Patrick Süskind’s seminal 1985 novel, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, achieves that rare feat of creating a main character who is both protagonist and antagonist, all while being, of course, completely loathsome to the average person. Following the nefarious and odorless Grenouille from his infancy, Süskind shows us a man driven by one thing and one thing only: scent.
The irony of Grenouille being unable to smell himself, yet being able to so keenly detect even the kernel of an odor emanating from anyone or anything else is his great blessing and curse. His entire raison d’être, thus, becomes to be able to know what his own personal aroma is. It is in this way, that we become faintly sympathetic toward him and his unshakeable quest to discover it–by whatever means necessary.
Content to live off anything that comes his way, Grenouille grows up in an orphanage run by a soulless woman named Madame Gaillard who has no sense of smell as a result of being stubbed in the face with a fireplace poker as a child. Because she can’t process that Grenouille is odorless, she isn’t offput or alarmed by his creepiness as the other children are. It isn’t until he displays what she perceives to be “psychic” abilities that she begins to grow wary of him–particularly after he uses his nose to sniff out where her hidden money is when she can’t find it herself.
This leads Grenouille into the heartless arms of a tanner named Grimal, who treats Grenouille very slightly better than a dog. Once Grenouille proves indispensable by overcoming an anthrax infection, Grimal improves his accommodations greatly, all too aware that someone immune to this affliction after surviving it is instrumental to a tannery. Compared to a tick throughout the novel, with his ability to wait for years until smelling an opportunity on which to prey, Grenouille becomes increasingly loathsome as the tale progresses. At the core of his persona is this: “The tick had scented blood. It had been dormant for years, encapsulated, and had waited.” Grenouille’s skill for patient standby escalates him to the heights of working for famed but failing Paris parfumeur Giuseppe Baldini, who reluctantly makes him his assistant after smelling the intoxicating results of his concoctions.
Grenouille bides his time again, waiting for the next way to elevate his station in some way. While Baldini becomes world-renown off the scents that Grenouille creates, Grenouille decides to ask for journeyman papers that will take him to the south of France so that he can learn more about how to distill and preserve certain scents. Happy to see him go in exchange for more perfume formulae, Baldini’s building falls off the bridge and into the water immediately after Grenouille departs–telling of the destruction he quietly wreaks wherever he goes.
It is at this point in the story that Grenouille’s shift toward complete antagonist begins, as he retreats into a mountaintop cave where he can smell no other human beings and drink only of himself. But it is here that he comes to the distinct and sobering conclusion that he is truly odorless. A nightmare in which he drowns in his own scent prompts him to leave the cave after seven years with a new plan in mind: create a perfume that will make him the most loved and worshipped man in the world.
After being questioned and regarded as some sort of Neanderthal specimen, Grenouille is allowed reentry into society in the small town of Grasse, where he becomes a second journeyman to Druot, the lover of the woman who owns a perfumery. It is now, in all his tick-like fashion that Grenouille waits and collects the materials he needs to cultivate the most magical aroma ever known to man. The key ingredients? Lushly scented virgins, naturally. Going about the business of murdering twenty-four women throughout Grasse during the span of a year, Grenouille instills fear in every member of the population.
No one dreams of suspecting him because of his particular lack of scent. Because of this, “he succeeded in being considered totally uninteresting. People left him alone. And that was all he wanted.” To go about collecting his final and most prized kill, Laure Richis, the red-headed daughter of the richest man in town, Grenouille does what he is best at and waits for just the right moment to complete his perfume with Laure as the crowing piece. Caught leaving the scene of the crime, however, Grenouille is tried for murder and sentenced to a torturous end in the town square. Calm and unmoved as he is told his sentence, Grenouille chooses the moment of his release in the square to daub himself with a mere drop of the elixir he has created. Instantly, everyone in town forgets everything they thought he was capable of and throw themselves at him, digressing into a mass orgy–the sight of which sickens Grenouille and prompts the epiphany:
“…in that moment, as he saw and smelled how irresistible its effect was and how with lightning speed it spread and made captives of the people all around him—in that moment his whole disgust for humankind rose up again within him and completely soured his triumph, so that he felt not only no joy, but not even the least bit of satisfaction. What he had always longed for—that other people should love him—became at the moment of his 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.”
And so, regardless of how diabolical Grenouille is and the ending his life comes to, he’s the only protagonist we’ve got in Perfume. Who are we supposed to root for, after all? Humanity? Certainly not.