Perfume by Patrick Suskind is a novel that explores the issue of alienation and the effects that it can have on a person. The main character Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is an alien from the moment he is born. He is abandoned by his mother, his surrogate mother, and the church. Everyone involved with the baby feel that something is odd and terrifying about him, mostly as he has no smell. Father Terrier pushes the child away from the church as he feels uncomfortable by the child’s ability to smell right through him. Although smell is a primary sense in humans, the general reliance is on how things look. If the young Grenouille could indeed smell Father Terrier and all of mankind to the core, he could see past the outward disguises that people use to shield their inner selves. This made Grenouille powerful, but alienated due to fear. This is exemplified during his stay with Madame Gaillard. “They could not stand the nonsmell of him. They were afraid of him” (23). Even at their young age, the other children at the House of Gaillard felt that something about Grenouille was different and wrong. Even if they could not exactly identify it. A major part of the alienation is due to his lack of a scent. Suskind associates the lack of scent with a lack of soul. Without a smell to associate with him he goes by unnoticed in large group settings, like a demon would float by unexposed
Suskind goes on to explain how this changes once Grenouille concocts a “human” smell for himself and walks the streets of Montpellier. He is now noticed by people in the streets, not in an extraordinary way, but rather the normal glance and recognition as a fellow human being. Suskind describes how important the sense of smell is, even though the majority of people do not always realize they are using and evaluating things with it. Grenouille also survived the usually fatal eighteenth century illnesses of Anthrax, syphilitic smallpox, and festering measles. This only furthered the opinion that he had some relationship with the devil.
The lack of a scent that causes Grenouille to be alienated by most of mankind has effects on Grenouille despite his seemingly cold emotional state. Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is happy to be by himself. Grenouille knows “all the odors in the world” (73). He can use his great sense of smell to recreate events, places, and people in his mind. He sees no need to constantly stimulate himself through visual activities; as the majority of people do. Grenouille can be overwhelmed however, on more than one occasion he is literally brought to his knees by a scent. In each case it is the smell of young red haired girls. His lack of a moral upbringing allows him to unremorsefully strangle the first red haired girl in Paris. Grenouille has captured the scent of the girl for himself; the fact that she is now physically dead is lost on Grenouille as to him, she lives through her smell.
Grenouille eventually becomes overwhelmed by the smell of mankind. The scent of man is “poisoning the natural world” (118) according to Grenouille. This is by both their foul smelling sweat and odor, but also though actions he sees as a world full of debaucheries. The man who had been alienated his entire life, even by those like Baldini who gained great wealth through Grenouille’s skill, now turns to self imposed alienation. Rather than strive to be accepted, his contempt for man increases and he takes refuge from humans and their smells in a mountain cave. This self imposed exile allows Grenouille to live through his olfactory sense, recreating the events of his life. During this time his contempt for mankind turns to an ambition to rule mankind through smell. Grenouille knows that the right sense could bring people to their knees, just as the red haired girl had done to him. Despite his lack of knowledge about god and higher powers, he aims to become a god by manipulating people without them understanding how. This plan takes shape once he leaves the cave and is paraded as a miracle of “fluidum letale” (140). Suskind uses language in Perfume to show how easily the human race can be manipulated by their senses. Even the scientific community of Montpellier is fooled by makeup and perfume. Buoyed by this victory over human senses Grenouille moves on to Grasse, the perfume capital of France to learn additional techniques to create exquisite scents.
The irony throughout the novel continues during his time in Grasse. Although Grenouille is considered emotionless, possibly evil and has great contempt towards people, the techniques he learns in order to create his “controlling” perfume are taught to him by man. The creation of the perfume only takes place once Grenouille is taught the cold transfer method of scents to oils. Once he has taken Laure Richis’ scent, and her life with it, Grenouille is rather laidback as he waits for his inevitable arrest. Rather than attempt to draw himself to the masses, his execution will bring the masses to him. During the viewing of Grenouille in his cell, the people can not fathom that this odd little man could be a cold murderer.
The alienation he had suffered throughout his life was now working in reverse. The people that had identified him as evil and emotionless can no longer accept the fact that someone as plain and seemingly ordinary as Grenouille could have committed these violent crimes. On the execution field though, Grenouille shows that he is an alien being capable of more than humans. His intoxicating perfume made from the scent of adolescent girls is enough to overpower the minds of the people present. They partake in mass sexual acts that could only have been conduced by a higher power. Grenouille with his alien olfactory sense is able to ignore the perfumes lure.
During the events on the field Grenouille suffers his greatest moment of hatred towards men. As he yearns to be put out of the misery he endures for the crime of having no scent and therefore no soul, Monsieur Richis charges towards him. Grenouille is excited as he waits for the father of murdered Laure to stab him through the chest. Much to his dismay, Richis falls into his arms in embrace. Despite the rage, hatred, and hurt he should be feeling, Richis like all humans subjected to Grenouille’s perfect perfume is overcome and ruled by their senses. Grenouille only has own route left out of the world of humans he despises. He pours the entire bottle of perfume over his head. Such is the allure to the scent he is ripped to pieces and eaten. Even in death he is alienated and not seen as human, as he is eaten like livestock.
Suskind, Peter. “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer”. Penguin Books, 1985.