Perfume is a study of the darker side of human nature. It centers on a superhuman, Grenouille, whose extraordinary nose shows him certain truths about the world to which others are oblivious. His view of life is inevitably “colored” by his sense of smell, and he is determined to use this sense to achieve his ambitions as no other human can.
It is important to note that Patrick Süskind is a German author brought up in the post-World War II era. His writing is dark, and his characters are like those in the Grimm fairy tales, with heroes as guilty as the villains. Heroes are heroes only because circumstances favor them.
Grenouille apparently is evil by nature. Those around him are not necessarily any less evil. Circumstances simply favor them, giving them the social position, money, or background to exploit people like Grenouille. The Grenouilles of the world must rely on their wits and will in order to succeed. If he were alive today, Grenouille likely would become a rags to riches hero, a respected virtuoso, and a scientific curiosity. It is doubtful that he would be much happier, given his nature.
Grenouille may bring evil, but it is not undeserved. His victims are not innocent bystanders. Even the girls he kills are all part of the society that at best ignores and at worst hates him for being different. Grenouille’s mother killed her other babies and tries to kill him. Grimal the tanner, the Marquis de La Taillade-Espinasse, Maître Baldini, and Maître Druot are all selfish cheaters, taking advantage of Grenouille for their own profit. Fortunately for Grenouille, these people are so self-centered that they do not notice that he is using them for his own selfish plans. Like a tick, he takes what he needs from others, living off them and accepting some amount of discomfort in return.
Perfume actually is a satire of a cautionary tale. Its moral is that no one is innocent. Even though people may identify one person and call him evil, he really is no more evil than anyone else—he simply does not hide it as well. Süskind’s implication is that although the incidents of Perfume might have taken place two hundred years ago, the results would be the same today.
Describe the circumstances of Jean-Baptiste's birth. How would this affect him throughout his life?
Answer: Jean-Baptiste's condition at birth was worse even than a foundling. His fishwife mother (who was, in fact, no one's wife) attempted infanticide, as she had left to die the four children born to her before him. She was executed for this crime, by decapitation, and Jean-Baptiste was baptized with the name of the headless saint. This undoubtedly forever reminded him of his criminal mother and the fact that he was a thoroughly unwanted child. In addition, his lack of scent made him seem less than human from the beginning, preventing the most basic bonding between others and the baby boy.
Why does Grenouille spend seven years in a cave on the Massif Centrale?
Answer: Previously he had only lived in Paris, surrounded there by the thickest smells of humanity. Once he got into the open air of the country, he realized how much he disliked the smells of other human beings. He went as far as he could away from the smell of people, and once he reaches the peak of Plomb du Cantal, he determins that the smell of people is equally far away from him in every direction. For Grenuoille, this is the edge of the world and the new center of his own world, the one place on earth where he can find peace, at least for a time. It is like a hermit's solitude and preparation for one day going back into the world.
How does the French culture of Grenouille's time treat unwanted children and young apprentices? How does this affect how Grenouille grows up and how he views himself?
Answer: The children of the lower class were protected by law from infanticide, if the culprit was caught in time. This rational and humane law, however, executed those who attempted it, often leaving the children orphaned. Since Grenouille had no other family, he lost, on the day of his birth, the only person who could possibly have loved him. Even the Church didn't believe infants to be "yet a human being" (p. 10). Grenouille, though kept alive by a society which protected his life, at least nominally, was never provided with the possibility of love or a real family. Therefore, Grenouille always thought of himself as separate and profoundly different from other people. Young apprentices likewise were under the control of the masters and treated not much better than workhorses or other animals.
How does the author explain Grenouille's fascination for the scents of girls of a certain age and type? How does the description of these girls dehumanize them?
Answer: Grenouille perceives that pretty young adolescent girls smell better than any other human beings. He is, within the realm of the novel, correct. The scent he concocts from the essences of their newly dead bodies enchants everyone around him. For some reason, the look of a girl seems to be correlated with the quality of her personal scent; this seems illogical, but it serves a purpose in this novel, suggesting that beautiful girls seem beautiful primarily because of their smell. The chemical composition of the girls Grenouille kills is what ultimately makes them attractive; especially for him, personality, character, and actions are of no consequence. The girls themselves, and their purpose in the novel, are reduced to nothing but their odors; they are not people but merely attractive smells which dominate all other things, including reason, the other senses, and judgment. Only the "normal" townspeople and the girls' parents see them as humans, but for the most part, we see the girls through Grenouille's perspective.
Why does Druot finally admit to Grenouille's crimes? Why do the townspeople insist on finding another murderer even though Grenouille was convicted?
Answer: Druot only confesses to the crimes after being tortured for fourteen hours. He would have confessed to anything at that point, simply to end the torture. The townspeople, who are thoroughly bewildered and disgusted with themselves after the release of Grenouille and the subsequent public orgy, are unwilling to believe that they were hoodwinked by a convicted murderer. In order for things to return to normal in Grasse, the "real" murderer has to be found and hanged. Druot is a convenient scapegoat because evidence is found at his home.
Could Grenouille really have survived for seven years in the cave in the Massif Centrale? Which elements of this prolonged solitude are believable, and which are fantastic?
Answer: Grenouille, in all likelihood, did not have the skills to survive on what he found to eat on the top of a mountain. This is one of the many elements of fantasy that are incorporated within this novel, despite some elements of realism. The existence of Grenouille in the first place--a scentless human being with a supernatural sense of smell--is impossible, but his psychosis and murderous tendencies are not. Perhaps his keen sense of smell helps him, like an animal, find food. It seems reasonable enough to find a trickle of water and a natural cave, but it seems unlikely that a raven would fall dead in front of the cave.
Why does Grenouille never consider himself or others in terms of their humanity? Aside from his supernatural powers of smell, are human beings ever this detached and cruelly inhuman?
Answer: A present-day interpretation of Grenouille's character would diagnose him with a kind of extreme psychosis, perhaps present from birth and exacerbated by neglect and cruel treatment, characterized by a lack of all human feeling for others. While this kind of mental illness certainly exists, especially among serial killers and extreme outcasts, Süskind is doing more than telling the story of another depraved serial killer. Grenouille is unusual and separate from humanity (both in realistic, believable ways, and impossible, fantastic ways), perhaps some kind of troubled genius. Süskind also shows that Grenouille does not become cruel and cold as the simple consquence a bad childhood; he is bad (even, impossibly, of his own volition) from birth. Because of this element of fantasy, Grenouille's case suggests that his character can be taken as a metaphor for the extreme separateness of the troubled genius.
What is the closest thing Grenouille has to a friend in this novel?
Answer: The perfumer Baldini is probably the human being who becomes closest to Grenouille during his lifetime as in some way a peer. Certainly Baldini profits the most from Grenouille, who gives him hundreds of formulas for perfumes. While the two are spending time extracting essences from plants, Baldini talsk to him about his youth and his time in the war. While Baldini does not actually feel close to Grenouille (he feels uneasy around him and, while not actually loathing him, is happy when Grenouille leaves), the two live in relative harmony for some time. Baldini cares for Grenouille when he is sick with syphilitic smallpox, at least out of a desire to protect a valuable asset. So, while Baldini certainly does not love Grenouille, the two have some semblance of a normal human relationship, probably the only one Grenouille has in his life.
Why does Father Terrier take Grenouille quickly to Madame Gaillard?
Answer: The tiny infant Grenouille began sniffing and snorting the smell of Father Terrier, which caused the priest to feel very uneasy. Grenouille's sense of smell, and his will to enjoy and collect a smell memory, is present from birth, but his lack of scent and his unusual sniffing make him seem even less human than a normal baby.
When the Marquis takes Grenouille in, why is it not really for Grenouille's betterment? What is his agenda?
Answer: The Marquis, when Grenouille is brought to him, springs on the opportunity of using this "wild man" as a proof for his theories of fluidum vitale. These exceedingly fantastic ideas involve some exhalation of the earth which somehow causes the deterioration and death of all who come in contact with it. Thus, Grenouille, who has lived essentially underground for so many years, is a perfect proof. The Marquis "rehabilitates" him with a therapy involving elevation above the earth and only eating foods grown above ground, knowing full well that Grenouille only needed a haircut and shave, a bath, and some new clothes to become "human" again. He nevertheless pays Grenouille to "change" for the scientific community, which comes to examine him. None of this showing off was for Grenouille's best interest; Grenouille was, like he has always been to everyone, merely a useful commodity.