The Uncanny Beauty of Death, Scent, and Belonging in Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

Illustration by Ann Sheng
Illustration by Ann Sheng

I propose to start this on a whiff .

Inhale, and let it out; pick up your favourite book and close your eyes and just breathe. Let’s talk about scent and murder.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind  explores a fantastical and fabulously decadent universe. We follow the story of Jean-Baptiste  Grenouille, born at a fish market to a mother who leaves him to die after giving birth to him. She is executed for abandoning him, and so Grenouille is left an orphan in the depths of eighteenth century Paris.

There is no compassion to be found in this book. There is no happy ending. Grenouille is a monster created by the cruelty of the society he lives in and by his own unique gift: an olfactory sense that stretches beyond normal human understanding.

Grenouille is treated like an animal by those around him. His painful existence drags through a cold childhood into a miserable youth, but this story is enlivened by a rich portrayal of the senses, brought to life with Grenouille’s every breath.

We are taken through every filth-filled part of Paris, but, disturbingly, the city doesn’t come across as repulsive. Süskind makes it his duty to connect the reader to the main character in such an evocative yet delicate way that once we are present for his first murder, it becomes a disappointment to not experience the rest.

Perfume is a mix of carnal desire and disappointment, but perhaps most importantly, it is about the fear of the fleeting existence of the individual. Because Grenouille has no scent, the people around him are repulsed by him; it is this social ostracism and isolation that underlies his fear of not truly existing. He collects the scents of young girls that astound and captivate him in order to make a scent for himself out of their scents and thereby ascertain his own existence. Grenouille’s killing is almost an afterthought to this mission.

While reading, I was struck by how realistic and familiar the brutal characters portrayed were. Grenouille is the killer, but no character in the book has any shade of goodness or any other redeeming qualities.

As individuals, we tend to not recognize our sense of smell as important because it is merely one of our many senses.  But it is supremely important. Taking every scent for granted—taking breath and life for granted—is something every character in this novel is guilty of.

The importance of the power of smell is perhaps most evident in our reaction to perfume, which the book uses to highlight our desire to be individuals—to have our own scent and to be unique. In fact, many of us live our lives in the knowledge that we each have individual scents, and looking for a perfume to compliment us as we see ourselves can become a huge part of what makes us us. We share this hunt for singularity with the protagonist, and the disturbing message of the book is knowing that on some level, our stories may resemble his much more closely than we would like to admit.

The brutality of the novel is directly proportional to its fantastic and beautiful qualities. Perfume depicts the hunt of a killer not only for a victim, but also for a sense of self, which is presented as an essential beauty. Yet the fear of not being able to hold on to beauty is also present. The end of the novel is unexpected and shriveling. Despite its use of the highly fantastic, it somehow succeeds in staying unashamedly human in the rawest sense of the word.

-contributed by Magdalena Wolak

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