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Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is a 1985 literary historical cross-genre novel (originally published in German as Das Parfum) by German writer Patrick Süskind. The novel explores the sense of smell, 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 directed by Tom Tykwer and starring Ben Whishaw, Dustin Hoffman, Rachel Hurd Wood and Alan Rickman.

Some editions of Perfume have as their cover image Antoine Watteau's painting Jupiter and Antiope, which depicts a nude woman sleeping.

Plot introduction

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, as well referencing the Seven Years' War and processes such as tanning.

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", and a touch of gout, syphilis and consumption (tuberculosis), she was still quite pretty.

Jean-Baptiste Grenouille – Protagonist. Born July 17, 1738.

Jeanne Bussie – One of Grenouille's many wet-nurses. She is the first person to realize he has no scent, and claims he is sucking all the life out of her.

Father Terrier – He is in charge of the church's charities, and the distribution of its money to the poor and needy. He first thinks Grenouille is a cute baby, but once Grenouille begins to sniff Terrier, the priest is highly disturbed and sends the baby to a boarding house.

Madame Gaillard – She has no sense of smell, due to being hit across the face with a poker in her younger years, so she doesn't know that Grenouille has no scent. In charge of a boarding house, her goal in life is to save enough money to have a proper death and funeral. She sells Grenouille to Grimal after she grows suspicious of him, as he is able to locate her money (she asks him to locate it when she forgot her hiding place). Her poor sense of smell and ignorance about Grenouille's gifts caused he to believe the madame thought he was taking notice where she placed her money, and feared that he would steal it. Ironically, she loses all her money in old age, dies a miserable death in the Hôtel Dieu (Hotel of God), and is not even buried after her death, but rather thrown into a mass grave.

Children at the Boarding House – They are repulsed by Grenouille and even try, in vain, to suffocate him with rags and blankets while Grenouille is asleep.

Grimal – A tanner who lives 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. With this immense new income of money, he wastes it on alcohol in one go, allowing his drunkenness to cause him to fall in to a river and die.

The Plum Girl – Her natural scent is that of sea breeze, water lillies, and apricot blossoms; it is a rich, perfectly balanced and magical scent. She has red hair and wears a gray, sleeveless dress. She is halving plums when Grenouille kills 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 finally collapses.

Chénier – 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, despite not having any formal training.

Taillade-Espinasse – Marquis, liege lord of a town of Pierrefort and a member of parliament, is an amateur scientist who develops indulgent and ridiculous theses (fluidal theory), which he supposedly demonstrates on Grenouille—feeding him, providing him with new clothes, and giving him the opportunity to create a perfume. The Marquis dies soon after Grenouille's "disappearance" while pursuing his fluidal theory by attempting to live alone on a secluded mountain.

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.

Dominique Druot – Arnulfi's journeyman and lover. He is the size of a Hun and is of average intelligence. Grenouille works under him as second journeyman. Druot is later hanged for Grenouille's crimes.

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

Laure Richis – A beautiful red-headed girl, daughter of Antoine Richis. Her scent 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

Grenouille (French for "frog") is an unwanted Parisian orphan who, having no personal scent, is rejected by others because they are disturbed by his lack of odor. He has an extraordinary power to discern odours, and comes to loathe the scent of other people. He becomes apprenticed to a tanner at the age of eight, and after work explores the city. One day he smells a divine scent and follows it, and is shocked to find that the source of this beautiful scent is a young woman. He kills her to get a better smell of her scent, but after death the scent ceases. He dedicates his life to preserve this perfect scent.

In his quest to isolate and preserve scents, he becomes apprenticed to a great perfumier, Baldini, and proves a talented pupil, making Baldini the most popular perfumier in Paris. But Baldini cannot teach him how to isolate the scent of glass and iron. Grenouille falls ill with small pox but, on discovering that techniques other than distillation can be used to preserve such odours, he miraculously recovers and resolves to journey to the city of Grassemarker to further his quest.

On his way to Grasse, Grenouille becomes so disgusted by the scent of humanity that he spends seven years in a cave on top of the Massif Centralmarker. One day he wakes with a start from a nightmare of being suffocated by his own body odour, and realises with a shock that he has no personal scent at all.

Grenouille journeys to Montpelliermarker where an amateur scientist, the Marquis de La Taillade-Espinasse, uses Grenouille to test his thesis of the "so-called fluidium letale". The Marquis 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 in turn tricks his way into the laboratory of a famous perfumier. There he creates a body odour for himself from ingredients including "cat shit," "cheese," and "vinegar", whereupon he is accepted by society.

Moving to Grasse, Grenouille once again becomes intoxicated by the scent of a young woman, Laure. He decides that she is not quite mature and resolves to kill her in two years time. Meanwhile he embarks on a career of serial murder of beautiful virgins to form a base for the scent he will make from Laure, while at the same time refining his powers until he can preserve any smell.

Eventually Laure's father pieces together the pattern of murders and realises that Laure is to be the next victim. He flees with Laure but Grenouille pursues them and kills Laure, capturing her scent.

He is eventually apprehended and sentenced to death, but on the day of his execution the intoxicating scent of Laure combined with the backdrop essences of the twenty-four virgins he murdered, overwhelms all present, and instead of an execution the whole town becomes a massive orgy.

Grenouille is pardoned for his crimes, and Laure's father even wants to adopt him. But the experience of the power has dissatisfied Grenouille, because he is not loved for himself, but for the perfume which he created. He realises that he had always found gratification 'in hatred, in hating and being hated', not love. 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), who do not notice him approaching. He deliberately douses himself with the perfume he created, while among the group. Overcome with desire, they tear him to pieces and devour the remains. They feel slightly disgusted having just eaten a human being, but they feel overwhelmed with happiness. They are "uncommonly proud. For the first time they had done something out of Love." - "Love" is deliberately capitalized which is open to interpretation.

A repeated error or anachronism in the book is the use of eucalyptus as a perfume ingredient, as eucalyptus was unknown in Europe until after 1770.

Symbols

Stench

Stench stands for the soul of people and who they really are. Patrick Süskind describes the “odor of humanity” as “a sweaty-oily, sour-cheesy, quite richly repulsive” mixture. The connotation of “humanity” implies that it isn’t just human individuals that smell rank, but the race of humans, their human nature and disposition, internal and external, and to have such disgusting and “repulsive” scents describing humanity as a whole implies that human nature is imperfect, disgusting, and sinful. Also, the fact that other humans cannot smell each other’s scents implies that it takes a supernatural being (in this case, Grenouille) to see through their sinful nature, since the humans are desensitized and so engulfed in it.

Perfume

Perfume stands for the mask of perfection, or holiness, to cover up for sinful human nature. The “fashionable artificial odors” act as a “disguise” to hide human scent. Perfume is supposed to smell good, cover up bad scent, and attract people. The bad scent is the sin of humanity, and the good smell is humanity wanting to appear as holy. All the girls that Grenouille kills are very young and beautiful, and their scents are “fatally wonderful.” The connotation associated with youth is innocence, and innocence is also a characteristic of a non-sinful, angelic being, so the perfume stands for godliness and righteousness. Grenouille wants to harness this wonderful scent so he can appear angelic, and people will love him.

Grenouille

Grenouille seems to be an anti-Christ like character. He is described as both good and evil. First, he tempts Giuseppe Baldini to be an apprentice in his shop. Grenouille “hissed out in a reptile fashion” that he wants to work for him, shows him a sample of his superb abilities of mixing perfume, and Baldini watches, “quite simply curious.” Grenouille then “conquered the man [Baldini] who had yielded to him.” This shows that Grenouille is the devil, the serpent, tempting Adam and Eve (in this case, Baldini). On the contrary, he is also described as a Christ figure when he retreats to the secluded cave in the mountain, and his diction resembles God’s. He says that “[t]his [earth] was his empire…created and ruled over by him” and “he saw that it was good and that the whole earth was saturated with his divine Grenouille seeds.”

Adaptations




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