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Creative Genius vs. Convention and Assimilation Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Growing Up and Becoming Human Theme Icon
Power and Control Theme Icon
Creative Genius vs. Convention and Assimilation Theme Icon
Upward Mobility and Social Movement Theme Icon
Scent, Sight, and the Grotesque Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Perfume, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Creative Genius vs. Convention and Assimilation Theme Icon

Grenouille is described as a wunderkind (a young prodigy), a genius who knows instinctively how to mix fabulous scents. As such, he doesn't require instruction in how to make a good perfume; rather, he only needs to learn the rules and conventions of perfumers and of people in general in order to effectively function in the world and achieve his goals. Essentially, Grenouille's creative genius is what sets him apart from other people, but it's his willingness to adapt to rules and learn conventions that allows him to function effectively enough in the world to not be written off as a monster.

Throughout Grenouille's childhood and adolescence, he struggles to integrate with society in part because others find him repulsive, but also because he's so caught up in his own olfactory world that he sees no point in being a real part of society. In this way, Grenouille begins life by differentiating himself from those around him, even before he's known by others to be a genius. He, as well as the other children in the orphanage where he’s raised, knows he's different, and he simultaneously ostracizes himself and is ostracized by others because of his weirdness. This difference, born of his genius, is what leads Grenouille to an intense hatred of humanity. His disdain of the greater populace stems from what he perceives as a willingness or biological imperative to be led blindly by scent.

The way in which Grenouille acquires language, both spoken and the language of perfume, and goes on to use it encompasses his struggle between genius and convention. Grenouille begins talking late and struggles to understand how spoken language even works, since he finds the spoken word inadequate to describe his world. However, as he grows, he begins to understand that by accepting language, social customs, and the practices of perfumers, he can pass as normal in society. This epiphany first grips Grenouille when the marquis de la Taillade-Espinasse dresses him in gentleman's clothes. Grenouille discovers that despite his lack of scent and his badly scarred body, he is capable of passing as normal by accepting the conventions of how polite gentlemen dress. He continues this facade with the faux human scent, and his total facade allows him to move through society without fear of his true evil genius being discovered.

It should be noted that at the time the novel takes place, French society itself was undergoing a similar struggle between new ways of thinking and old institutions of power and structure. Both Father Terrier and Baldini discuss this change explicitly. In this way, many characters besides Grenouille are essentially grappling with the same issues that he is. While their struggles are very different from Grenouille's micro struggles of scent and misanthropy, every character in the novel is attempting to either keep up with the times and create progress, or preserve old ideas and structures in favor of convention.

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Creative Genius vs. Convention and Assimilation ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Creative Genius vs. Convention and Assimilation appears in each Chapter of Perfume. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Creative Genius vs. Convention and Assimilation Quotes in Perfume

Below you will find the important quotes in Perfume related to the theme of Creative Genius vs. Convention and Assimilation.
Part 1, Chapter 5 Quotes

With words designating non-smelling objects, with abstract ideas and the like, especially those of an ethical or moral nature, he had the greatest difficulty. He could not retain them, confused them with one another, and even as an adult used them unwillingly and often incorrectly...

Related Characters: Jean-Baptise Grenouille
Page Number: 25
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator is describing how Grenouille learned to speak and acquired language. It was a slow process, as only words that denoted objects that smelled held Grenouille's interest. The problem of language follows Grenouille throughout his life. While he does eventually learn enough spoken language to function in the world, he never becomes a great conversationalist, because people don't hold interest for him. He later learns the language of perfume and learns how to write out formulas and measure ingredients, but he only learns these skills because he understands that possessing these skills will allow him to pass for a normal, conventional perfumer. This is how Grenouille decides to learn things throughout his life: only if it truly interests him, or only if it will allow him tools to advance his goals and interests or proves absolutely necessary for his existence.


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Part 1, Chapter 8 Quotes

Grenouille knew for certain that unless he possessed this scent, his life would have no meaning... the mere memory, however complex, was not enough.

Related Characters: Jean-Baptise Grenouille, Girl from the rue de Marais
Page Number: 41
Explanation and Analysis:

Grenouille has discovered the girl from the rue de Marais, who possesses an intoxicating scent, and he decides that he must possess the scent himself by killing her. While it's been obvious from the beginning that Grenouille is strangely obsessive about scent, this takes that obsession to a sinister extreme. His disregard for humans and life itself becomes apparent, as he later suffers no remorse nor even acknowledges that he murdered the girl.

Further, this event becomes a turning point for Grenouille and his life. The discovery of this scent allows him to begin to plan for his future and starts him on his quest for self-knowledge.

It was as if he had been born a second time; no, not a second time, the first time, for until now he had merely existed like an animal with a most nebulous self-awareness. But after today, he felt as if he finally knew who he really was: nothing less than a genius.

Related Characters: Jean-Baptise Grenouille, Girl from the rue de Marais
Page Number: 43
Explanation and Analysis:

Grenouille is in bed after killing the girl from the rue de Marais. It becomes obvious that killing the girl and possessing her scent is a turning point for Grenouille, as it catapults him onto his journey of self-discovery. It provides him with a higher power, essentially, with which to organize both his life and his vast mental collection of scents. His conception of himself as a genius (and thus set apart from the general human population) also begins to develop Grenouille's misanthropy as something conscious, and that he's even proud of. While Grenouille asserts that everyone will love both this girl and, later, Laure for their intoxicating scents, Grenouille alone can understand how their scents work and how to harness them for his own use.

Part 1, Chapter 11 Quotes

The man was indeed a danger to the whole trade with his reckless creativity. It made you wish for a return to the old rigid guild laws. Made you wish for draconian measures against this nonconformist, this inflationist of scent.

Related Characters: Giuseppe Baldini (speaker), Pélissier
Page Number: 53
Explanation and Analysis:

Baldini is on a mental rant against Pélissier, a rival perfumer, but he also rails against the changing times in which he finds himself. Here, Baldini specifically recalls the guild laws of the middle ages, which set out strict guidelines for the creation of perfumes. Following those guidelines, presumably, Pélissier wouldn't be able to access the success he enjoys in the mid-18th century, and Baldini would still be considered a successful and well-established perfumer.

This passage also highlights Baldini's love of rules and regulations in general. He later insists that Grenouille learn to write out formulas and measure ingredients, which allows Baldini to feel more in control of Grenouille's process (which Baldini would, interestingly, surely describe as "nonconformist" as well). Baldini isn't interested in creating new things, necessarily; rather, he holds tight to the craftsman origins of the perfume profession and guards these traditions carefully, as they provide comfort and meaning in these quickly changing times.

Man's misfortune stems from the fact that he does not want to stay in the room where he belongs. Pascal said that. And Pascal was a great man, a Frangipani of the intellect, a real craftsman, so to speak, and no one wants one of those anymore.

Related Characters: Giuseppe Baldini (speaker)
Page Number: 55
Explanation and Analysis:

Baldini is considering the changing times in which he finds himself, and he feels threatened by man's desire for progress, speed, and discovery. Baldini's entire monologue sets the reader up to understand him as someone who is very interested in convention and conformity. He takes comfort in rules and regulations, as they offer him power and control. Baldini isn't interested in breaking rules for the sake of invention; he'd rather things just not change. When Baldini takes in Grenouille, however, the reader watches Baldini slowly but surely embrace "leaving the room" via Grenouille's creativity. While Baldini certainly molds and channels this creativity and achieves success by working within existing rules and regulations, Grenouille's presence helps shift Baldini towards a more artistic way of being. However, when Baldini dies after Grenouille's departure, the reader is asked to consider if the responsibility lies with Grenouille as a sort of bringer of death, or Baldini's rejection of true artistry is to blame.

Part 1, Chapter 17 Quotes

He believed that by collecting these written formulas, he could exorcise the terrible creative chaos erupting from his apprentice.

Related Characters: Jean-Baptise Grenouille, Giuseppe Baldini
Page Number: 91
Explanation and Analysis:

Baldini has forced Grenouille to allow him to write down formulas for the perfumes Grenouille creates. Baldini finds a great deal of comfort in enforcing rules and order, and dislikes unrestricted creativity and invention. Thus, he finds Grenouille's ability to mix perfumes without measuring them to be both terrifying and miraculous in turn. By writing down the formulas, Baldini begins to exert some control over Grenouille's chaotic creative process. This is also the primary way in which Baldini uses Grenouille for his own gain. While Baldini certainly could've allowed Grenouille free rein to create as he so chose, getting the formulas in writing insures that Baldini can still recreate the perfumes in case something happens to Grenouille. Baldini cares little for Grenouille's desires or even his well-being, but will do whatever it takes to make sure he can keep using Grenouille's genius for his own gain.

But by using the obligatory measuring glasses and scales, he learned the language of perfumery, and he sensed instinctively that the knowledge of this language could be of service to him.

Related Characters: Jean-Baptise Grenouille, Giuseppe Baldini
Page Number: 92
Explanation and Analysis:

Grenouille has just made the move to work for Baldini as an apprentice, and the narrator is describing how Grenouille acquires the language of perfume. Remember that Grenouille doesn't need this language at all to make exceptional perfumes; his superhuman sense of smell is enough for him. However, to exist and move freely within the world and not raise suspicion, he needs to know this language, as it allows him to pass as normal. Grenouille understands that in order to accomplish his goals, he must exist alongside the rest of humanity.

The acquisition of the language of perfume mirrors his process of acquiring spoken language. Grenouille realizes that it's a necessary thing he must learn, but he only realizes this as it becomes extremely obvious, and only because ignorance of it might hinder his personal goals.

Part 2, Chapter 27 Quotes

... he clapped his hands and called his servants, who were invisible, intangible, inaudible, and above all inodorous, and thus totally imaginary servants...

Related Characters: Jean-Baptise Grenouille
Related Symbols: Grenouille's Inner World
Page Number: 128
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator is describing Grenouille's evening activities in his imaginary “inner fortress.” While Grenouille's inner empire provides insight into what Grenouille wishes the world would be (odorous in a way he finds pleasing; himself as the god or ruler), the particulars of Grenouille's servants indicate how Grenouille feels about humanity. Notably, Grenouille wishes to be served. He wishes for someone else to fetch him things and perform menial tasks. However, in his perfect world, these people simply perform tasks without actually existing in any way. This indicates just how intense Grenouille's self-involvement is, as he cannot even bring himself to imagine what actual servants in the real world might be like (and would presumably be displeased by their human scent). While Grenouille is eventually able to recreate much of his fantasy world in real life, these servants and the existence of humanity in this particular way stand as one thing that he's never able to bring about.

Part 2, Chapter 30 Quotes

“You will realize for the first time in your life that you are a human being; not a particularly extraordinary or in any fashion distinguished one, but nevertheless a perfectly acceptable human being.”

Related Characters: Marquis de la Taillade- Espinasse (speaker), Jean-Baptise Grenouille
Page Number: 144
Explanation and Analysis:

Following Grenouille's departure from the volcano, he is taken in by the marquis and provided with clothes and makeup, which the marquis is here offering Grenouille a mirror to look at.

Notice the language used here, specifically the use of "human." By following the logic of the novel, coming of age and becoming an adult naturally entails becoming fully human, as children are treated as less than- or sub-human. This moment, then, stands as a stepping-stone in Grenouille's quest to come of age and become human, as this is the first time another person calls to his attention that he is, indeed, human. Grenouille's process of coming of age isn't quite complete, however, as for Grenouille's personal journey to adulthood, discovering his personal scent is a necessary part of the equation.

Part 2, Chapter 32 Quotes

For people could close their eyes to greatness, to horrors, to beauty, and their ears to melodies or deceiving words. But they could not escape scent. For scent was a brother of breath... He who ruled scent ruled the hearts of men.

Related Characters: Jean-Baptise Grenouille
Page Number: 155
Explanation and Analysis:

Grenouille is sitting in a church in Montpellier after successfully testing his human perfume. He realizes now that he has the power to control people through scent. This passage gets at the underlying premise of the novel: that scent is the most powerful sense of all, and most importantly, that it is inescapable and works subconsciously. This explains both Grenouille's power, as well as the draw of the girl from the rue de Marais and Laure Richis. The girls' scents work subconsciously to make people love them and find them exceptionally beautiful, and Grenouille specifically states that while the girls are indeed lovely, what truly is at work is their scents. Later, we also see the truth of this idea when Grenouille begins manufacturing different scents for different purposes. He's able to convince women to take pity on him and offer him food scraps, or to convince people to ignore him, simply by changing his perfume, further supporting this basic premise of the novel.

Part 3, Chapter 35 Quotes

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. How that was to be done, he did not know yet. But he had two years in which to learn. Ultimately it ought to be no more difficult than robbing a rare flower of its perfume.

Related Characters: Jean-Baptise Grenouille, Laure Richis
Page Number: 172
Explanation and Analysis:

Having just arrived in Grasse, Grenouille catches the scent of Laure Richis, whose scent is very similar to that of the girl from the rue de Marais. Grenouille then vows to possess this scent. While this stands primarily as a moment of foreshadowing, it also provides evidence of Grenouille's maturation and scientific mind, as he chooses not to murder Laure and rob her of her scent immediately. Essentially, he conceptualizes his last murder as childish and clumsy, which sets this one up to be significantly more sophisticated. While he doesn't yet know how to truly possess this scent, he's conducted precise experiments before and certainly has the ability to do the same again.

Further, the language here develops both Grenouille's misanthropy and the generally grotesque feeling of the novel. The description of peeling scent from the girl “like skin” creates a sense of horror, while his comparison of taking Laure's scent to taking that of a flower indicates how little he thinks of humans. He doesn't regard this girl as a valuable individual; he sees her only as a scent that exists for his pleasure and possession.

Part 3, Chapter 48 Quotes

He was also disgusted by the murderer. He did not want to regard him as a human being, but only as a victim to be slaughtered.

Related Characters: Jean-Baptise Grenouille, Laure Richis, Antoine Richis
Page Number: 232
Explanation and Analysis:

Following Laure's murder, Grenouille is arrested, tried, and sentenced to a gruesome death. While Grasse prepares for the execution as if for a festival, in his grief Richis experiences only sadness, failure, and disgust at the murderer.

While Richis is developed primarily as one of the "good guys" in the novel, Süskind also draws a number of comparisons between Richis and Grenouille. In this instance, Richis wishes to be able to regard Grenouille in the exact same way that Grenouille thinks of his victims—as something less than human, a creature that needs to die in order to accomplish a goal.

Part 3, Chapter 49 Quotes

He was in very truth his own God, and a more splendid God than the God that stank of incense and was quartered in churches.

Related Characters: Jean-Baptise Grenouille
Page Number: 239
Explanation and Analysis:

Grenouille has just incited an orgy at his execution with his perfume, and finds himself the most powerful person for miles around. For many characters in the novel, God and religion in general are the most powerful entities they believe in. Grenouille is consistently put in opposition to the church, however, as education in the church is believed to instill morals in a person—something that never happened for Grenouille. And though Grenouille doesn't necessarily understand the idea of God, he does understand the idea of a god in that it is all-powerful, and he also makes a connection several times between the smell of incense in churches and God's power. While Grenouille comes to detest incense, particularly when he notices that it isn't pure, he finds his own god-like power in the overwhelming influence of his personal incense, which is the perfume he created with the odors of the 25 virgins of Grasse.

Part 4, Chapter 51 Quotes

And though his perfume might allow him to appear before the world as a god—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.

Related Characters: Jean-Baptise Grenouille
Page Number: 252
Explanation and Analysis:

Grenouille is traveling back to Paris to die after using his perfume in Grasse. His experience in Grasse was supposed to be a fulfilling one in which he experienced immense power and domination over the town's residents, but instead, he finds himself very disillusioned. We see here that while Grenouille wanted some combination of love or hate from his perfume, what he truly wanted was to understand himself. As Grenouille's understanding of the world is so intensely tied up in how he experiences it in terms of scent, Grenouille feels he cannot understand himself unless he can understand how he smells. Thus, as Grenouille both lacks personal scent and wasn't able to create a perfume that allowed him to understand his lack of scent, he gives up on life and the world. Further, this indicates that even though Grenouille comes of age in some ways, because he's deprived of this very important way of knowing himself, he never fully completes the process of becoming an adult.