Perfume The Story of a Murderer
The Geography of Enlightenment and Equality in Perfume: The Story of a Murder
Enlightenment and Equality in Perfume: The Story of a Murderer The Enlightenment emerged in the late 17th- and early 18th-century as an intellectual movement emphasizing reason, individualism, and equality. The Enlightenment presented a challenge to traditional French societal values, and many Enlightenment thinkers were considered the progressives of their day. In the novel, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, by Patrick Süskind, the geographical landmarks of Paris and Grasse symbolize 18th century societal values, particularly the emphasis on equality and meritocracy. These values are expressed through the scent motif as it changes according to setting.
During the Age of Enlightenment, Paris was the center for enlightened change. Ironically Paris was the smelliest place in all France. According to Perfume’s narrator, “the rivers stank, the marketplace stank, the churches stank;” (Suskind 4). The narrator’s list is an ironic statement on equality; the city’s stench crosses all the socioeconomic boundaries that traditional French society had erected before the Enlightenment’s emphasis on equality. Despite the Enlightenment’s equalizing effect underscored by the narrator’s opening assertion, class is suggested through neighborhoods, and while everything in Paris stank, different neighborhoods had differing scents: “Through the wrought-iron gates at their portal came the smell of coach leather and of the powder in the pages’ wigs,” (35).The distinct scents arising from the quarter between Saint-Estache and the Hôtel de Ville, “coach leather” and the “powder” convey class and are more pleasant than the smells described in the marketplace, which is depicted as smelling like “a blend of rotting melon and the fetid odor of burnt animal horn,” (4). This provides a clear division in the social structure of Paris, which Süskind subtly incorporates in order to emphasize that even with the enlightened ideals, not everyone in society is truly equal.
This pre-Enlightenment hierarchy is evident in Baldini’s characterization, and when he teaches Grenouille about the art of making perfume. Baldini creates his perfume in a way “which consisted of knowing the formula,” (79) and this form of creation is in line with the enlightened ideas because it is scientific and exact, which is ironic because Baldini initially opposes the new enlightened ideas. Geographically. Baldini lives in one of the newly enlightened cities, and he teaches with the new enlightened scientific methods, but he still clinging on to Paris’ old identity. Baldini’s location also aligns with his true values – money. Baldini and Grenouille’s relationship is based on what Grenouille can do for Baldini in the aspects of launching a successful perfume. His “house” is on the “Pont-au-Change” (45) which historically owes its name to the goldsmiths and money changers who installed their shops there centuries before on an older version of the bridge. Thus the narrator reveals geographically what principles actually govern Baldini’s behavior. In the novel, Grenouille ironically embodies the older ideas, before the Age of Enlightenment because he randomly adds different ingredients into his perfumes; he claims “I don’t need a formula. I have the recipe in my nose” (75). He uses his sense of smell only to create perfume, not exact measurements. However, at the same time, Grenouille is also the perfect embodiment of the Enlightenment because his innate skills move him up Paris’s rigid social hierarchy. Born in a fish market to a single mother, he is brought under the church’s protection. Later he enters the bourgeois, getting his journeyman’s papers the help of Baldini (107), and his abilities to create the perfume, thus almost eliminating all preconceived notions of class limitation further emphasizing that everyone when it comes down to the details is the same.
The final geographic location within Paris that signifies equality is the Cimetière des Innocents, located between rue aux Fers and the rue de la Ferronnerie and “before him lay the cemetery grounds,” (253); the narrator claims that it is the “garbage dump of death” (253), making it the smelliest place in Paris. Grenouille’s last breath is taken on the grounds of the cemetery; in only a half an hour, “Jean-Baptise Grenouille had disappeared from utterly from the earth” (255). Ironically Grenouille dies in the place surrounded Paris’ worst smells. This geographic location creates circularity; he has returned to the smells that surrounded him at birth and which convey metaphorically equality. Grenouille continues his journey through France, arriving at a cavern inside a volcano. Grenouille stays here for seven long years, locking himself away from society, and the changing world around him: “He had no use for sensual gratification, unless that gratification consisted of pure, incorporeal odors” (122). The mountain provides Grenouille with an escape from the changes happening in Paris as well as Grasse where he later ventures. In Grenouille’s mind up in the mountain “there were no real things at all…, only the odors of things,” Thus the mountain not only emphasizes the absence of class structure, it also highlights the power of individuality. “…he basked in his own existence” (123). In the mountain there are only natural scents, no “human” odors; thus, there are no distinctions to be made between different classes. The scents Grenouille experience in the mountain also allow him to create his own world, where he is at the center of the universe, directly making himself seem like a god, when there are really no other “human” scents to compete with. After seven years in seclusion, “his mountain “vomit[s] him back out into the world” (133). He travels to Grasse, the 18th century perfume capital. Grasse is a town with a “little stump of a church steeple,” (166), implying that the church’s influence is minimal, and the Enlightenment has infiltrated their society. Instead Grenouille encounters “Odors of wealth that the wall exuded like a fine golden sweat,” (169), symbolizing the newly created middle class, which the Enlightenment engendered.
Madame Arnulfi particularly embodies these new values, as she “was a woman of solid prosperity,” (173). As a working woman she exemplifies the enlightenments idea’s and how they have spread through Grasse. Madame Arnulfi lives in a town of enlightenment which allows her to become a woman of respect for the time. Her smelling like prosperity, shows how Grenouille identifies her abilities to be good for Grenouille. Grasse who in the town with “the Rome of scents, the promise land of perfumers,” (166), smelled like prosperity, which directly contrasts with the disgusting smells of Paris. However, at the heart of Grasse there is an established tanner, very similar to the tanner established in Paris. This establishes no matter how “enlightened” a town may appear the stench of old values will remain. No matter what covers the stench that is symbolically human nature; it is still there. Enlightenment ideals are just a mask for human instinct. Grasse and Paris both express the different ideas of the enlightenment, but each in their own way. Paris has not easily accepted the liberal ideas of equality with such open arms as the town of Grasse has, because of the way Grenouille is still able to smell between the lines in a way, and smell the different distinctions between class neighborhoods. Grasse, on the other hand, has created a new way of life, where people can easily live in the middle, experiencing benefits from the upper class, while also understanding limitations of the lower class.
In Grenouille’s journey, he is able to move through the classes, and understand that the Age of Enlightenment is about establishing equality for all forms of people, and when he dies in the Cimetière des Innocents, in death, everyone smells the same, and no one is better than someone else. The stench of “humanness” embodies the human instinct and it is the same throughout all classes of people, in each stage of the journey. Through the expression of the scent motif, throughout the changes of setting in the novel, Perfume, by Patrick Süskind, the geographical landmarks of Paris and Grasse to represent 18th century societal values, particularly the emphasis on the shift on equality and meritocracy.
Works Cited: Süskind, Patrick. Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1986. Print.
Granouille’s Developing Identity in Perfume
Bildungsroman novels are identified by the grueling quest a protagonist undergoes in his search for place in society. The experiences the protagonist undergoes within this search contribute to their moral and psychological growth, building to one pinnacle point in their life, the long awaited identification of who they are or in some cases, the lack of it. In Patrick Susskind’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, the quest and transitions Granouille undergoes build his character and aids him in his search for identity. Throughout the novel, the existence of identity is determined through whether or not an individual emits an odor. Initially the wet nurse Jean-Bussie states that Granouille himself does not emit an odor, foreshadowing what he will spend his days trying to achieve and establishing the fact that he has no identity. As he is passed on to Father Terrier, we are given a small yet telling demonstration of his extra-ordinary power of scent, as he smells the priest upon awakening. However, this power gets Granouille no closer to his goal of identity and while he may have the bodily form of a human being, it is his bodily existence that closes all possibilities for him to become one. Leaving his home, Granouille is adamant in his search for identity. In Pierre fort, the virgin girls he murders are out of his craving to obtain human scent or in other words, human identity. Ironically, while Granouille is successful in his capturing of the perfect scent (essence aboslu), upon witnessing the thousands of people engage in a sex orgy he realized that he had failed to obtain human identity. The scent did not give him the identity of a human but rather a god-like status. Additionally, it makes Granouille realize that the people loved the scent and not him so no matter how hard he tries, he will never be considered among the humans. This illustrates that while Granouille may chase human identification, he will always be seen as a god among men. Granouille, who was hunchbacked, walked with a limp, and had many scars on his face, thought that his physical appearance made him no different from anyone else. During the Marquis’s show, Granouille wore nice clothes for the first time in his life. Upon looking at himself in the mirror, he thought that, “[H]e looked like a thousand other people”, (144), yet “he felt not one bit different from”, (145). Granouille believed that the being that looked back at him in the mirror was what truly mattered, the “odorless figure”. He was able to influence others through how others viewed him, and the ability to wear various perfumes or clothes subsequently gave him various identities. At this point, it was not what you are that mattered to Granouille, but how and what you look like. Shortly after his experience with the Marquis, Granouille began to formulate human odors. With this, Granouille was able to settle into his surroundings and manipulate people through his use of odors. He could make people believe he was anyone, allowing the man with no identity to become the man with a plethora of identities. Coming to the realization that he can no longer be among humans, Granouille abandons his search for identity and ends the quest, or so it seems. Following Granouille’s realization that the people loved the scent and not him, he retreats back to Paris to end his life. Even though “his perfume might allow him to appear before the world as god,” it meant little to him, as “if he could not smell himself and thus never know who he was, to hell with it, with the world, with himself, with his perfume” (252). While it makes sense for a man to go back to his birthplace to end his life, there is a misconception of Granouille’s alleged death wish. As Granouille douses himself with the entire bottle of essence aboslu, already knowing what a single drop of the essence is capable of, he is devoured by “thieves, murderers, cutthroats, whores, deserters, and young desperadoes” (253). While many view this as an act of desperation, it can alternatively be viewed as a staged act in the hope of resurrection. Granouille is likened to a tick several times throughout the novel due to his tenacity, which we have become accustomed to, so it does not make sense for him to simply want to kill himself. What makes sense, however, is for Granouille to commit this act in the hope of being reborn with a human scent and thus a human identity. In a nutshell, the destruction of Granouille’s own body was to achieve a clean slate through rebirth.
The Impact of the Natural Landscape in Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
The main character in Perfume, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, sets on a long journey through 18th century France, which starts and ends in Paris. The changes in the landscape during his travels reflect the inner changes in personality he undergoes himself. Patrick Süskind portrays Grenuoille as very much animal-like because of his incredible sense of smell. Moreover, he is compared to a thick during his childhood and then later on is given animalistic instincts and behavior, such as hunting. However, Grenuoille, who never had a normal relationship with another human being, reaches a point where he desires to be accepted by society. The inner conflict of animal vs. human is further developed through the changes in the landscape in the story. The character’s journey, which is enclosed in a circle, since both its beginning and end are in Paris, emphasizes on Grenouille’s inner wanders between being more human or more animal-like, culminating in his ‘suicide’.
Patrick Süskind describes Paris as a place of horrible stench, crowded with people, which fills Grnouille with loathing for humankind, in order to highlight the idea that since others cannot accept him, he would always be ‘an animal’ on the inside when surrounded by society. “The streets stank of manure, the courtyards of urine, the stairwells stank of moldering wood and rat droppings, the kitchens of spoiled cabbage and mutton fat; the unaired parlors stank of stale dust, the bedrooms of greasy sheets, damp featherbeds, and the pungently sweet aroma of chamber-pots.” (p. 3) The thorough imagery using only associations to scent makes the atmosphere in the city very dark and unpleasant, reflecting Grenouuille’s personality. For the character however, the stench is even more unbearable because of his incredible sense of smell.
Grenouille’s time in Paris could be divided into his early childhood under Madame Gaillard’s care and during his years as an apprentice for Grimal and into him working with the perfumer Baldini. While staying with Madame Gaillard, Grenouille develops his sense of smell and discovers his abilities. He wanders throughout Paris ‘catching’ different scents, slightly turning into rather an animal. “The other children, however, sensed at once what Grenouille was all about. From the first day, the new arrival was a sinister presence to them. They avoided the box in which he lay…”(p. 23). Süskind highlights the idea that Grenouille is not a normal human being since the other children feel that there is something about him that they cannot understand, which scares them. Moreover, the fact that he sleeps in a box resembles the way house animals sleep. This animal-like personality is further threaded in Grenouille’s stay with Grimal: “After one year of an existence more animal than human, he contracted anthrax, a disease feared by tanners and usually fatal.” (p. 33) Living in the poorer parts of Paris and sniffing various unpleasant scents, the character develops a hate towards humankind.
His feelings are slightly altered, or rather simply put at hold, when he starts working with Baldini. Grenouille is now able to enjoy some more privileges and is engulfed in his desire to learn more about perfumery. This change is reflected by the change in his surroundings: now he lives in a much better part of Paris and is more distant from all the unpleasant scents of the city. Despite that, he still hates his own town, which is used as a metaphor for human beings. “What did he need Paris for? He knew it down to its last stinking cranny, he took it whit him wherever he went, he had owned Paris for years now.” (p. 112) In fact, Paris represents all the people living there and thus what Grenouille cannot stand are the people, not the city itself.
After Grenouille leaves Paris and sets off on his journey to learn new ways to distill scents, he realizes that “For the first time in his life he did not have to prepare himself to catch the scent of something new, unexpected, hostile – or to lose a pleasant smell – with every breath. For the first time he could almost breathe freely, did not constantly have to be on the olfactory lookout.” (p. 119) The change in the setting, from Paris to the countryside, brings out Grenouille’s true nature. He is no longer surrounded by humans, which allows him to “breathe freely”. Moreover, the word “hostile” implies that he feels threatened by other people and prefers being on his own.
The character’s loathing for humanity is further developed and eventually reaches a point when he finds the most distant place from any human being – a mountain located in the Massif Central. There, Grenouille embraces animal-like behavior, demonstrated in him hunting down animals for food: “He also found nourishment in the form of small salamanders and ring snakes; he pinched off their heads, then devoured them whole.” (p. 126) However, at the same time, his inner state juxtaposes with his behavior. Grenouille appears to be an animal but manages to find inner peace, which drives him closer to being a human. His solitude resembles the ways in which people try to come close to spiritual forces or God, such as saints or prophets. The change in the setting from the countryside to the cave on the mountain and Grenouille’s stay there, reflects on his spiritual growth and him reaching the realization that he desires to be accepted by society. This shows how among humans, Grenouille is rather animal-like and when alone, he needs the recognition of others, thus, his more human side is brought out.
The next change in the setting in the story occurs when Grenouille leaves the mountain and goes to different cities: Marseille, Montpellier and Grasse. His looks, “He looked awful. His hair reached down to the hollows of his knees, his scraggly beard to his navel. His nails were like talons, and the skin on his arms and legs, where the rags no longer covered his body, was pealing off in shreds” (p.143), are used to dehumanize him, emphasizing on his animalistic characteristics, despite his recent spiritual growth and new realizations. Later on, his abilities in perfumery allow him to create scents that influence people in particular ways, which leads to his acceptance in society and him having a relatively normal life. However, Grenouille’s aim of creating the ultimate perfume, one that would make people adore him, brings him back to his animalistic personality. “At first he stalked them from a safe distance with wide-meshed net, for he was less concerned with bagging large game than with testing his hunting methods.” (p.193) Grenouille turns into a serial murderer, killing maidens for their scent.
His actions once again highlight the inner conflict of animalistic vs. human in an ironic way, since his ultimate goal is to be loved by others, which would be achieved by going against anything human. Grenoullie eventually realizes that despite his utmost efforts, he is not able to overcome his hatred and the desire to be human is prevailed by the animal ‘inside’ of him. “What he had always longed for – that others should love him – became at the moment of its achievement unbearable, because he did not love them himself, he hated them. And suddenly he knew that he had never found gratification in love, but always only in hatred – in hating and in being hated.” (p. 249) Love and hatred could be seen as metaphors to describe Grenouille’s inner conflict and struggles. The recognition of his true self is stressed by his return to Paris, which closes the character’s life’s circular frame. He goes back to where his life started to end his own life, realizing there is no other place where he belongs, but the one he hates the most. The juxtaposition and dark irony are used by Süskind to reveal that in the end, we are who we are, and Grenouille is more an animal than human.
In Perfume, Patrick Süskind uses the importance of setting to either juxtapose or reflect on the spiritual journey that Grenouille undergoes. The idea of the inner conflict of the character between his animalistic and human selves is used by the author to suggest that everyone has another side to themselves and we have to find a way to deal with our inner struggles. Süskind criticizes humans for not being brave enough to accept their true nature, trying to hide it or change it, similarly to the way Grenouille believes he wants the love of others.
How is Patrick Süskind’s characterization of his protagonist significant in criticizing the society in the work ‘Perfume: The Story of a Murderer’?
In the novel Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, Patrick Süskind presents the audience with a central protagonist who is characterized as less than human. Grenouille’s potential malevolence is initially indicated by his invariably negative characteristics, as Grenouille’s actions as a child differentiate him from other humans within society. Eventually, Grenouille embraces his difference and embarks on a quest of self-discovery. His desire to be not just human, but more than human, through the creation of the ultimate scent becomes his pervading motive. Süskind’s characterization of Grenouille throughout his journey provokes questions about human identity and morality. Moreover, the protagonist encourages condemnation of a society that not only allows a malicious being to survive, but thrive.
Süskind foreshadows Grenouille’s malevolent nature by characterizing him as an unwelcome and distasteful baby. The accretion of negative adjectives, such as “ugly”  and “devilish” , to characterize Grenouille suggests that he is both physically and psychologically repulsive. Moreover, Süskind attributes volition to newborn Grenouille, suggesting that his “cry, emitted upon careful consideration… was the newborn’s decision against love and nevertheless for life”. By suggesting that newborn Grenouille made a mature decision that inevitably willed the death of his mother makes him seem monstrous. The setting where Grenouille is born establishes a gloomy atmosphere and miasmic olfactory imagery of animals and death. Süskind makes it apparent that these elements that emerge in the characterization of Grenouille later in the novel as in fact inherent from birth. In France there is a prevailing understanding that “an infant is… a prehuman being and does not yet possess a fully developed soul”. Hence, Süskind indicts society, as it is ironic that there are laws to protect newborns from infanticide even though people consider babies to be subhuman. The undervaluing of young human life is characteristic of the flawed society. Süskind immediately depicts Grenouille malevolently, however the circumstances surrounding his intrauterine neglect and adverse birth prompt the reader to consider whether he is unjustly treated by society. From the outset, Grenouille’s name and inability to sustain human relationships act to differentiate him from other humans. Süskind gives Grenouille the name Jean-Baptiste, which alludes to the beheading of Saint John the Baptist; Grenouille’s mother was similarly beheaded for infanticide. Additionally, Süskind’s choice of the surname Grenouille (French for ‘frog’) is metaphorical of Grenouille’s animalistic traits and lack of human identity. Grenouille begins to express the animalistic qualities that his surname insinuates when he is subjected to the failed guidance of the wet nurses. With ravenous hunger Grenouille “pumped [his wet nurses] dry down to the bones” . This description foreshadows Grenouille’s eventual parasitic nature, under which he benefits at society’s expense. Although Grenouille’s development is partly guided by characters who disregard him early in life, he exploits even them for his personal gain. Hence, Süskind criticizes a society that is so dismissive of Grenouille yet allows him to thrive effortlessly.
As Grenouille’s psychotic tendencies begin to manifest in his childhood, Süskind illustrates that Grenouille’s human relationships are merely constructed to advance his passion for perfume. As Grenouille advances his perfumery skills, Süskind condemns the societal values of Pre-Revolutionary France that deem Grenouille to be futile in the discipline. Grenouille is described as “a nobody”  in the field of perfumery due to his lack of “relatives of like standing” . Pre-Revolutionary France was not yet a meritocracy and consequently, despite his perfumery brilliance, Grenouille’s adverse childhood prevented him from being promoted in the business. Moreover, Baldini acquires Grenouille by purchasing him from Grimal. This indicates that the serfdom of the lower class was still present in France. However, Grenouille is able to enhance his perfumery skills despite being exploited by Baldini. While Grenouille initially attains relatively good fortune working for others, he also becomes an inadvertent agent of death. This is indicated in the demise of Madame Gaillard, Grimal, Baldini, and Marquis. Perhaps their deaths are a way for Süskind to condemn their maltreatment of Grenouille. Hence, the society that does not respect Grenouille’s talent for perfumery eventually feels the consequences as his talent becomes an untempered aberration. Süskind explores the flaws in society through Grenouille’s superior olfactory ability. Grenouille is noted to “bask… in his own existence”  in the cave in Massif Centrale in an attempt to abscond from the “stench”  of humankind. It is ironic that society is repulsed by Grenouille because he does not have a scent, when their scent is epitomized by cat excrement, cheese, and vinegar. Hence, Süskind uses Grenouille’s superior sense to show that human essence is inherently rancid. Moreover, Süskind’s diction while Grenouille is in the cave is less descriptive than the diction used when Genouille is in Paris. This shift encapsulates the serenity that Grenouille feels when he is not disturbed by society. Essentially, Süskind uses scent, the thing that makes Grenouille different to others in society, to show that the society which condemns Grenouille is equally flawed.
Grenouille’s predicament and consequent desire to be more than human derive from his inability to impact the olfactory world. Süskind writes that “odors have a power of persuasion stronger than that of words, appearances, emotions, or will” . This premise suggests that scent is integral to humanity on an unconscious level. Without a scent, Grenouille is perceived as less than human, both in his own mind and in the mind of society. Hence, Grenouille deems that the perfect elixir of perfume will give him not only a human identity, but also an identity that is superior to all other humans. Grenouille’s journey from less than human to more than human finishes during the orgy; however, it is dissatisfying because he discovers the true nature of society. Grenouille finally attains his dream of being “Grenouille the Great”  when he enamors the crowd at his execution. The crowd becomes a group of animal-like beings responding unconsciously to a chemical stimulus. Süskind reveals that human emotion is merely manipulated by artificial means like perfume. Grenouille’s black out further symbolizes his disappointment in humanity and desire to disappear from the world that he has never been suited for. Such easy manipulation of society is epitomized by the changing perception of Grenouille from a “devil”  to an “angel” . This is an opportunity to criticize society’s assessment of Grenouille, as the reader may think that Grenouille does not deserve praise. The flawed society that once rebuked Grenouille had become animal-like and less than human, the people eating him “like hyenas” . Süskind posits that the animalistic qualities present in Grenouille are inherent in all of society. In fact, despite being scorned for most of his life, Grenouille is the one character who truly understands humanity.
Ultimately, the ending is indicative of Grenouille’s changing identity from less than human to more than human, yet never able to find the human identity that he yearned for. Süskind employs animal metaphors to characterize Grenouille during his journey from being less than human to more than human. Indeed, Süskind first depicts Grenouille as a “bacterium”  and lastly as a “beast” . The animal metaphors that spin off from these, such as “reptile”  and “hermit crab” , indicate that Grenouille is moving from a lower order organism to a higher order organism as he ages. This parallels his development from an unwanted child to a revered being. Also, by likening Grenouille to a “black spider” , Süskind may be positing that Grenouille’s actions are involuntarily convulsive. This suggests that Grenouille is amoral rather than immoral and that his search for a human identity is a justifiable motive for his murderous deeds. Therefore, Süskind allows the reader to have an independent interpretation of Grenouille’s character and of the characters of others within society. By likening Grenouille to various animals Süskind suggests that Grenouille is never truly human and therefore cannot assimilate into French society unless by artificial means.
Patrick Süskind’s characterization of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille encourages the audience to be critical of French society on the whole. Grenouille is characterized as an animalistic subhuman who is allowed to thrive in the hands of society. His psychotic vulnerability manifests itself in his adolescence as a result of neglect from other characters. Yet Süskind contrasts Grenouille with members of society who are not admirable to show that all characters have inherent flaws. At the end of the novel, Süskind characterizes Grenouille as a superior being despite his evidently abominable nature. This climax typifies Süskind’s critique of society; the people of France are so vain that they neither accept Grenouille in society nor appreciate his talents, but nevertheless allow him to manipulate their behavior through artificial scents. By revealing the flaws in the characters around Grenouille, Süskind encourages the reader to question whether this society is ultimately to blame for Grenouille’s warped and perverted motives and how it could let such a malevolent creature prosper.
Word count: 1477  P. Süskind, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, trans. A. Diogenes Verlag, London, Penguin Books, 2010, p.22  ibid., p.15  ibid., p.22  ibid., p.10  ibid., p.8  ibid., p.110  ibid., p.110  ibid., p.128  ibid., p.3  ibid., p.86  ibid., p.249  ibid., p.19  ibid., p.263  ibid., p.262  ibid., p.21  ibid., p.240  ibid., p.74  ibid., p.131  ibid., p.79
Humor, Hilarity, Hypocrisy and Irony: The Purpose of Comedy in Patrick Süskind’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
Author and historian Barbara Tuchman said “Satire is a wrapping of exaggeration around a core of reality.” In the German macabre novel Perfume: The Story of a Murderer where, for author Patrick Suskind, The Third Reich, ”was for my generation always in the back of our minds.”(2) and in a novel full of references to German stories like The Name of the Rose and Faust where misbehavior is often deadly, it might appear, depending on the reader, easy or very difficult for humor to find a foothold. Suskind’s “…relentless irony – a tone of barely suppressed hilarity that permeates ”Perfume” (2) seems atypical of the ‘precision German engineering’ culture. So who was Perfume intended for? Perfume had a wide reception, but was it made to be entertaining, or did Suskind intend to have it closely analyzed by expert German literary critics, or both? Answers of the novel’s themes range from “an indictment of Enlightenment rationality, an allegory of the fascist mind, or simply as a cynical postmodern pastiche that serves the reader titillating but derivative kitsch.” (2) As for comedy, upon closer examination the masterful so called layers of ¨double coding¨ of humor woven through the text are revealed. Humor, in the form of satire, irony, parody, and it’s many other forms, is used throughout the text are used for two purposes: Draw in layman and erudite reader through different forms of comedy, helping to entertainingly lighten up the novel, and also simultaneously on a much more deeper sophisticated level use parody, pastiche, satire, and kitsch to call for a re-evaluation of the creative process in literature post-enlightenment.
Set in 18th century France, the tale of a man with a magical sense of smell and a crazy destructive obsession is often strangely relatable. Perfume illuminates contemporary issues with many comical moments with multi-leveled black humor. As simple as it might appear, general comedy appeals to the layman reader. Aspects of the novel appear ridiculous enough, Suskind apparently saying ”I thought it was such an absurd story”(2) spark an immediate interest, ensuring the average American high school student can adore the novel even with absolutely no knowledge of any German texts or cultural aspects present. For the layman reader, aspects of the novel appear so ridiculous they arouse curiosity. Read by many as a murder mystery novel, humor serves to entertain readers the way a serial killer in a horror movie might by telling his victim a joke before he kills them. Ignoring the massively complex analyses which has been done on Suskind’s use of a protagonist without a personal sent yet with a superhuman sense of smell, the unique, ‘funny’ part is what may draw the ignorant teenager in. It sounds obvious, but a clear trait of humor first allows for an understanding of the immensely complex use of various humor within Perfume. Readers with even a slightly dark sense of humor can also laugh at the foolish pseudoscience of the lillumium fatale without understanding the supposed undermining of the enlightenment, get a good chuckle out of the orgy scene where, 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 wife—all topsy-turvy, just as opportunity presented” (7), the anticlimactic ending, and the ridiculous chronological deaths of all minor characters Grenouille meets without needing a masters degree in literature. The harshness and depressing nature of ending may be a “hollow victory for evil” (5) but is also a silly anticlimactic ending to a rather crazy book after Grenouille’s crazy success with his olfactory magnum opus. Sophisticated cynical jabs at human nature and undermining of enlightenment ideals, crazy taboo topics made light of all appeal to the cynical satirist in us all, making us enjoy reading the novel without any pre-existing knowledge of German Scholars and texts. Humor is used in parody and pastiche form to provide the same entertainment to people who do have knowledge of Germanic literature and German culture.
Still, satire’s place in the novel is certainly more important and complex than might appear at first glance. German literary critics were enamored with Perfume and it’s masterful allusions to German history and ancient German texts and stories. There are many comedic parts only a more ‘educated’ reader will understand and appreciate. In the same vein the illuminum fatal can be seen as goofy, it’s failure makes fun of, and thus undermines the enlightenment, used to critique french society and German culture. An example is the clear connection between enlightenment and fascism, and how enlightenment is proven not to be the antiseptic to fascism, in fact the cold nature of the ‘age of reason’ could in fact be a catalyst for the rise of fascism, as shown by the relationship between Grenouille and Richis. Richis is the ‘eye’ the representation of the intellectual enlightenment, must suppress his instinctual incestuous desire for his daughter, while Grenouille, an uneducated murderer is able to have a huge number of people rally around him through the creation of his perfume and the arousal of a very primitive and ‘unintellectual’ sense in smell. Because Grenouille is an idiot, Suskind makes fun of evil and monstrous murders Grenouille is a funny guy, appealing to a rather base human emotion in the reader, an emotion very much absent in Grenouille. Perhaps this suggests to be human requires a sense of self, not just in possessing a personal sent, but also in possessing a sense of humor. The closest Grenouille gets is a brief cynical smirk. Such intellectual humor also exists in small details, someone with a bit of a religious background can laugh at the irony of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, the name of a saint enamored with baptism as a force for inclusion given to an infant who was attempted to be drowned by his mother who didn’t want him. Humor escalates to be present on a much larger scale, up to the novels existence as a whole. Such is possible as a ‘postmodern’ novel, postmodernism is able to send many ideological messages at once, it can make fun of old traditions by turning them on their head and use irony and satire to give them new meaning, going against the establishment using the establishment to be revolutionary, while also idolizing them and perpetuating their traditional messages. Allegorical German allusions to texts, among many other references driving home many different themes and messages. Humor both ironically takes away from and balances out the dense existentialism and references to Germanic texts and adds to them through parody giving them new meaning. Some critics have gone so far as to accuse Perfume of “cannibalizing” past styles. “Addressing the question of literary influences, Suskind claims to be a blissfully ignorant epigone whose memory is so poor that he barely remembers what he has read, much less who wrote it, which, it seems to him, is a fortunate handicap for a creative writer since it frees him from the anxiety of influence and creates an uncomplicated relation to plagiarism, without which, he paradoxically insists, nothing original can be written.” (1) Some critics believed because Suskind had taken from previous texts, Perfume was nothing more than a composition of uncited sources.
“The very issue of creative identity that Suskind’s tongue-in-cheek essay on literary amnesia playfully mocks became a main focus of the critical discussion of Das Parfum. The novel’s blatantly derivative style and its free-ranging appropriation of canonical texts were criticized by some as the product of a literary parasite who invades and feeds on anterior texts. (1) “Readers saw Suskind’s parasitic perfumer as a self-reflexive metaphor for the postmodernist’s epigonal guilt and so failed to perceive the ironic (and more accurately postmodern) implication that all writing is an assimilation of previous writing, just as all identity is an assimilation of previous models of subjectivity. By foregrounding the plagiarism that Suskind thinks is essential to creativity, Perfume undermines the traditional assumption that the literary text is the exclusive personal property of its author. In so doing, Suskind suggests that the humanist notion of the autonomous self, idealized since the Enlightenment, has caused a fundamental misunderstanding, if not a perversion, of the creative process.”(1). As a living literal pastiche of perfume, such a radical intellectual concept is expressed in ironic jab at the literary process itself. “American Germanist Judith Ryan argued the novel’s pastiche implies a critical strategy that forces an overdue reassessment of established literary values, especially of conventional notions of creativity. As such, the pastiche citationality of Perfume challenges the notion of artistic autonomy that had emerged in the Enlightenment aesthetics of Kant and Schiller and was elaborated by certain Romantics and their modernist successors…Increasingly, we witness the emergence of writers who construct their texts as hybrid reproductions of prior texts assimilated into a synthetic pastiche…Even though the parodic qualities of a novel like Perfume tend to obscure its critical function, its pastiche still effectively exposes illusions of creative mastery and textual ownership encoded in the precursor texts that it seems to exploit. More than a parasitic parody that feeds on dead poets, Perfume can be productively interpreted as an enactment of literary anamnesis that contributes to a working through of complex psychic and social issues.”(1) Among these issues include an analysis of the rise of fascism in German after Hitler (funny since Perfume takes place in France.) “After Hitler’s exploitation and contamination of the German cultural tradition, vast portions of its intellectual heritage, especially those relating to Romanticism, were disavowed, leaving Germany (already geographically and politically divided) with an impoverished group identity. Presumably, the implication that the writing subject of a novel like Perfume has been swallowed by the black hole of postmodern ecriture, only to re-emerge as an irrationally destructive and cynical parasite, is too frightening to contemplate in a culture clinging to the shreds of an incohesive collective identity.”(1) So, in addition to simply being entertaining, ironically a purpose usually overlooked, humor serves to subvert standards of creativity and comment on the dangers of the enlightenment.
Suskind’s own sparse public comments, include his prediction for the novels release. “If I ever finished it, it might have a certain level of readers, people interested in history and literature. Maybe 5,000 copies.” (2) certainly seem to point to the expectation of higher level analysis. Whether the books success depends on readers ignorance or capacity for understanding, your appreciation for the novel may just depend on your sense of humor.
(1) The Germanic Review, Fall 2000 v75 i4 p259Narcissism and Creativity in the Postmodern Era: The Case of Patrick Suskind’s Das Parfum. (Critical Essay) JEFFREY ADAMS. Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2000 Heldref Publications
(2) Adams, Robert M. “The Nose Knows.” The New York Review of Books 20 Nov. 1986: 24-26.
(3) Butterfield, Bradley. “Enlightenment’s Other in Patrick Suskind’s Das Parfum: Adorno and the Ineffable Utopia of Modern Art.” Comparative Literature Studies 32.3 (1995): 401-418.
(4) Ryan, Judith. “The Problem of Pastiche: Patrick Suskind’s Das Parfum.” The German Quarterly 63.3/4 (1990): 396-403.
(5) O. Rarick, Damon. “Serial Killers, Literary Critics, and Süskind’s ‘Das Parfum.’” www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/25594403.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3A7406623c272137fdb1c7b4736017a027.
(6) OÌktem, ZuÌleyha CÌ§etiner. Mythmaking across Boundaries. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2016.
(7) SuÌskind, Patrick. Perfume. Penguin Classics, 2010.