Book in Focus
Originally published in German as Das Parfum by Diogenes Verlag, Zurich (1985). This edition published by Alfred A. Knopf (1986), translated from the German by John E. Woods. Hardcover, 262 pages

The historical cross-genre book “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer” (Das Parfum, 1985) by German author Patrick Suskind examines the terrifying results that occur when a man gives in to his greatest passion: his sense of scent. This book explores the relationship between the sense of smell and any possible emotional associations fragrances may have.

The protagonist, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, is an unwanted orphan living in France during the 18th century who is endowed with a keen sense of smell—he perceives and understands the world through olfaction rather than vision. When he smells a girl from the street of Paris, he knows that he must devote his life to perfecting perfume. He doesn’t think twice about killing anybody if it means he can take home their distinctive aroma.

As part of his quest to develop his own signature scent, Grenouille set out to manufacture a perfume that would allow its wearer to influence the mood of others in close proximity just by inhaling its pleasant aroma. To produce the ideal fragrance, he kills young virgin ladies and collects their human odor.

The work merges fantasy, fiction, and facts. Grenouille’s superhuman sense of smell, his own lack of odor, and the story’s fairy-tale undertones establish a fantastic story line, while the plot’s socio-historical context and the naturalistic rendering of historical perfumery and the murders provide a realistic narrative tone. The author’s vivid descriptions of the bizarre and awful occurrences in the story leave readers’ imaginations reeling.

The novel’s central themes are power and control, specifically what factors lead certain individuals to ascend to positions of authority while others are demoted, as well as the processes by which these changes take place. When the book attempts to provide a solution to these overarching questions, it bolsters the various themes that are present throughout the work.

Despite the fact that Jean Baptiste Grenouille’s name seems like it may be taken from a historical figure, he is not. Thanks be to God, he doesn’t exist outside of the pages of a book.

Memorable Quotes

And so he learned to speak. With words designating non-smelling objects, with abstract ideas and the like, especially those of an ethical and moral nature, he had the greatest difficulty. He could not retain them, confused them with one another, and even as an adult used them unwillingly and often incorrectly: justice, conscience, God, joy, responsibility, humility, gratitude etc.—what these were meant to express remained a mystery to him.

Page 25, Perfume by Patrick Suskind

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 a breath into our lungs, it fills us up, imbues us totally. There is no remedy for it.

Page 82, Perfume by Patrick Suskind

The more Grenouille had become accustomed to purer air, the more sensitive he was to human odor, which suddenly, quite unexpectedly, would come floating by in the night, ghastly as the stench of manure, betraying the presence of some shepherd’s hut or charcoal burner’s cottage or thieves’ den. And then he would flee farther, increasingly sensitive to the increasingly infrequent smell of humankind.

Page 118, Perfume by Patrick Suskind

It was a strange perfume that Grenouille created that day. There had never before been a stranger one on earth. It did not smell like a scent, but like a human being who gives off a scent. If one smelled this perfume in a dark room, one would have thought a second person was standing there.

Page 149, Perfume by Patrick Suskind

Further Reading

The Dare: Thea Reads Perfume by Patrick Suskind by Thea James, The Book Smugglers

How Kurt Cobain’s Favorite Novel Made Its Way Onto Nirvana’s Final Album by Nathan Dunne, Literary Hub

The Worst Book I Read Last Year Is Also The Most Sexist: ‘Perfume: The Story Of A Murderer’ by Daniella Gaskell, Medium

Perfume Reading Guide by Reading Group Center, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

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