Perfume Summary

Patrick Süskind


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Perfume Summary

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Perfume, a novel by Patrick Süskind (1985), tells the story of a man with a gifted nose and the way that scent plays into our obsessions and emotions. It is a horror story and a mystery.

Grenouille, born in Paris in 1783, is abandoned by his mother behind a fish stall. He is saved by onlookers, and his mother is tried for infanticide and executed. He is brought up in an orphanage with other orphans until he is apprenticed to a tanner who nearly works him to death. There, he survives anthrax and is given a marginally better position.

Grenouille has an incredible sense of smell and can distinguish between the slightest scents. He roams the city of Paris exploring its aromas. One day, he happens upon the most delicious smell he has ever encountered. He follows it and discovers it belongs to a young woman. He follows her, and when she notices and turns around to see him, he strangles her. He then smells her body to his heart’s content. Once he has had his fill, he leaves with no remorse.

One night, he delivers goatskins to the great perfumer, Baldini. He begs for a job; Baldini is so impressed with Grenouille’s nose that he agrees. While working for Baldini, Grenouille creates some of the best scents in Paris, and they grow wealthy. Grenouille falls ill again, but he is revived when Baldini tells him that new ways to preserve scents are being discovered in the south of France.

On his way to Grasse, he makes a detour to a series of caves where he stays for seven years pondering the meaning of scents that he has encountered. When he comes out, he looks like a wild man, but a wealthy nobleman rehabilitates him, and he slips away.

He reaches Grasse. There, he learns to distill and preserve scents. The methods that he learns allow him to move beyond flowers and plant life to animals. He discovers that he must kill the animal to get its true scent. It dawns on him that he now has a way to preserve the scent of the woman he murdered in Paris, and he decides to perfect his methods for another girl in Grasse with a similar scent.

He needs other scents to fill out his master scent to make it truly excellent. He kills twenty-four young girls to perfect his method before he stalks Laure whose scent he desires. Laure’s father suspects Grenouille is after her and moves her in the night, but Grenouille follows Laure’s scent and kills her.

He is caught and tried for his crimes. As he is led to his execution, he is wearing the master scent he has created; soon the crowd soon begins to swoon and suspect that he is innocent. They fall in love with him and let him go. Laure’s father even offers to adopt him.

He realizes that he hates people after this. Believing there are no greater scents to preserve, he becomes depressed. He returns to Paris where he walks into a huge crowd, dousing himself with the entire bottle of the master scent. He is ripped apart and consumed by a crowd of people who suddenly feel the need to preserve a piece of his scent.

The premise of the novel is that our senses, particularly our sense of smell, control a large part of our lives. Grenouille hates people, yet he continues to pursue their scents to create a master scent. Once he has distilled the ultimate scent of love, he finds he has no use for it. He hates humanity; no human can fulfill him the way his scents do, so he ends his life.

The book also suggests that scent affects how people treat each other. Grenouille has no scent and cannot create connections. Adolescent girls have a scent that everyone desires, not just men.

The story is told in vignettes that suggest that no character in the novel matters to Grenouille except how they affect his sense of smell. We do not get a lot of detail about characters that should have had an enormous impact on his life. He is unable to feel anything for his fellow humans and considers himself subhuman because he has no smell at all. He cannot find a connection with anyone in his life, and in the end, they are of no importance.

Grenouille’s isolation creates an environment in which it becomes painfully easy to murder teenage girls to obtain the scent he so craves. He has been rejected by many people and treated only as a commodity by others. His manipulation of the crowd, in the end, suggests that his only role in life is to consume and then be consumed.

The novel received praise for its unique subject matter, and the themes it addresses. It remains one of Süskind’s most interesting works and the subject of much analysis. Though it begins in the realm of realism, it does not take long to veer into surrealism to relay the story.