Perfume, written by Patrick Suskind, explores the effect of a loveless life on the main character, Grenouille. From the first breath he draws, Grenouille must fight for himself. Through his tick-like nature, Grenouille absorbs power from his authority figures, leaving them lifeless while simultaneously achieving his goal. As his goals shift Grenouille moves from submission to dominance, and ultimately achieves total control over humanity. Suskind uses Grenouille’s journey to comment on the universal struggle of mankind to find his place in the world.
Grenouille dominates the authoritative figures in his life from a submissive position. At his birth Grenouille recognizes the necessity of bowing to those above him in order to survive. As his mother gives birth and “wishes only for the pain to stop” so she could “live for a while yet and perhaps even marry,” Grenouille lays silent under the fish stand (Suskind 5). This pattern continues as Grenouille fights to find his identity among the rest of the world. Moving on from his mother, Grenouille quietly observes all the rules set by Madame Gaillard, meekly allows Grimal to treat him as a slave, and willingly grants Baldini’s life goal of becoming the best perfumer in all of France. By allowing himself to act submissively, Grenouille earns the trust of the authorities, which gives him the freedom to become a tick. For instance, Grimal sees only the profit in Grenouille whose “Life was worth precisely as much as the work he could accomplish” (Suskind 31). Once Grenouille overcomes his bout of anthrax, Grimal allows Grenouille more freedom. Grenouille maintains his submissiveness, waiting for the right time to strike, just as a tick waits for the right moment to bite.
As Grenouille gains freedom, he ascertains his opportunity to achieve dominance. He instinctually calculates the proper time to reverse the role between himself and his dominants. His mother, thinking Grenouille already deceased, leaves him thinking she achieved her goal until “unexpectedly, the infant under the gutting table begins to squeal” (Suskind 6). In this moment Grenouille chooses life, chooses to fight for himself, chooses to begin the journey to achieve total control over everyone in his life—he becomes a tick. He executes the chores given to him by Madame Gaillard and “at age six he had completely grasped his surroundings olfactory” (Suskind 26). Paralleling this role, he gains a masterful work ethic working under Grimal at the tannery. By working these jobs, Grenouille many of the simple talents required to achieve his final goal of a place in society and to survive on his own. When Grenouille reaches the workplace of Baldini, he has mastered dominance through submission. Grenouille creates exquisite scents for Baldini and in exchange Baldini teaches Grenouille the mechanics of perfumery. Once Grenouille has absorbed Baldini’s power, he can focus on his goal of achieving further dominance and eventual total control.