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Perfume Essay – Is Grenouille evil?

Q: Grenouille is introduced as one of the most gifted and abominable personages in an era that knew no lack of gifted and abominable personages. [p3] Does Suskind manage to make 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 behaviour? Do you think he is inherently evil?

In his novel Perfume, Suskind opens by painting Grenouille’s picture as the poor, lonely orphan child but gradually and graphically turns him into a devilish character and a serial killer. It is the way that Suskind portrays Grenouille that can make readers find him inhuman, but there are plenty of aspects of Grenouille that are completely normal human characteristics. From the moment Grenouille is born, he is faced with neglect. Throughout the novel, Grenouille is searching for love in the only way he knows possible – by means of his nose. Grenouille is an abnormal person because of the way that he is brought up. This shapes his personal feelings and philosophy towards and against humans and humanity in general. Because of Grenouille’s irregular stance towards humankind, his ability to be able to use his nose to decipher smells and make succulent perfumes is misinterpreted by civilization in general. Grenouille is not purposefully evil, but his actions are regarded by humankind as certainly considered evil. Suskind challenges the reader to judge what they consider good and evil is.

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At the beginning of the novel, Suskind shows Grenouille as an unlucky orphan child, whose mother is happy to see him die. His mother doesn’t want Grenouille and wants to cast him aside and let him die in a pile of fish guts. But Grenouille’s ability to overcome difficulties that normal humans could not dream of is what keeps him alive here. Although Suskind has described Grenouille as a repulsive person in the opening sentence of the novel, he still manages to make the reader feel a sense of warmth and understanding of Grenouille and his dreadful situation. By describing Grenouille’s mother as a horrible human with sentences like

“She wanted to put this revolting birth behind her as quickly as possible.” [p5] and

“She had affected all the others here at the fish booth,” [p5]

Grenouille’s mother, who is never named by Suskind, is revealed as horrible a human being as Grenouille turns out to be. The sympathy that the author created however is lost on the following page, with all the trouble he causes to the wet nurses who look after him.

The first real sign that Grenouille is not a completely normal human comes when the wet nurse Jean-Bussie claims to the local priest Father Terrier that Grenouille is possessed by the devil. She claims that because Grenouille has no smell, he must be evil. At this point in the novel, Suskind has alluded to the scents of Paris, but not to the importance of smell to Grenouille. When Father Terrier tramples over the wet nurse’s concerns, he takes Grenouille away. Father Terrier is represented as the catholic man who helps all commoners to believe in God, but even he, on closer inspection finds Grenouille vile.

“Away with it! thought Terrier, away from this very instant with this… he was an about to say ‘devil’, but caught himself and restrained”[p19]

It is at this point in the novel that the reader can sense Grenouille as something different to a normal human.

Grenouille provides several further examples of being abnormal throughout the novel Perfume, but it is the picture that Suskind paints of Grenouille that makes him seem so bad. He is not inherently evil, but Suskind makes him seem so. At Madame Gaillard’s, he discovers his ability to smell, and the power that comes with it. Suskind expresses Grenouille as a tick,

“stubborn, sullen and loathsome, huddles there and lives and waits.” [p23]

Suskind makes it appear that Grenouille is waiting for his prey to appear – he is that much of a loner. At the tanner’s Grimal, he is exploited like an animal but survives. He has an uncanny knack for surviving. Suskind’s subtle comments like

“After one year of an existence more animal than human,” [p33]

continue to give a bad impression of Grenouille. When he is at Baldini’s, Suskind again uses shrewd language to describe Grenouille.

“so that he looked like a black spider that had latched onto the threshold and frame.”

The black spider, like the tick, represents Grenouille’s lowliness in human society, in the eyes of Suskind. When Grenouille descents into the cave, away from humanity, Suskind’s use of religious irony takes Grenouille to another level that is above humanity. However, when Grenouille becomes a mass murderer, killing twenty-five virgin girls for their scent, Suskind does not treat Grenouille as evil. This is because what Grenouille is now doing is considered wrong and evil by humankind in general. Grenouille’s behaviour here is evil, but for the majority of the novel is not. He does not understand what he is doing is wrong. Therefore, he cannot be considered inherently evil.

While Suskind may portray Grenouille as an evil character, his philosophy towards humankind is not contradictory to Suskind’s description. Because of his poor nurture as a child, Grenouille feels like he does not belong in the human world. He has extraordinary smelling skills that the average person doesn’t. He kills young girls because he can smell that they are pure, and he wants this aroma for himself. This greediness that Grenouille shows is best shown in his murder and stalking of Laure Richis.

“No, he wanted truly to possess the scent of this girl behind the wall; to peel it

from her like skin and to make her scent his own.”

Like the tick analogy that Suskind used earlier in the novel, Grenouille is ready to strike and suck the essence out of Laure. His nose tells him that her scent is natural and his hatred of humanity tells him that to possess this scent for himself that he needs to eliminate the thing that stands in his way – in this case, Laure. This combination of his philosophy about humans and his ability to use his nose to smell out the pure essence of human beings leads to the lethal murders of twenty-six young girls.

Grenouille’s actions and the way he behaves are directly linked to the experiences that he has throughout the novel. From the moment he is born, Grenouille is surrounded by neglect and hatred from his mother when he is tossed aside into a pile of fish guts. He is neglected by wet-nurses, the Church, his first employer Grimal and then exploited by Baldini, Grimal, Marquis de la Taillade-Espinasse and Druot. Everyone he meets throughout his journey through France has avoided and used him for their own benefit. No wonder he grew to hate humanity! These things that Grenouille has experienced are what his character is about – a hatred for humankind (retreat into the cave) and how he can retaliate against it. (The orgy and the mass murders) Grenouille performs in such a way against humanity through his mass killings, only because he likes the smell of the young virgins.

Because no one has taught him the concepts of love for yourself and love for others, he acts in the only way he knows and has taught himself – through the use of his nose and smell. When he discovers that he himself has no smell, he tries to artificially replace the love of others upon himself but realizes that is not what he wants. He discovers that he can control other people’s love through him through his power of scent and uses it to influence mankind. His experiences right the way through the novel shape what he becomes and what he does dramatically.

In conclusion, there are many aspects of Grenouille’s life that Suskind portrays in an evil light, but others where Grenouille learns who he is as a person and how his actions have direct results on other people and how he can use these consequences to his advantage. It is this philosophy and his own personal ability to use his nose to smell out pure young girls and kill them so he possesses them himself. Suskind’s ability to deliver amounts of sympathy towards Grenouille by the reader however does not override his interpretation of Grenouille as an evil person. Grenouille’s life does also take a course that is considered evil by the majority of humans, but it is his disregarded upbringing that created the monster that he became.

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