Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer Summary and Analysis of Chapters 16-22

In Chapter 16, Baldini goes directly to Grimal the tanner and pays for the goat leather without any of his usual haggling. The perfumer then invites Grimal to the tavern the Tour d'Argent to drink a bottle of white wine and to discuss the sale of Grimal's apprentice, Grenouille. Baldini gives Grimal the huge sum of twenty livres for the apprenticeship of Grenouille, and Grimal takes it and is "convinced that he had just made the best deal of his life" (87). The two men go back to the tannery, where Grenouille is waiting and ready to go, and Grenouille goes back to the Pont-au-Change with his new master, Baldini.

Grimal meets his end soon after this transaction, taking his windfall to the taverns and getting himself so exceedingly drunk that he mistakes his route and falls into the Seine and drowns. Poetically, he floats under the Pont-au-Change just as Grenouille is settling into his new position as apprentice in the House of Baldini.

That House now experiences a meteoric rise because of Grenouille's improvement on Amor and Psyche, a scent Baldini markets under the name Nuit Napolitaine. Immediately upon its release the noble populace of Paris beats a path to Baldini's shop, and eighty flacons of the new scent are sold the next day. Baldini spends all his time in the laboratory with Grenouille, whom he calls his "unskilled helper" (89), and Chenier is obliged to handle the deluge of customers in the shop.

Not only does Grenouille produce Nuit Napolitaine, but he also creates more and better, totally new scents. The scents are put into crémes, powders, and other products, and Baldini even introduces scented hair ribbons. All are wildly successful, and no one, not even Chenier, believes that Grenouille, "this cipher of a man might be implicated in the fabulous blossoming of their business" (90).

As Grenouille creates new scents, Baldini does not allow him to create them "freehand," that is, without measuring and recording, though Grenouille can get exactly what he wants by simply measuring "by nose." Baldini records everything that Grenouille comes up with, eventually creating a great library of new and wonderful scents that he can make even if Grenouille is not with him. Eventually Grenouille is forced to do his work in the perfumer's traditional way--and even to write out new formulas before mixing them for the first time. This removes much of the fear of Grenouille’s gift on Baldini’s part. Baldini then moves on to teaching Grenouille how to create the essences which go into perfumes, for Grenouille has none of this knowledge yet.

Grenouille is particularly interested in learning how to make tinctures, extracts, and essences from various plants. This interests Grenouille because it means that he can distill odors into stable essences. During these sessions of distillation, Baldini talks absently to Grenouille about his past. Grenouille doesn't listen to him, because he is completely fascinated with the possibilities that the process of distillation has opened for him. Given leisure at night to do distillation, he tries to distill everything. Certain things, such as glass, brass, porcelain, leather, grain and gravel, do not distill well or at all. Grenouille has not understood that the distillation process is meant only for plants with essential oils to be separated from the rest of the plant; for substances that do not have this oil, distillation is completely useless. This mistake causes him to become extremely ill.

Baldini is thrown into a panic, for Grenouille has contracted syphilitic smallpox with festering measles, from which the doctor says that he will surely die. Baldini had had the most grandiose plans for his business, including a small factory, an export business, and personalized scents for royalty and members of the nobility. Baldini tries to extract new formulas for scents from the dying Grenouille, but the sick man says nothing. Finally, on the point of death, Grenouille asks, "Tell me, maitre, are there other ways to extract the scent from things besides pressing and distilling?" (104). The shocked Baldini answers that there are three ways: enfleurage a chaud, enfleurage a froid, and enfleurage a l'huile, which are the most superior methods, and are used for the best of all scents: jasmine, rose, and orange blossom. Grenouille wants to know where this sort of distillation is done, and Baldini tells him that it is notable in the south of France, in the town of Grasse. This heartens and revives Grenouille to such an extent that he revives and, incredibly, recovers.

Baldini make Grenouille stay with him a time longer, although the man wants to leave immediately for Grasse. When he does go, he is made to swear that he will never make perfumes in Paris, nor will he live in that city again. Grenouille agrees gladly and, leaving Baldini with a book chock-full of new and wonderful formulas for scents, leaves Paris to make his way to Grasse.

He is now a journeyman perfumer, able to work elsewhere. Baldini, who has kindly provisioned him for his journey, is nevertheless profoundly glad that he is gone. That very night, Baldini's house falls into the Seine, killing him and taking everything, including the formulas, into the water, never to be seen again.


That apprentices were still "sold" at this time shows that the old medieval system of virtual slavery of apprentices was not yet gone. The Middle Ages were a time of serfdom and various other kinds of forced and confined labor and slavery under many guises. Though the Middle Ages, and even the Renaissance, were long over, certain institutions were still in place which valued human beings only by the amount or kind of labor that they could produce; serfdom had been that sort of institution, and the apprentice system in the eighteenth century was similar, though it was under the guise of a training and employment program for children and young men.

While the apprentice system did give people the necessary skills to learn a trade, it also profited the master tradesmen by giving them captive, unpaid labor. It was a system which denied the apprentice any kind of freedom until his master, or the guild, decided he was skilled enough in the trade and had provided enough unpaid (or very poorly paid) labor to become a journeyman. It was not a system which engendered personal freedom or creativity of any kind, though it did give skills of a complex and marketable nature to people who would otherwise be unable to attain them.

In what has become typical Süskindian fashion, the author tells the rather darkly hilarious tale of the demise of Grimal immediately after he sells the rights to Grenouille's apprenticeship to Baldini. The pattern has emerged in the novel that, while Grenouille seems at first to confer good fortune, or at least a lack of bad fortune, on the person who comes in contact with him, in the end the person who knows Grenouille comes to a bad end. The people who have known Grenouille intimately have all had this occur to them: Madame Gaillard had the ignominious death that she most dreaded (although that could be blamed on the changing economy and the French Revolution) even though Grenouille had been an uncomplaining orphan who had lived on the most meager food without complaint; Grimal, who had in Grenouille an uncomplaining and anthrax-immune worker, only outlives the stint Grenouille lived with him by a few hours; and soon enough Baldini and, then, the marquis de la Taillard-Espinasse, come to their similar fates.

In this pattern, it could be argued, Grenouille is like pure and unadulterated evil. No matter what short-term gains appear to result from it, the end is always horrible once evil is brought into a person's life. This reinforces Grenouille's otherness or the sense in which he is a curse. His psychopathic inhumanity makes him abominable. Grenouille is like a toxic or radioactive substance; like a chemical or nuclear weapon, he is an expedient solution to a problem that is likely to bring woe to his handler. Although the sad fate of the others is not always immediate, it is clear that Grenouille leaves a swath of destruction behind him wherever he goes.

Grenouille's gift, which is so terrifying and bewildering to Baldini, is the kind of wild talent which seems to cause evil while simultaneously causing good. Grenouille has been abnormal from the beginning--born unwanted, nearly murdered, then neglected and overworked his entire childhood—and now proves his gift, which he has privately honed and refined to such a degree that no "normal" person could have it. Grenouille lives only for scents, and he is not a craftsman or an inventive genius so much as a magical prodigy. This kind of profligacy of talent, unchecked by a wider education and undiluted by personality, it seems, cannot function properly in this world. It perverts its vessel, Grenouille, into such a monstrosity that, while he can make the most beautiful scents on earth, can do no other good but brings only evil. The implication, of course, is that such human beings do not belong to the regular word. Thus, perhaps, we see a vision here of the romantic artist, whose extreme talent seems to be an aberration rather than a cause for celebration of human ability.