While the novel's focus is on scent more than anything else, it relies heavily on descriptions of scent that are highly visual in nature. This combination works to create a grotesque landscape, simultaneously repulsive and beautiful, that draws the reader in and pushes them away in turn.
The entire premise of the novel is based on the idea that scent is more powerful than anything else, and most importantly, that this power isn't known or accessible to the average person. Grenouille then becomes a strange combination of a genius, as he's aware of and able to manipulate this power better than anyone, and a monster, as he possesses no scent himself. Further, even after the marquis introduces him to cosmetics, Grenouille doesn't have the looks to inspire anything but disgust or sympathy, if anyone even takes notice of him. Directly opposite Grenouille, then, are the 25 girls he murders, and specifically Laure. She not only has a powerful and alluring scent; she's extremely physically beautiful as well. In this way, the murders of the girls by Grenouille can be seen as more than just murders in the name of creating the perfect perfume; they're an attempt to obtain and control something that Grenouille himself is entirely incapable of being: irresistibly appealing, both physically and in an olfactory sense.
Despite Grenouille's purposeful rejection of sight in favor of scent throughout his life, he finds that the two senses are connected, and experiences varying degrees of awe and horror at this discovery. Part of Grenouille's early fear and later hatred of people stems from the fact that, as a child, he passed through crowds entirely unnoticed. However, once Grenouille creates a personal perfume for himself, he finds that he attracts neutral attention while in public. Notably, Grenouille's personal perfume is made from a horrific combination of ingredients including moldy cheese and cat feces. The description of these ingredients serves to offend the reader on multiple fronts and heighten the sense of the grotesque.
In particular, the combination throughout the novel of descriptions of scent and sight create an almost oppressively disgusting yet fascinating reading experience, which then works to suggest a sense of absurdity and black humor. Grenouille as a child and an adolescent almost inspires sympathy from the reader, as do figures such as Madame Gaillard, but their actions (such as Grenouille's murder of the girl from the Rue de Marais) also serve to repel and disgust the reader. One can almost laugh at Grenouille attempting to ascertain if he has a personal scent, but the consequence of Grenouille's discovery leads him down an unimaginably horrific path.
Scent, Sight, and the Grotesque ThemeTracker
Scent, Sight, and the Grotesque 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 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.
But he at once felt the seriousness that reigned in these rooms, you might almost call it a holy seriousness, if the word "holy" had held any meaning whatever for Grenouille...
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
The farmer who discovered her was so disconcerted by the gruesome sight that he almost ended up a suspect himself, when in a quivering voice he told the police lieutenant that he had never seen anything so beautiful—when he had really wanted to say that he had never seen anything so awful.
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.