Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer Themes

Black humor

Only a darkly ironic person would baptize an infant whose mother had been decapitated with the name of Saint John the Baptist (who also was decapitated). Perfume is infused with such multi-leveled black humor. It is true that Jean-Baptiste was a common name at this time, but the irony of little Grenouille having to bear in his name his mother's shame for his entire life goes beyond situational, transient humor into the realm of cruelty, with the sins of one's mother constantly revisited on the son.

The ridiculous demises of almost all the people who touch Grenouille's life (Madame Gaillard, Grimal the tanner, Baldini, Druot, etc.) are meant to be funny, too, and in many cases the deaths are particularly apt. That Grimal, the drowner of Grenouille''s humanity, drowns in the Seine, and Baldini, smugly asleep in his bed in the house on the ritzy Pont-au-Change, is done to death by his own haughty address, are somewhat fitting ends for these less than perfect people. The apogee of black humor, however is saved for the end of the marquis de La Taillade-Espinasse, who walks to the top of a mountain in a snowstorm, lightly clothed and raving about fluidum vitale. Süskind perhaps most of all shows with this humor the deadly effects of hubris.

Emotionally or mentally inadequate people

Madame Gaillard, who was brain-damaged by a blow from her father in her childhood, is entirely incapable of emotion. She is also unable to smell anything, so Grenouille's lack of personal scent does not bother her. Thus she raised him for years, and with her as a role model, Grenouille did not have much chance to learn to feel regard for human beings or to have a normal emotional development. Already hampered by the horrors of his birth, his strange fascination with his sense of smell, and his regrettable looks, he was not cared for with any kind of love or affection. His basic needs were taken care of (as if he were a domestic animal), and Madame Gaillard gave him away as an apprentice to Grimal as soon as the parish stopped paying his room and board. Thus, Grenouille was never taught that he was a valuable human being, and therefore his psychotic tendencies were magnified.

Grimal the tanner also treats Grenouille no better than a domestic animal. The tanner locks Grenouille in a closet to make sure that he doesn't run away. While Grimal does not actively try to hurt Grenouille, he does not treat him much like a human being either. The tanner also seems to feel no regret over how he treats Grenouille, even after Grenouille shows himself to be a good worker and survives anthrax. When Baldini is willing to take him off of Grimal's hands (for a good price), Grimal can't wait to get rid of Grenouille.

Baldini, too, has serious character deficiencies, though he certainly is kinder than either Madame Gaillard or Grimal. Baldini treats Grenouille only as a source for perfume invention, and he feels extremely uncomfortable in the presence of the young man, yet he is too concerned with appearances to treat Grenouille cruelly.

Yet another mentally limited character is the Marquis, whose ridiculous theories about fluidum vitale reduce every human consequence to invisible vapors. This man, whose intellectual arrogance keeps him out of touch with reality, treats Grenouille as a proof of his theories. Surrounded by people with deficiencies and socially deficient himself, Grenouille learns that the only reason anyone will notice him is that they think they can get something from him.

Hatred of humanity

Grenouille's hatred of humanity, while not surprising (considering his upbringing and early adulthood), is so complete that he retreats to the farthest point he can to get away from the smell of human beings. This takes the form of a seven-year hermitage on the top of a volcano in the Massif Centrale in what amounts to solitary confinement. He retreats so far into himself that the only thing that matters to him is his own very pathological fantasy life. To call this a hatred of humanity is an understatement; Grenouille tries to be the only person in his world. Once Grenouille has concocted his ultimate scent, which is the scent that inspires love from all other human beings, Grenouille finds that he has no use for this love. It doesn't fulfill him. Since he has no more "(scent) worlds to conquer"--as Alexander the Great was said to weep when there were no more countries for him to conquer and add to his empire--Grenouille is ready to die. Nothing in this world other than the pursuit of scent has any attraction for him; no human being holds any interest or love for him (or he for any of them other than scents to collect), so he decides to die. His final rejection of humanity and life goes beyond a hatred for human beings and extends to himself. Grenouille is perhaps the perfect misanthrope.

Grenouille as agent of death

It is not only the murdered victims who suffer at Grenouille's hands; the main actors in Grenouille's life tend to come to bitter or sticky ends, and the novelist usually tells the reader of those ends just as that actor is leaving Grenouille's life. Madame Gaillard, who raised Grenouille adequately to the age of eight but gave him no love or affection of any kind (because she was incapable of it), dies in complete indignity in a public hospital, which was her greatest fear. Grimal, the tanner, who had treated Grenouille abominably by making him do very hard labor and locking him in a closet to sleep, died on the night he "sold" Grenouille's apprenticeship to Baldini. The science-obsessed Marquis, after Grenouille leaves him, decides to go to and sit at the top of a 9,000-foot peak for three weeks to prove his fluidum vitale theories, and also to return himself to the age of twenty--leaving his companions in a blizzard, never to be found and most likely to die from exposure. Baldini the perfumer, too, dies when his house falls into the river after the bridge collapses, the very night after Grenouille leaves him.

This trope suggests that Grenouille carries a curse. He is practically inhuman and almost a demon, scentless, unloved, and friendless. It is true that he gives to the world his marvelous perfumes, the one kind of blessing he can ably bestow. Everything else he touches withers or dies. Grenouille, a truly person without sympathy for or from anyone beyond his childhood, is a profound force of death and destruction.

Children as subhuman

Several times in the novel, children are referred to as subhuman, almost human, or not quite human. This notion, allegedly espoused by the Church at the time (Father Terrier mentions it to Jeanne Bussie), seems to have its roots in the idea that very young children do not have free will--particularly in choosing to obey or disobey God. It was not only that children did not have the rights of adults and adults thus had responsibilities toward them. Although children were protected by law from being murdered (such as Grenouille's escape from infanticide), and they were provided for up to a point by the state and the church (in establishments like Madame Gaillard's), they were not considered full human beings like adults were. This lower view of children can be seen in the treatment of apprentices, who were children as young as eight (or younger) used in a fashion similar to domestic animals.

Another reason for treating children as less than human was the likelihood of death in infancy or childhood during the Ancien Regime. It may have seemed unwise to invest too heavily in beings who were so likely to die quickly. Orphans like Grenouille were the most extreme example of so-called subhuman children, since they had no family to love them. This rejection of what one might call equal rights for children, held by many people around Grenouille in his childhood, undoubtedly contributed to his later psychosis.

Theory of the sovereignty of scent

This novel takes as a premise that scent controls a large portion of human behavior, usually on an unconscious level. It is important to note this premise, for the entire internal plot (but not necessarily the external plot of Grenouille's social actions) turns on this idea. It is not only his supernatural sense of smell that is the focus of Grenouille's life, but the idea that humans' scents are integral to their humanity. Grenouille is subhuman, both in his own mind and, at least unconsciously, in the minds of others, because he has no personal odor. When he discovers this personal characteristic in his hideout in the Massif Centrale, he is shocked and somewhat horrified. He has never met another human being with no smell; that he cannot smell himself, despite his marvelous nose, seems monstrous to him--demonstrating why he seems monstrous to everyone else.

A corollary to the premise that scent is nearly tyrannical--determining a great deal of how people treat each other--is that adolescent girls have the best scents. This idea is further refined with the perception that beautiful girls have better scents than other girls, and with those of the red-haired type having the finest. It is also maintained that these teenage female scents are appealing to everyone, not simply heterosexual males. This last idea is perhaps the most fantastical notion of all. It creates the possibility of the ending, in which Grenouille, drenched with the scents of the dead girls, becomes so appealing that the Paris mob eats him.

Seeing others' lives as mere snippets

The tiny chapter divisions break the plot into very small pieces, reminiscent of some of Thomas Mann's works. This is perhaps the most striking formal feature of this novel. These small chapters often, but not always, follow the plot of the vignettes that comprise the novel as a whole. That they are so short implies that the people described therein are trivial. In some cases, they are treated in a short vignette and then never referred to again in the book (such as the story of Jeanne Bussie). These little snippets of life serve several purposes, one of which is to poke fun at the mostly pompous, self-important, or woefully inadequate characters who populate this book.

The snippets also reinforce Grenouille's egoism. Nothing which does not concern Grenouille, and the gratification of his sense of smell, matters to him. Therefore, the situations of the people around him are not explained fully, for they matter only in how they affect Grenouille's life. For many, only their scent and their beauty matter. That the story of the sorry demise of the larger actors in Grenouille's life (especially the cruel or ridiculous, such as the story of Grimal's death, besides Madame Gaillard and the Marquis) are related, after Grenouille has left their lives for good, only enforces this feeling of egoism.

It is a subtle device used by a good writer, but it also mimics many of our own interactions in real life. Many people play only bit parts in our lives, and we never know them fully or inquire into the story of their lives. The small chapter divisions with the presence and treatment of these "bit players" simulates this phenomenon.

Grenouille ultimately brings no good to anyone, and he is the primary actor of the story. After he has passed out of a life which he has touched, that life generally ends horribly, or at least in despair. This, also, serves to distance the reader from the other characters in the novel (and, somewhat with disgust, to draw us more toward Grenouille). We cannot imagine the other characters going on to live prosperous lives; the evil Grenouille destroys all he touches. He therefore commands all our attention and, if not our sympathy, then our fascination.