Perfume takes the form of a bildungsroman, or a coming of age novel. The reader follows Grenouille from birth to death through the four parts of the novel, and experiences with him how he learns about the world, begins to conceptualize his place in it, and struggles with his identity.
Children are described throughout the book as sub-human for a variety of reasons. Religious teachings, according to the novel, state that infants are completely worthless before their baptism, and even after baptism don't understand sin. Baldini the perfumer also insists that children are simply sub-human despots, always demanding things. With these starting points, coming of age for all children entails the process of becoming not just adult but truly human. This is complicated in the case of Grenouille, however, for even though he was baptized, he never develops any sense of morality. Thus, Grenouille is never seen to be fully human in the eyes of church officials with whom he comes in contact later.
While Grenouille is obviously less than human emotionally and morally, the individuals who care for him, especially as a child and a teenager, are similarly cruel to him and others. Essentially, by being treated like he's less than human, Grenouille learns to treat others the same way. This poor treatment, along with his eventual realization that he's actually repulsed by people, not the city of Paris itself, is an important turning point in Grenouille's development and results his intense misanthropy (hatred of other people). Once he realizes that he truly hates humanity, he can begin the process of self-discovery and plot his takeover of the people he hates so much (and in the process allow himself to grow ever more detached from his own “humanity”).
Several characters, including Father Terrier and Grenouille himself, tie the passage from child to adult to the development of an adult scent. In Grenouille's case, then, he only passes the threshold from boy to man when he manufactures and then wears a faux human perfume. However, Grenouille finds himself attracted specifically to the scents from lovely girls undergoing puberty. While it's indicated that their intoxicating scents would continue to develop had the girls lived to adulthood, it's this "special time" of development that becomes the focus of the novel. Because Grenouille uses the scents of these girls to manufacture his most intoxicating and powerful perfume, Grenouille essentially comes of age and becomes the “god” he dreamt of being at the expense of, and thanks to, the 25 nearly-adult girls he murders. However, this acquisition of power comes at a price to Grenouille as well as the families of the girls, as Grenouille finds his misanthropy is still far too intense for him to enjoy his power. Rather than enslave the world, Grenouille opts to take himself out of it using his newly created and superhuman—adult—power.
Growing Up and Becoming Human ThemeTracker
Growing Up and Becoming Human Quotes in Perfume
Wasn't it Horace himself who wrote, “The youth is gamy as a buck, the maiden's fragrance blossoms as does the white narcissus...”?—and the Romans knew all about that! The odor of humans is always a fleshy odor—that is, a sinful odor. How could an infant, which does not yet know sin even in its dreams, have an odor? How could it smell?
But to have made such a modest exit would have demanded a modicum of native civility, and that Grenouille did not possess. He was an abomination from the start. He decided in favor of life out of sheer spite and sheer malice.
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...
Grenouille knew for certain that unless he possessed this scent, his life would have no meaning... the mere memory, however complex, was not enough.
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.
The tick had scented blood. It had been dormant for years, encapsulated, and had waited. Now it let itself drop, for better or for worse, entirely without hope. And that was why he was so certain.
Your grandiose failure will also be an opportunity for you to learn the virtue of humility, which—although one may pardon the total lack of its development at your tender age—will be an absolute prerequisite for later advancement as a member of your guild and for your standing as a man, a man of honor, a dutiful subject, and a good Christian.
... [he] looks just like one of those unapproachable, incomprehensible, willful little prehuman creatures, who in their ostensible innocence think only of themselves... if one let them pursue their megalomaniacal ways and did not apply the strictest pedagogical principles to guide them to a disciplined, self-controlled, fully human existence.
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.
... he clapped his hands and called his servants, who were invisible, intangible, inaudible, and above all inodorous, and thus totally imaginary servants...
That odor had been the pledge of freedom. It had been the pledge of a different life. The odor of that morning was for Grenouille the odor of hope. He guarded it carefully. And he drank it daily.
What he now felt was the fear of not knowing much of anything about himself... He could not flee it, but had to move toward it.
“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.”
What he coveted was the odor of certain human beings: that is, those rare humans who inspire love. These were his victims.
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.
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.
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.
They were uncommonly proud. For the first time they had done something out of love.