Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
ABOUT THIS GUIDE
The introduction, discussion questions, and suggested reading list that
follow are intended to enhance your group's reading and discussion of Patrick
Süskind's Perfume. We hope they will provide you with a variety of
approaches to this vividly imagined historical novel. Set in eighteenth-century
France, Perfume explores the evolution of a remorseless killer during an
era of intense contradictions, an age in which poverty, filth, and superstition
coexisted uneasily with the Enlightenment's ideals of progress, liberty, and
ABOUT THIS BOOK
The novel's protagonist, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, begins and ends his life
at the Cimetière des Innocents. But in the meantime, a most unusualand
unbelievablelife unfolds. Born with no odor of his own, Grenouille soon
develops a sense of smell capable of almost supernatural olfactory distinctions.
He wanders the reeking streets of Paris, absorbing thousands of scents, until
one day he is irresistibly drawn to an odor of "pure beauty," a scent that he
feels will provide the principle for ordering all the others. The source is an
adolescent girl, and Grenouille coldly kills her in order to possess her smell.
After getting away with the murder, he goes to work for the perfumer Baldini and
quickly reveals a genius for creating fragrances of unsurpassed subtlety and
allure. He makes his master rich, but his contempt for mankind drives him into
the wilderness, away from the smell of humans, and he spends seven years in a
cave beneath France's loneliest mountain. When he emerges, he travels to Grasse,
the center of the perfume industry, where he learns how to distill the essential
scents of objects, animals and, ultimately, of humans. Here he creates for
himself an arsenal of odors which he manipulates in order to make himself
unnoticeable, repellent, or pitiable. But he is driven to an even greater goal
and begins a ghastly series of murders, robbing the most beautiful virgin girls
in the town of their scents to concoct a perfume capable of making everyone,
even the father of one of his victims, love and revere the wearer. Whether such
powers will save him from his own self-destructive emotions is not revealed
until the novel's harrowing final pages. A story in which the trajectories of
genius, obsession, and cruelty come together in one extraordinary character, Perfume offers a fascinating look at the seething underside of the Age of
Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is born in a food market that had been erected
above the Cimetiere des Innocents, the "most putrid spot in the whole kingdom"
[p. 4]. He barely escapes death at his birth; his mother would have let him die
among the fish guts as she had her four other children. But Grenouille
miraculously survives. How would you relate the circumstances of his birth to
the life he grows up to live?
When the wet nurse refuses to keep Grenouille because he has no smell and
therefore must be a "child of the devil" [p. 11], Father Terrier takes him in.
But he is exasperated. He has tried to combat "the superstitious notions of the
simple folk: witches and fortune-telling cards, the wearing of amulets, the evil
eye, exorcisms, hocus-pocus at full moon, and all the other acts they performed"
[p. 14]. In what ways can Perfume be read as a critique of the eighteenth
century's conception of itself as the Age of Reason? Where else in the novel do
you find rationality being overcome by baser human instincts?
Throughout the novel, Grenouille is likened to a tick. Why do you think
Süskind chose this analogy? In what ways does Grenouille behave like a tick?
What does this analogy reveal about his character that a more straightforward
description would not?
Grenouille is born with a supernaturally developed sense of smell. He can
smell the approach of a thunderstorm when there's not a cloud in the sky and
wonders why there is only one word for smoke when "from minute to minute, second
to second, the amalgam of hundreds of odors mixed iridescently into ever new and
changing unities as the smoke rose from the fire" [p. 25]. He can store and
synthesize thousands of odors within himself and re-create them at will. How do
you interpret this extraordinary ability? Do you think such a sensitivity to
odor is physically possible? Do you feel Süskind wants us to read his novel as a
kind of fable or allegory? Why do you think Süskind chose to build his novel
around the sense of smell instead of one of the other senses?
What motivates Grenouille to commit his first murder? What does he
discover about himself and his destiny after he has killed the red-haired girl?
Do the descriptions of life in eighteenth-century Francethe crowded
quarters, the unsanitary conditions, the treatment of orphans, the punishment of
criminals, etc.surprise you? How are these conditions related to the ideals of
enlightenment, reason, and progress that figure so prominently in
The perfumer Baldini initially regards Grenouille with contempt. He
explains, "Whatever the art or whatever the craftand make a note of this before
you go!talent means next to nothing, while experience, acquired in humility and
with hard work, means everything" [p. 74]. And yet Grenouille is able to concoct
the most glorious perfumes effortlessly and with no previous experience or
training. What do you think the novel as a whole conveys about the relationship
between genius and convention, creativity and destruction, chaos and order?
The narrator remarks, "Odors have a power of persuasion stronger than that
of words, appearances, emotions, or will. The persuasive power of an odor cannot
be fended off, it enters into us like breath into our lungs, it fills us up,
imbues us totally. There is no remedy for it" [p. 82]. Do you think this is
true? Why would an odor have such power? In what ways does Grenouille use this
power to his advantage?
Some reviewers have claimed that the Süskind's writing in Perfume
is "verbose and theatrical," while others have described it as "sensuous and
supple." Clearly, the writing is more extravagantly imaginative than the pared
down minimalism of much recent American fiction. How do you respond to Süskind's
prose? How do you respond to the critical reactions outlined above?
Grenouille is introduced as "one of the most gifted and abominable
personages in an era that knew no lack of gifted and abominable personages" [p.
3]. Does Süskind manage to make him a sympathetic character, in spite of his
murders and obsessions? Or do you find him wholly repellent? How might you
explain Grenouille's actions? To what extent do his experiences shape his
behavior? Do you think he is inherently evil?
When Grenouille emerges from his self-imposed seven-year exile, he is
brought to the attention of the marquis de La Taillade-Espinasse, whose theory
that "life could develop only at a certain distance from the earth, since the
earth itself constantly emits a corrupting gas, a so-called fluidum letale,
which lames vital energies and sooner or later totally extinguishes them" [pp.
139 - 140] seems to explain Grenouille's sad condition. This theory also
contends that all living creatures therefore "endeavor to distance themselves
from the earth by growing" upwards and away from the earth [p. 140]. What
attitudes and beliefs is Süskind satirizing through the character of
Grenouille becomes, toward the end of the novel, a kind of olfactory
vampire, killing young women to rob them of their scents. "What he coveted was
the odor of certain human beings: that is, those rare humans who inspire love.
These were his victims" [p. 188]. Why does he need the scents of these people?
In the novel's climatic scene, just as Grenouille is about to be
executed, he uses the perfume he's created to turn the townspeople's hatred for
him into love and to inspire an orgy which collapses class distinctions and
pairs "grandfather with virgin, odd-jobber with lawyer's spouse, apprentice with
nun, Jesuit with Freemason's wifeall topsy-turvy, just as opportunity
presented" [p. 239]. Grenouille is revered and regards himself as godlike in
this triumph. Does he enjoy this moment, or is it a hollow victory? What is the
novel suggesting about the nature of human love? About order and disorder?
After Grenouille leaves the town of Grasse, where he has caused so much
death and suffering, his case is officially closed and we're told, "The town had
forgotten it in any event, forgotten it so totally that travelers who passed
through in the days that followed and casually inquired about Grasse's infamous
murderer of young maidens found not a single sane person who could give them any
information" [p. 247]. Why do the townspeople react this way? Why isn't it
possible for them to integrate what has happened into their daily consciousness?
How do you interpret the novel's ending, as Grenouille returns to the
Cimetiere des Innocents and allows himself to be murdered and eaten by the
criminals who loiter there? What ironies are suggested by the narrator's
assertion that Grenouille's killers had just done something, for the first time,
"out of love" [p. 255]?
Perfume is set in eighteenth-century France and tells an
extravagant story of a man possessed with a magical sense of smell and a
bizarrely destructive obsession. Do its historical setting and fantastic
elements make it harder or easier to identify with? What contemporary issues and
anxieties does the story illuminate?
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Vintage.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.
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