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Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
Patrick Suskind
1985

Patrick Suskind’s novel is simply a cautionary tale on following your desires, and the downfall that follows hubris. For the protagonist, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, his pursuit of the perfect scent proves to be his salvation and undoing. Born odorless in the slums of Paris, Grenouille is ironically blessed with a superhuman sense of smell, a gift his whole life revolves around.

Throughout the course of the novel, he dedicates himself to his olfactory pursuits, embarking on a quest to produce the greatest perfume. He goes to disturbing lengths to distil various scents, from herbs and flowers to more commonplace objects like glass and metal. With his insatiable thirst, he inevitably moves on to living things, murdering the scent out of virginal girls.

With the essence of these murdered girls, Grenouille succeeds in creating his divine perfume, but not before getting caught for his crimes. He unveils his masterpiece before the crowd at his scheduled execution. One drop of his perfume drives them into a rapturous frenzy, transforming himself in their eyes as an angel, even God himself, come down to earth. For once in his life, the odorless wretch feels loved. His success, however, proves fleeting.

What is interesting in Grenouille’s journey is the trail of misfortune and death he left behind. He is a corrupting force, using his gift to help people perfect their wildest pursuits to their own detriment. His former employer falls into a river and drowns, drunk from money he received when he sold off Grenouille. A famed perfumer’s house collapses from the weight of the fortune he obtained from Grenouille’s perfumes. People benefiting from his gift die ironic deaths.

The common theme is the ruin brought by hubris. In the end, even Grenouille realizes the folly of his achievement. What use is having the perfect perfume, if people will only love him for his scent? At the peak, with the power to inspire love in his hand, he realizes that success is as fleeting and artificial as the scent from even the most heavenly perfume, and decides to end his life.

A silver lining can be gleaned from his tragic end. One can say his success in creating the perfect perfume opened the door to his salvation, in that it helped him see through the artifice of ambition–something the novel’s other characters didn’t have the strength to grasp.

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