“Perfume: The Story of a Murderer” is a 1985 novel by the German writer Patrick Suskind.
The novel, set in eighteenth century Paris, revolves around a newborn baby that is left to die in an alley by it’s mother. The baby is rescued and given the name Grenouille but the priest that is caring for him quickly realizes that there is something strange about the boy. He does not appear to have any scent. Grenouille is given over to a perfumer to become an apprentice as a young boy. Over the years, Grenouille realizes that he possesses a very strong sense of smell.
One day, he kills a young girl in order to preserve her scent which he finds to be perfect. This starts Grenouille on a life of murder and he kills twenty-six young women in order to create what he thinks of as a “master scent”. Grenouille’s master scent, once created, hypnotizes the people of the small town of Grasse into doing his bidding. In the end, Grenouille grows disillusioned with the world and kills himself by covering himself in the master scent so that he will be torn apart and eaten by the people.
The novel is considered one of the most popular 20th-century German novels of all time and has been translated into 49 different languages. The novel has sold over 20 million copies worldwide.
In the eighteenth century France a baby is born to a fishwife mother and an unknown father. The baby is unwanted, and his mother leaves him in the garbage as she has done with other unwanted babies in the past. However, this child cries out and is happened upon by bystanders. The mother is soon arrested and charged with attempted murder. She admits that she has let four other unwanted children die and is convicted of infanticide and executed by guillotine.
The baby, who is dubbed Grenouille, is thus left alone in the world. Grenouille is taken to an abbey where he is cared for by cloistered nuns. Father Terrier, the priest in charge of the abbey, baptizes the baby and gives him the name Jean-Baptiste.
The nuns try to find a wet nurse for the baby, but three nurses refuse because of the amount of milk the child is taking. Finally, he is given to a wet nurse named Jeanne. But shortly after she takes him she brings him to Father Terrier, saying that unlike a normal child, Grenouille seems to be totally without any smell and he must, therefore, be from the devil.
At first, the Father thinks the idea is ridiculous, but after the baby is left with him, he begins to observe that there is something strange about it. The baby seems to make a lot of sniffing noises as if he is trying to smell Father Terrier. The Father brings the child to a home that takes in orphans. He pays the woman of the house for a year in advance and leaves quickly, never to return.
The woman is named Madame Gaillard. At her house, Grenouille is given only the bare necessities of life without any special care or love. Grenouille stays with Madame Gaillard until he is eight years old. At this time, the cloister stops paying for his upkeep. Madame Gaillard brings him to a tanner named Grimal who takes him on as an apprentice. Immediately upon meeting him, Grenouille realizes that Grimal is an angry man and is “capable of thrashing him to death for the least infraction.”
Grenouille is treated poorly by Grimal and worked hard. He is locked in a closet at night to sleep. While working for the tanner, he contracts anthrax but manages to survive it. Now that he is immune to the disease, he is suddenly very valuable to Grimal as he can work with the animal hides. Grenouille begins getting a little time off every week. Grenouille begins to walk around Paris by himself, following his strong sense of smell and finding new scents.
On the anniversary of King Louis XV’s coronation, Grenouille attends the celebration to search for a new smell. Suddenly, he catches a scent that is both “very delicate and very fine” rolling down the river toward him. Following the scent, Grenouille finds a teenage girl who is pitting plums in a lean-to on the bank of the river. He seems to think that her scent drew him to her almost of her volition rather than his. Grenouille is hypnotized by the scent and moves closer to the girl in the darkness. Just as he gets close to her, the girl notices his presence. Grenouille decides to kill her almost unconsciously. He strangles her and then strips off her clothes so that he can better take in her scent. He leaves the body after he feels that he has sated his desire to smell her.
Returning home, Grenouille feels that he is truly happy. This night makes him realize that he was born to become the world’s greatest perfumer because of his amazing sense of smell and the fact that he has now discovered what he thinks is the “master scent” that all perfumes in the world should strive to replicate. The current closest person to the master perfumer that Grenouille wishes to become is called Giuseppe Baldini who runs a posh shop on the bridge that runs over the Seine. Baldini is planning on retiring soon, however, as a younger perfumer named Peslissier has been taking most of his customers.
One day, Baldini has a commission from a client that wants him to mimic Peslissier’s scents. Struggling, Baldini asks his assistant Chenier to steal a bottle of Peslissier’s perfume so that he can determine the underlying scents. Chenier does so but Baldini is still unable to pick apart the scent. It is at this moment that Grenouille arrives with an order of leather from the tannery. Eagerly, Grenouille offers to replicate the perfume from Peslissier himself and insists that Baldini give him the opportunity to try. Grenouille manages to create an exact replica of the scent. After he is done, he asks if he can make the scent even better. Grenouille manages to create a scent that is so perfect that tears well in Baldini’s eyes.
A few days later, Baldini has a meal with Grimal and pays him a large sum to buy Grenouille’s apprenticeship. Grenouille moves in with his new master. Grimal takes his money out to the tavern and gets so drunk that he falls into the Seine and drowns. The House of Baldini begins experiencing an influx of money and customers because of Grenouille’s work. Baldini names Grenouille’s new scent “Nuit Napolitaine” and Grenouille begins working on newer and even better scents. The scents are used in perfumes and cremes, and Baldini even invents scented hair ribbons.
Though Grenouille is capable of creating the scents purely by the nose, Baldini insists that he measure and record everything thoroughly. Baldini tutors Grenouille in the art of becoming a master perfumer and the boy helps him develop a library of scents to use. However, when Grenouille begins learning about the distillation process, he struggles a bit, trying to distill things that are not capable of it, like glass and porcelain. The failure makes Grenouille suddenly become ill.
Baldini panics over the illness. He sees his future of expanding his business in jeopardy if the man dies. When Grenouille is on the point of death, he asks Baldini about the distilling process and learns that there is a town to the south called Grasse where a different type of distillation is done. This revives Grenouille and he recovers. Grenouille wants to leave immediately, but Baldini makes him stay longer. When he is finally allowed to go, he has to swear that he will never live in Paris or make perfumes there again. Grenouille agrees and leaves Baldini with his notes. The night that Grenouille leaves, Baldini’s house falls into the Seine, killing him and taking Grenouille’s notes into the river never to be seen again.
Part two of the book begins with Grenouille walking on a back road to the town of Grasse. Outside of the city, Grenouille begins noticing scents in nature and finds them more appealing than the human scents of Paris. He begins to travel only at night to avoid the smell of other humans so that he can luxuriate in the pure air. After traveling for a while, Grenouille puts on hold his plan to go to Grasse and becomes interested only in finding somewhere totally free from humans. He goes to the peak of the extinct volcanic peaks in central France and leaps for joy that he has found somewhere totally away from human civilization. He calls the place a “blessed region” and decides to stay there for a while, eating what animals he can find (usually salamanders) and drinking natural water.
For a long while, he spends his days meditating on the odors that he has experienced in his lifetime. Grenouille manages to live in the cave, reviewing his past for seven years. He almost freezes to death during winter. He is unable to get any food and must survive on lichen in the cave.
One night he has a nightmare that he has a body odor that only he cannot smell. The nightmare shakes him so much that he leaves the cave for good so that he will never have it again. He tests to see if he can smell himself, but finds that he still has no smell. Grenouille makes it down to the town of Pierrefort. He tells the townspeople that he was held captive in a cave by robbers in order to excuse away his rough appearance. He is then taken to the Marquis de La Taillade-Espinasse, a nobleman with scientific leanings who is trying to prove a theory about the earth emitting a lethal gas that creatures evolutionarily try to get away from by growing.
The Marquis assumes that Grenouille has been affected by this gas and tries to cure him by keeping him in a “ventilation chamber” in his house for five days. After the five days, he is washed and the Marquis begins trying to teach him to act like a gentleman so that he can exhibit him to other scientific men. Grenouille fakes a fainting spell, pretending to be overcome by a perfume smell. He is sent to the best perfumer in the city which is exactly what he wanted. Grenouille creates a perfume that smells exactly like human body odor. He tries the scent on himself and finds that he now smells like everyone else for the first time ever. He is delighted to be able to move among the people normally and wants to create a scent that will make the whole world love him.
The Marquis presents him to the scientific men, and he is pronounced a success. He stays in town for a few weeks before slipping out without being noticed. The Marquis is annoyed by Grenouille’s absence but continues to work on his theories, diving further and further into insanity. One day, he walks up to a mountain in a snowstorm and freezes to death. His body is never found.
In the beginning of part three, Grenouille arrives in Grasse. When he gets into town, Grenouille notices a little girl who has a similar scent to the teenage girl that he killed in Paris. He thinks that her scent will develop into something extraordinary and that people will be enamored with her without knowing why as a result. Grenouille takes a job at a small perfume shop run by the widow of a perfumer. Despite the size of the shop, Grenouille learns several new things about capturing scents. He begins to wonder about capturing the scent of the red-haired girl that he saw earlier.
Grenouille teaches himself to capture the scents of different items like doorknobs and stones by using this method of cold enfleurage. He begins trying to capture the scent of small animals but finds that he has to kill them first to do so. He starts collecting human odors by paying a beggar woman to wear oily rags next to her skin and using the rags to collect the scent. Grenouille sees the girl again, but panics when he realizes that killing her and capturing her scent will mean that eventually the scent will run out and he won’t be able to get more.
He decides that he will have to kill other humans to mimic the scent. Grenouille begins killing adolescent girls in town. He kills a fifteen year old girl and takes her clothes and hair to distill her scent. He soon kills two more girls the same way and the people of the town being to panic. The police try every method they can think of. The body count reaches twenty-four and then abruptly stops. The red-haired girls father, Monsieur Richis tries to marry her off to nobility. He guards the girl, Laure very carefully.
In order to protect his daughter, Richis begins taking the law into his own hands. He tries to get into the mind of the murderer to figure out what the fiend is looking for in his victims. Richis tells everyone that he is leaving town. He goes with Laure and plans to send her to stay in an island monastery until her marriage to the Baron de Bouyon’s son is finalized. He assumes that the murderer is looking only for pure, virgin women and thus thinks that he only needs to protect Laure until her wedding night.
In his cabin, Grenouille has twenty-four bottles filled with the scents of the twenty-four girls that he has killed. All he wants to do now is create the ultimate scent and to do that he has to take Laure’s scent. When he realizes that she is gone, he does some investigating and learns that the family has left town. Following his nose, he works out Richis’ plan and follows them on the road. He makes it to the inn that Richis’ is staying at and gives a false name and profession to stay the night. When Richis arrives, he asks if there is anyone else there and is told that there is a journeyman tanner present. Richis investigates Grenouille’s stall while Grenouille fakes sleep. Richis does not even see Grenouille in the dark and does not smell him as the man has no smell.
Richis locks Laure in her room and goes to his own. But Grenouille climbs in through the open window and kills Laure. He then wraps her body in oiled cloth and waits for six hours while the cloth absorbs her scent. At dawn, he takes the cloth as well as Laure’s clothes and hair and leaves. Richis finds the body a few hours later and the region is thrown into a panic again at the return of the murderer. The police investigate the journeyman tanner that was staying at the inn and a witness remembers talking to Grenouille. Grenouille is found and arrested, as the evidence off all of the murders is still in his home. He is convicted and set to be executed.
The angry mob yells for Grenouille to be torn apart, but the police insist that he be executed lawfully. Amazingly, Grenouille managed to finish his master scent before being arrested and wears it at his execution. When the mob smells the scent, they are instantly transformed, and suddenly none of them believe that Grenouille could have killed the girls.
The smell inspires them to trust him, even the people that don’t realize they smell it. This leads to Grenouille being released and the happiness and love that the smell inspires leads to a large public orgy. Even Richis apologizes to Grenouille and begs him to come live with him. Grenouille feels hate for mankind rise in him and blacks out. When Grenouille awakens he is in Laure’s bed, and Richis is waiting for him to wake up.
Richis still begs Grenouille to come and live with him as his son and Grenouille finally agrees. But when Richis leaves the room, Grenouille sneaks out of the house. He carefully walks through the bodies of the drunken, sleeping revelers and out of town. When the sun rises, the people are confused and sick from the excess liquor and exposure to Grenouille’s master scent. They wordlessly agree to never speak of the incident again. Grenouille’s former boss, Druot is charged for the murders and confesses under duress. He is hanged with no fanfare.
Part four of the book is only the last chapter. In it, Grenouille travels by night, again, living off the plants and animals that he can catch. He goes past his former home in the cave but has no desire to return. He feels that he cannot live with or without human beings and plans to return to Paris to die. With him, he still carries the master scent in a bottle. Only one drop was enough to hypnotize the entire town of Grasse. This means that he has enough left to manipulate the entire city of Paris into thinking that he is a god.
But even with this power, Grenouille cannot be happy and cannot love himself. He feels that since he cannot smell himself he will never know who he truly is and this makes him feel like the world has no meaning. Grenouille goes back to Paris and a dangerous part of the city. Once he is surrounded by criminals and ruffians, he pours the entire bottle of the master scent on himself. The mob surrounds him and tears him apart, eating the pieces. The cannibals feel that they are doing this out of love.
Jean-Baptiste Grenouille – the main character of the story. From the moment that Grenouille is introduced, it is made clear that he is not a normal person. The book begins with the sentence, “In eighteenth-century France there lived a man who was one of the most gifted and abominable personages in an era that knew no lack of gifted and abominable personages.”
When Grenouille is introduced, he is a newborn who has been left to die by his mother in an alley as she had done with previous children before. It becomes obvious as the story progresses that Grenouille’s mother’s homicidal instinct passed down to her son. Grenouille is a remorseless killer. Over his lifetime he murders twenty-five young women all in pursuit of what he believes to be the “master scent.”
Grenouille’s character is also marked by his strange ability. He himself has no natural scent but he is able to smell things from long distances and pick apart complicated scent profiles easily. He is somewhat of a genius as far as perfumery despite his obvious psychopathy. For Grenouille, his sense of smell is how he views the world. He relies on it more than any other sense and it never betrays him. Grenouille believes that human love is mostly reliant on scent and therefore, he can never be loved because he does not have a personal scent.
Laure Richis – a young girl with red hair that Grenouille eventually becomes fixated on. Laure is said to be very popular with people and well loved because she possesses a hypnotic personal scent. Laure is highly prized not only by Grenouille but by her protective father who is desperate to keep her safe until after her marriage. Eventually, she is killed by Grenouille and becomes his last victim, making it possible for him to make the master scent.
Monsieur Richis – Laure’s father. Richis is very protective of Laure. He seems to be a clever man, as he figures out that the killer (Grenouille) is going to come after his daughter next and takes steps to protect her. However, he incorrectly guesses that the killer is killing girls whom he thinks are pure and virginal in order to preserve that purity. He assumes that he only has to keep Laure safe until after her wedding night when she will no longer be a virgin. In the end, his daughter is killed and Richis is used as an unwilling pawn in Grenouille’s take over of Grasse.
Patrick Suskind Biography
Patrick Suskind was born on March 26th, 1949 in Ambach by Starnberger See, near Munich Germany. His father was a journalist and writer who is famous for writing a collection of essays on the Nazi era called “From the Dictionary of n Inhuman.” His mother was a sports trainer. Suskind was schooled in a Bavarian village called Holzhausen and later attended the University of Munich to study medieval and modern history, although he never officially graduated.
In 1974, he moved to Paris with the financial support of his parents and began writing short fiction and screenplays. In 1981, he wrote the play “Der Kontrabal” (or “The Double Bass”). The play was a success and was staged over five hundred times. After this, Suskind began to make a name for himself as a playwright throughout the 1980’s. He also continued to write screenplays and later won the Screenplay Prize of the German Department of Culture for his screenplay of a film called “Rossini.”
Suskind’s best-known work, “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer” was published in 1985 and remained on the bestseller list of the German news magazine Der Spiegel for nine years afterward. The novel was made into a German movie in 2006.
He has written other novels, including “The Pigeon” (1988), “The Story of Mr. Sommer” (1991) and “Three Stories and a Reflection’ (1996).
Today, Suskind lives in Munich by Lake Starnberg and occasionally at Montolieu in France. He has withdrawn from the literary world and lives as a recluse, never taking interviews or speaking to reporters.