Reading Perfume is an exercise in completely justified, almost gleeful misanthropy. Süskind invites you to step outside of the world of humans and, in looking back through the story’s lens, makes you realise how vile, grotesque and truly hateful human beings are.
Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, Perfume’s protagonist, is a man born completely without an odour but an exceptional nose. He can smell literally everything in the world and memorise each and every scent. He can smell and identify people coming from miles away, when there is a worm in an apple, every item in a pitch-dark room and the different ingredients in a perfume down to their exact quantities. Süskind posits the theory that the core of the human soul is manifest in the scent of the body that carries it. As such, Grenouille, without a scent, is without a soul and therefore, not truly a human being. This is a fact constantly reiterated throughout the novel. He is described as a “tick”, a “spider” and as completely immune to physical pain or discomfort. He lives in a cave for seven years, surviving by licking water off a rock, eating birds, lizards and snakes and sleeping on bare stone. “Grenouille” means “frog” in French. He lacks a conscience, the will to make any emotional connection to other beings, and any understanding of grand narratives that comprise the usual human existence like morality, religion, status and love.
Towards the end of the novel, he realises that he lacks an original odour and kills multiple virgins—apparently the best-smelling humans—, extracting their scents to make an exquisite perfume for himself. These cold-blooded murders, alongside his physical deformities and inhuman olfactory capabilities, present him as a highly abnormal and grotesque subhuman creature.
The other humans in the novel view him as such too. Because he is scentless, they subconsciously find him unexplainably strange and repulsive, even though they do not know exactly why. These people lead seemingly acceptable existences—they work for their money, build their businesses or legacies, fight amongst themselves, get drunk, have sex—basically, what everyone does to survive and perhaps even thrive if possible. Grenouille, on the other hand is comprised of mere animal existence: “the lonely tick, which, wrapped up in itself, huddles in a tree, blind, deaf and dumb, and simply sniffs, sniffs all year long for the blood of some passing animal… Grenouille was such a tick”.
Yet, this murderous little tick is clearly the hero of the novel and it is nearly impossible not to root for him despite and through it all.
In contrast to Grenouille’s complete lack of body odour, the other humans stink—they carry a “reek” “as ghastly as the stench of manure”. This smell is described: “there was a basic perfumatory theme to the odour of humanity, a rather simple one, incidentally: a sweaty-oily, sour-cheesy, quite richly repulsive basic theme that clung to all humans equally and above which each individual aura hovered only as a small cloud of more refined particularity… only a person who gave off that standard vile vapour was considered one of their own”. Following the thesis that the human soul is expressed through the smell of the body that carries it, Süskind indirectly suggests that that the other ‘normal’ humans are in fact despicable, repulsive and rotten to the core. Indeed, for all the normalcy they can boast of, their characters are highly dubious. Every person who comes into prolonged contact with Grenouille immediately picks up on the fact that he does not care for comfort or wealth and therefore shamelessly and freely exploits him for their personal gain and greed. It is also clear that they are exceedingly vain and care only for themselves in their own individual ways. Grenouille may be a murderer, but he is motivated by collecting and trapping scent alone. He is unmoved even by the naked bodies of the beautiful virgins he kills, except by the way they smell. In light of this purity, albeit an unorthodox one, the things that define ‘normal’ are exposed for what they truly are— greed, pride, jealousy, narcissism and lust.
Perfume then, is not merely a story about a murderer and smell, but a turning of morality on its head. It questions the factors which qualify a human as ‘acceptable’ and suggests that they are but sleight-of-hands orchestrated (by the great amorphous, stinking mass of people, no less) to hide the sheer ugliness dwelling in the belly of a ‘normal’ human existence.