Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind, an Analysis on Symbolisms and Undertones

Updated on July 29, 2018
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Lee is a Masters in Management graduate who has been working as a freelance writer and researcher since 2009.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is a novel written by Patrick Suskind that tells the extraordinary story of a gifted and abominable man—Jean Baptiste Grenouille. Set in 18th Century France, Grenouille is a man who has no human scent or body odor but is gifted with a very sharp sense of smell. He has the gift of recognizing and creating smells that would appeal to other people. He works as an apprentice perfumer and journeyed to explore all available human scents in Paris. He wanted to have a scent of his own. A scent that would give him the body odor that every person has that he did not have. It was his desire to be one of them that he makes concoctions of various perfumes to find a human scent that would make him smell like everyone else.

While on his mission to create a scent of his own, he desired to create a perfume so sweet smelling that it gives the person wearing it control over the emotion of the people around him. He murders young virgin women and literally takes their human odor so that he could create that perfect scent. Thus, when Grenouille was finally caught, he wore his perfume and the people around him were so captivated he walked away from a death penalty.


Symbolisms and Undertones

What is so significant about this novel is the varying contrasts and symbolism embedded in the story. It talks about dualities in society such as being gifted and being normal; of being accepted and being an outcast; of superficial things and authenticity; of passion and mediocrity; and of the conscious and subconscious.

Giuseppe Baldini and Jean Baptiste Grenouille

One of the many binary metaphors that Suskind used in the novel is Baldini and Grenouille. Baldini is a perfumer who has no born skill or talent for making perfumes. He became a perfumer by his technical knowledge on the process of making perfumes which he shares with Grenouille when he made him his apprentice. On the other hand, you have a man with no human scent or body odor but have an acute sense of smell that he was able to create perfumes so addictive and attractive to people that he made Baldini a very rich man.

Here Suskind is trying to emphasize that people in society are not always what they appeared to be. It’s easy to say that a person is a medical doctor because he had undergone the formal education, the proper training, and has the diploma to show of that he is indeed a licensed doctor. But if that doctor has no passion for helping other people, would that still makes him a doctor? Compared that to a mother who has neither formal education nor background knowledge of medicine but is willing to research and seek medical treatments to a cancer-stricken son, would the doctor even compare to the passion and dedication of the mother?

In a way, the mother in a sense is more of a doctor than the doctor who only helps people because he wanted to make money but has no passion on what he does which is like Baldini and Grenouille. Baldini symbolizes a person who does things because he has technical knowledge of doing so but has no heart for what he does. Grenouille, on the other hand, is like the mother whose passion for medicine was dedicated to saving her son’s life. Grenouille, though did not have the purest intent, is very much driven and passionate about scents. His fascination and dedication towards creating that perfect perfume scent even went overboard, killing young women to capture the essence of their human scent.

Hate and Love for Humanity

The best example of irony in the story and the most open for interpretation was when Grenouille after attaining his goal of creating the perfect perfume and of acceptance from the people, find no satisfaction at all because he realized that he was not being liked for himself but because of the perfume that he wears. He realized that he found strength in being hated and felt useless now that everyone adored him. It was this sense of disgust that he went back to Paris, doused himself with the perfume while among ‘low-life’ people and there and then he met his demise. His scent made him so desirable that the thieves literally devoured his body. Despite the overwhelming shame that dawned upon the people for eating a human, they cannot help but feel a sense of overwhelming bliss at the same time.

The death of Grenouille could be a metaphor for life and life’s purpose. Grenouille's death symbolizes the fact that he has achieved what he needed to achieve in his life and find no more meaning in living since he has finally conquered the world. What else is there to do when the sole purpose of your existence have already been achieved? His life was meaningless; his work was meaningless because it does not bring him the joy and sense of fulfillment that he expected. Grenouille never really cared for the living because he was focused so much on being and wanting to be accepted. He never understood what humanity is about because of the bitterness in his heart. His hatred towards humanity was so overpowering it literally consumed his every waking moment to the point that upon conquering the power of controlling human emotions, he was not satisfied at all.

For the people, his death meant an appreciation of life. That life is something to look forward to and be optimistic about. His death was an agent of change in a way that his death brought an end to his despair and peace to the people. The perfume he created finally served its purpose. When his perfume was used for selfish reasons—to control and manipulate people, it serves no joy, but when he intentionally doused the perfume to himself so that the people would desire him and eat him, the perfume ultimately benefitted society as they have become more civil after the event and life became more cordial, more ‘humane.’ The grotesque occurrence was something that the town wanted to forget and so they did. “Forgotten it so totally that travelers who passed through in the days that followed…found not a single sane person who could give them any information.”

I believe the perfume symbolizes life—love for life or hatred of it. If people live their lives for themselves alone, then despite having everything in life, life would still be meaningless. If we truly want to live a mark on earth, we do so by loving not just ourselves but caring for humanity, to live a life of legacy worth remembering.

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