Perfume (novel)  

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"In the eighteenth century, there lived a man in France who was among the most brilliant and heinous personalities, in an epoch not short of brilliant and heinous personalities."--Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (1985) by Patrick Süskind

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Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (1985) is an historical novel by German writer Patrick Süskind. The novel explores the sense of scent, and its relationship with the emotional meaning that scents may carry. Above all this is a story of identity, communication and the morality of the human spirit. In 2006 it was turned into a feature film by the same name .

In some editions, the cover of Perfume appropriates the painting of Antoine Watteau, Jupiter and Antiope, which depicts an image of a naked woman sleeping, serving as a symbol of fragrant seduction.


Plot introduction

An international bestseller, set in 18th century France, Perfume relates the story of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, "one of the most gifted and abominable personages in an era that knew no lack of gifted and abominable personages".

Born lacking a personal odour (a fact other people find disquieting) but endowed with an incomparable sense of smell, he apprentices himself to a perfumer and becomes obsessed with procuring the perfect scent that will make him fully human. In the process, he creates perfumes—presumably based on pheromones—that powerfully manipulate human emotions, murdering 25 girls to take their scent.

The book features detailed descriptions of the techniques of scent extraction such as maceration and enfleurage.

Characters (in order of appearance)

Grenouille's mother - Jean-Baptiste Grenouille was her fifth baby. She had claimed her first four were stillbirths or "semi-stillbirths". In her mid-twenties, with most of her teeth left, "some hair on her head", a touch of gout and syphilis, she was still quite pretty.

Jean-Baptiste Grenouille - Protagonist.

Jeanne Bussie - One of Grenouille's many wet-nurses. She was the first person to realize he had no scent. Claimed he was sucking all the life out of her.

Father Terrier - He was in charge of the church's charities, and the distribution of its money to the poor and needy. He first thought Grenouille was a cute baby, but once Grenouille began to sniff Terrier, the priest was highly disturbed and sent the baby to a boarding house.

Madame Gaillard - She had no sense of smell, so she didn't know that Grenouille had no scent. In charge of a boarding house, her goal in life was to save enough money to have a proper death and funeral. She sells Grenouille to Grimal after she grows suspicious of him who is able to locate her money (she asks him to locate it when she forgot her hiding place). Ironically, she loses all her money in old age, dies a miserable death, and is not even buried, but rather, thrown onto a heap with other bodies.

Children at the Boarding House - They were repulsed by Grenouille and even tried, in vain, to suffocate him with rags and blankets while Grenouille was asleep.

Grimal - A tanner who lived near the river in the rue de la Mortellerie. Grenouille works for him from age eight into his early youth until Baldini pays for him to be released.

The Plum Girl - Her natural scent was that of sea breeze, water lillies, and apricot blossoms; it was a rich, perfectly balanced and magical scent. She had red hair and wore a gray, sleeveless dress. She was halving plums when Grenouille killed her as his first victim.

Giuseppe Baldini - An old perfumer. Lacking a gift for it, he merely knows the art of perfumery. He owns a perfume shop filled with a strong amalgam of scents. The shop is so intoxicating that it scares away potential customers; Baldini is too dense to realize this fact. The shop is located in the middle of a bridge, the Pont-au-Change. He takes on Grenouille as an apprentice and becomes rich from the perfumes that Grenouille creates for him. He ends up giving Grenouille journeyman papers, which will help Grenouille in his future travels. After Grenouille leaves him, his house and warehouses plunge into the river below as the bridge crashes.

Chernier - Baldini's assistant. He is somewhat younger than Baldini. He knows Baldini is talentless, but still boasts Baldini's skills in hopes that one day he will inherit Baldini's perfume shop.

Pélissier - Never actually appears in novel. He is only talked about because he is considered the most innovative perfumer in Paris.

Taillade-Espinasse - Marquis, liege lord of a town of Pierrefort and a member of parliament, he is an amateur scientist who develops indulgent and ridiculous theses, which he supposedly demonstrates on Grenouille -- feeding him, providing him with new clothes, and giving him the opportunity to create a perfume.

Madame Arnulfi - A lively, black-haired woman of around thirty. She has been widowed for almost a year. She owns the perfume business of her dead husband and has a journeyman named Druot, who is also her lover. She hires Grenouille as her second journeyman.

Druot - Arnulfi's journeyman and lover. He is the size of a Hun and is not very smart.

Antoine Richis - Second consul and the richest man in Grasse, he is the father of Laure.

Laure Richis - The most beautiful girl in Grasse. Her odor is the fragrance of Grenouille's dreams and is central to his plans of creating a perfume that will make people love him.

Plot summary

His youth

Grenouille (French for "frog") begins life in a Parisian fish market, where his fishmonger mother gives birth to him among the stinking fish heads and scraps in one of the dirtiest places in all of Paris. She intends to dispose of his body along with the fish organs which surround his birthplace. However, her plans are thwarted when Grenouille expels a squeal so piercing that passers-by are alerted to his mother's plans and his life is saved, although his mother is sentenced to death because of her attempted infanticide. In his infanthood, Grenouille discovers his gift to isolate smells of every kind and preserve the scent in his memory, although the irony of this is that Grenouille himself has no personal scent or odour

Grenouille is passed from wet nurse to wet nurse, ostensibly because he drinks too much of their milk, preventing them from feeding any other children. However, the true reason for his being passed on from one nurse to another is his haunting lack of scent. "This does not smell how children ought to smell", stated nurse Jeanne Bussie, convinced that he was possessed by the devil. Grenouille begins to struggle with the concept of speech, particularly with the idea of ethical and moral words, which further isolates him from the rest of the human race. Eventually he develops the ability to speak, although he chooses not to; he is only able to associate words by their scent, his first word being "fishes". After being continually rejected by society due to his lack of odour, Grenouille finds himself in the care of Madame Gaillard, a woman who runs an orphanage for children, and who herself lost her sense of smell in childhood, so is unable to detect his lack of odour. Grenouille grows up in the orphanage unloved and malnourished. Grenouille, isolated and outcast by society, begins to develop a disgust for his fellow humans, and distinguishes himself by his uncanny sense of smell. Grenouille begins to collect the olfactory sensations that he experiences, preserving and cataloging these scents — both good and bad — in his mental library.

At the age of eight, Grenouille is sold by Madame Gaillard to a tanner. Grenouille survives this work which can be borne by none, with his innate tenacity and resilience which likens him to a 'tick'. After he finishes working at the tannery, Grenouille begins exploring the streets of Paris in search of new scents to add to his olfactory catalogue. One evening, he discovers the scent of something unknown to him, a scent so enticing he cannot help but follow it and discover its origin. He moves in and out of alleyways in search of this ungraspable scent until finally he finds it, a beautiful young girl. This is the first time in his life that Grenouille doubts his nose, for he cannot believe that such a perfect scent could come from such a member of the disgusting human race, which he has come to despise. With the intention to preserve this perfect scent he kills the girl, only to find that upon her death the beautiful scent dies as well, evaporating into the Parisian night sky. Tortured by the loss of this perfect scent, Grenouille dedicates his life to the purpose of finding this one perfect scent, and it is this greed which continues his survival.

One evening Grenouille is told by his master to deliver the tanner's skins to the famous perfumer Baldini. Grenouille sees this as a perfect opportunity to learn from a master perfumer the way to preserve smells and teach him the ways of creating scents. Baldini, with his own problems, initially rejects Grenouille when he asks for an apprenticeship, but eventually gives in and offers Grenouille the opportunity to become his apprentice. He is, then, astounded by Grenouille's ability to emulate the scents of perfumes in which Baldini could not, without the use of measurements or other techniques of a perfumer. After being taught the ways of Baldini, Grenouille is soon able to create new perfumes from all those scents placed before him, which makes Baldini the most popular perfumer in all Paris. Upon attempting to isolate the scent of objects such as iron and glass, Grenouille fails, which affects him greatly, leading him to fall ill with small pox. Grenouille then hears that there are other techniques besides distillation that can be used to isolate scents. Upon learning this news, Grenouille miraculously becomes healthy once more, and leaves Baldini to pursue these new perfume production techniques in the city of Grasse, heading out into the forest, and beginning his journey in search for the perfect scent.

His journey

Shortly after the departure of Grenouille, Baldini suffers a tragic death when his house is destroyed while he and his wife are still inside. Along his journey into the forest, Grenouille develops a greater disgust for the human race, finding himself repulsed by the scent of human existence and trying to avoid the scent of humankind wherever he goes. This eventually leads him to a cave atop a volcanic mountain, the Plomb du Cantal where human scent is most distant from his nose. For seven years he lives in the dark cave, where he becomes intoxicated with the smells which he preserves in his internal "palace of the smells". He dreams he is the master of a purple castle where he drinks bottles of odours.

He awakens, suddenly, one day, from a nightmare in which he is suffocating in a foggy vapour of his own body odor. After this dream he soon begins to realise that he himself possesses no personal scent, which truly alarms him. He calmly decides to head south and enters a town where he tells its inhabitants he had been held prisoner by robbers in a foxhole. An amateur scientist, the Marquis de La Taillade-Espinasse, decides to use Grenouille to test his thesis of the "so-called fluidium letale". La Taillade-Espinasse combines a treatment of decontamination and revitalization for Grenouille, and subsequently, Grenouille looks like a clean gentleman for the first time in his life. Grenouille tricks the marquis to allow him to use his laboratory, where Grenouille then creates a human body odour for himself. He mixes a concoction of "cat shit, cheese, and vinegar." Grenouille soon finds that upon creating his own scent, he is accepted by society. But Grenouille doesn't want acceptance, he wants to have power and be able to manipulate those within the world that disgust him so much.

Grenouille then leaves the town and makes his way to Grasse, because it is the centre of scents and perfume in the world. He quickly catches the scent of the girl in Paris who he had desired so much and had killed. Only this time, it is a different red-headed girl (Laure). Realizing she has not fully "ripened," Grenouille decides to wait two years to come back to steal her scent from her. Then he begins an apprenticeship with the widow perfumer, Madame Arnulfi and her journeyman lover, Druot. Grenouille finally learns the most refined procedures in the production of perfume. He discovers how to capture the scent of anything from metals to rats and cats.

After some time, there is an air of terror in the town. A murderer has been on the loose killing the town's most beautiful girls, even in their houses, leaving them naked with all their hair cut off. Grenouille is the culprit, for he is capturing the fragrance of young virgin girls to form the base of the perfume he intends to make from Laure's scent. Twenty four murders later, a rich businessman, Antoine Richis, sees the pattern and realises that his beautiful daughter Laure is to be the next victim of the murderer. Antoine flees the town with his daughter Laure, but Grenouille soon catches their scent and follows them. Finally he kills Laure in an inn, and captures her scent just like the other twenty four girls.

His end

Grenouille is eventually identified as the murderer on the basis of witnesses' statements. Upon his day of execution, thousands wait tensely for the spectacle. However, when Grenouille appears, he is surprisingly confronted with the love of all present and is revered, rather than hated, in contrast to the previous day in which the people wanted to see him dead. The whole town becomes one large orgy, due to the perfume made from the women's smells, which surrounds him like a divine aura.

Grenouille is pardoned for his crimes, and Richis even wants to adopt him. But the experience of the power has dissatisfied Grenouille, because it is not him that is loved, but the perfume which he created. He decides to return to Paris upon finding that the satisfaction that he initially felt has transformed itself into hatred and disgust. In Paris, Grenouille approaches a group of low-life people (thieves, murderers, whores, etc) that accepts him. He deliberately douses himself with the perfume he created, while among the group. The effect is so overpowering that they want to hold him as an angel and own a piece of him, at which point they tear him to pieces in a frenzy and eat his remains. They are all proud of eating him, and feel they killed and ate him out of love.


  • A film adaptation, "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer", co-written and directed by Tom Tykwer, (who also composed the film score), was premiered in Germany on 14 September 2006. Because the music was begun at the same time as the writing of the screenplay, initial versions of the music were available quite early in production, allowing the nearly unprecedented ability of playing the soundtrack on-set during filming of the movie.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Perfume (novel)" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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