In eighteenth-century France, the standard of hygiene was at an all-time low. In Patrick Süskind’s novel, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, hygiene plays a key role in developing character behavior. Süskind portrays a setting of poor hygiene in order to conceal character motives. This is evident through several main characters and several other minor characters such as Grenouille’s mother, Father Terrier, Grenouille, Grimal and Taillade-Espinasse. Understanding how Süskind manipulates hygiene to disguise character aims enables the reader to have a better knowledge of the human values and morals of the time period.
Initially, the odor and conditions near Grenouille’s birthplace desensitize his mother’s cruelty. First, Süskind sets the scene as, “Millions of bones and skulls were shoveled into the catacombs of Montmartre and in its place a food market was erected” (4). The graphic idea of death that accompanies the setting description dulls the reader’s perception of Grenouille’s mother and her actions. Süskind repeatedly references the disheveled cemetery located next to the food market as a way of distracting the reader from what Grenouille’s mother plans to do. Then, Süskind depicts the fish stall scene as horribly unhygienic in order to detract from Grenouille’s mother’s inhumane decision to kill her own son. Süskind describes the setting with, “The fish, ostensibly taken that morning from the Seine, already stank so violently that the smell masked the odor of corpses” (4-5). The explicit and disgusting description and detail of the filthy landscape numbs the reader and distracts from Grenouille’s murderous mother.
Likewise, Süskind emphasizes Father Terrier’s personal hygiene in order to explain his disgust of and motive to get rid of Grenouille. The physical description of Father Terrier, “A bald monk of about fifty with a light odor of vinegar about him”, articulates his poor hygiene and equates him to Grenouille’s level of impurity (7). Süskind affirms Father Terrier’s disgust of Grenouille with, “Terrier shuddered. He felt sick to his stomach. He pulled back his own nose as if he smelled something foul that he wanted nothing to do with”, and hints that Father Terrier’s repulsion of Grenouille stems from his own poor personal hygiene (17). Süskind masks the similarity of Father Terrier and Grenouille with Father Terrier’s exaggerated disgust of Grenouille. Father Terrier employs the excuse of Grenouille’s lack of typical poor hygiene to validate giving him away and thus Süskind uses hygiene, or a lack of, to conceal Father Terrier’s true goals.
Furthermore, Süskind exaggerates Grenouille’s sensitivity to the smell of other characters and settings to distract from Grenouille’s desire for acceptance by society. The elaborate descriptions of malodorous fragrances that Grenouille experiences isolate him from the rest of society and create a void in which Grenouille needs to fill with normalcy and approval. Süskind first distinguishes...