Patrick Suskind's 1985 novel Perfume deals with themes controversial enough to raise eyebrows. After all the protagonist is a mass murderer whose victims are all virgins. The crimes therefore reveal the confluence of gender and politics, as well as moral integrity. However outlandish the premise of Perfume might be, the book remains part of a literary canon. The book was well-received by critics and remains a core part of any university modern literature program. Moreover, the book retains amazing literary merit. The author employes characterization, symbolism, and other literary devices with aplomb and it would be outlandish to even think about banning such an artistic gem. Many of the world's best novels have caused a stir quite like the one created by Patrick Suskind. J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye is a prime example of how prudishness, ignorance, and lack of foresight can mar artistic, social, and political progress. Patrick Suskind's Perfume should surely be included in school syllabi and honored for its social commentary and its historical and literary merits.
As the title suggests, the human sense of smell is the core motif of Perfume. Smell is not often dealt with in any depth in literature. The olfactory device is given at best a cursory nod, as smells do invoke memories in the minds of characters. Smell is most often used as a part of setting construction, helping guide the reader through the narrator's multi-sensory landscape.
Unfortunately smell too often takes a back seat to the more lauded senses of sight and hearing. What a character sees takes precedence over what a character smells. Sounds also dominate other senses. Sensuality may convey multiple senses, and yet smell and perhaps taste are the two senses that are deemed the most needless -- and even possibly primitive.
Smelling is something that human beings do very poorly, in fact. Dogs and other animals have much finer senses of smell, honed over millennia of physical evolution. The human being is so olfactorily inhibited as to be handicapped in this area. Human beings are the smelling-impaired, the nasally challenged mammals.
However, in Perfume, the sense of smell is more than just a biological function. Smell is elevated beyond the level of the mundane, and assumes a sort of spiritual dimension. Patrick Suskind's protagonist Jean-Baptiste Grenouille was in fact born with a defect of his own: he lacks a personal scent. Whether his lack of personal scent is traceable to an actual medical condition -- such as one that precludes the individual from producing pheromones -- is irrelevant in the novel. What is remarkable about Jean-Baptiste Grenouille's condition is the way in which the protagonist defines himself via smell precisely because of his condition. He transmutes his condition into a quest for the ultimate aromas. He therefore compensates for his core defect by seeking ways to artificially manufacture that which he lacks.
Smell is therefore a symbol, a motif, and a powerful motivator. Readers encounter the sense of smell when it is lacking, such as on Jean-Baptiste Grenouille. Smell serves an important function in creating bonds of intimacy, especially sexual intimacy. As with all tremendously tragic literary heroes, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille becomes an archetype, an icon that all readers can relate to. From Jean-Baptiste Grenouille's unique perspective, we learn about ourselves. This is why we can never even so much as entertain the idea that Perfume should be censored in any way.
Having no scent marks Jean-Baptiste Grenouille as being a social outcast; the reactions other characters have towards him help define his psychological and moral character. It is as if others cannot trust a person with no smell for the exact reason why smell has an evolutionary function. For animals, and for the primitive human brain, smell serves as a primary defense mechanism. People can smell food that has gone off, which makes smell a foremost line of defense against illness. Smelling others helps us to understand our feelings towards them, such as when we are attracted to others because of their scents. Babies recognize their parents because of their distinct odors, so whether we like it or not, human beings are like the other animals.
Author Patrick Suskind creates an apt juxtaposition between Jean-Baptiste Grenouille and Madame Gaillard, who has no sense of smell. Here we have to oddly olfactorily handicapped individuals one who…