy that permitted guild masters to take children in. The Enlightenment had provided enough humanity in political thought to discourage infanticide, but the concept of supporting a caring community life for children was still beyond this society's means or abilities. Fortunately, Paris became able to support Grenouille once his talents were found useful. There was enough demand (and middle-class money) for fashion to support Grenouille's deluge of masterful perfumes.

Urban life, meanwhile, provided no reason for society to care much about Grenouille, a mere tanner's apprentice. Though the guild was able to give Grenouille his journeyman's papers (which thus gave him some freedom), he was not able to take the credit for his own creations. This kind of limitation of humanity, within the incomplete development of the period’s humanism, is part of the reason Grenouille became as perverse as he did. At no time, no one appreciated Grenouille for himself as a human being. This had in some ways been his lot as an orphan, and it now was partly a function of the huge, revving engine of the Bourgeois Liberal Revolution, which tended to treat human beings with less humanity in general.

Much of the old order had been superseded, the consequences of which actually gave Grenouille his life and his start as a perfumer, yet the old social networks which protected people had not been replaced in urban life. Adults were on their own, enjoying the risks as well as the rewards of relative freedom. Grenouille, it could be argued, would not have been the same person had he been born in a different time; the years before the Revolution in France were just perfume-crazy enough--and just pitiless enough--to let a person like Grenouille slip through the cracks and develop his strange ways on his own. Thus, the author likely chose his setting well.