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Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is the anti hero of Patrick Süskind's novel Perfume, published in 1985. Grenouille is born with an extreme form of hyperosmia (an abnormally strong sense of smell), which eventually leads to him becoming a serial killer.
Etymology of the name
"Jean-Baptiste" is the French version of "John the Baptist." His mother, who worked at the fish market, didn't bother to name him and was executed soon after his birth. Since only baptized children were accepted into orphanages, an officer called La Fosse decided to let him be christened at the Saint-Merri cloister.
Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is born in the fish market in Paris, on July 17, 1738. His mother, who would have let him die, was executed shortly after Grenouille's birth. Even though he has a phenomenal sense of smell, he has no odour of his own, which repelled every wet nurse in the cloister. He was given to the church for a short time and was eventually brought to Madame Gaillard's orphanage and sold to Monsieur Grimal's tannery at 8 years old. In September 1753, Grenouille becomes enchanted by the scent of a redheaded (assumed) girl from the Rue de Marais, who is peeling plums. Grenouille strangles the girl out of impulse and smells as much of her as he can, as soon as she is dead. From then on, he dedicated his life to preserving the girl's scent. He became apprenticed to Giuseppe Baldini, a renowned Italian perfumer, and quickly mastered distillation, creating hundreds of new perfumes. At the age of 18, Jean-Baptiste left for Grasse to learn enfleurage, since it was impossible to distill the scent of a human being (he found this out after trying to distill a cat). Baldini agrees to give Grenouille traveling papers if Grenouille agrees to leave him at least 100 new formulas and promises never to return to Paris.
Grenouille travels by night, through the mountains, to get to Grasse. He avoids other people as much as he can. In Auvergne, he settles in a cave where he stays for seven years, living in an imaginary purple castle in his head. In his fantasies, the scents he has smelled throughout his life are drinks, standing around him in bottles. Throughout these seven years, he emerges from the cave only at night. He finds he lacks for nothing in the cave, and may have stayed there permanently if not for the occurrence of a 'catastrophe.' In the cave, Grenouille discovers he has no smell of his own. This discovery moves Grenouille to continue to Grasse.
After leaving his cave, Grenouille spends a short amount of time with the Marquis de la Taillade-Espinasse and then ends up working for Madame Arnulfi in Grasse, where he learns the method of enfleurage. Grenouille also discovers another red-headed girl named Laure Richis, an exquisitely beautiful girl whose scent is even better than that of the girl from the Rue de Marais. When he first notices her, she is still very young (about 14) and Grenouille wants to wait 2 years before trying to capture her scent. However, the only way to capture a living being's scent is by killing that being. Before Laure, Grenouille kills 24 other beautiful young girls for their scent. He cuts their hair and takes their clothes with him. His lack of scent becomes a great asset to him, as he is never caught. When another murderer is caught in Grenoble, everyone in Grasse believes the murder spree is over except for Antoine Richis, Laure's father. Antoine then figures out the murderer's way of thinking and decides to flee, intending to marry his daughter off. The first night of their journey is spent in La Napoule, but Grenouille tracks them down and murders Laure. Even though he leaves before anyone else wakes up, he is arrested shortly after Laure's murder and the court decides to execute him. But by that time, he has already made a perfume out of Laure's hair and clothes.
Süskind refers to what happens on the day of the execution as a 'Promethean act.' Laure's scent inspires so much love that it causes the 10,000 people in the crowd to enact an orgy, and to consider Grenouille the most amazing person they have ever seen. Grenouille, however, only feels hatred for them. When even Antoine Richis comes to Grenouille begging for forgiveness, Grenouille faints. When he wakes up again, he is in Laure's bed while Antoine holds his hand and asks him to be his son. All Grenouille wants to do, however, is return to Paris and die.
Grenouille now knows that he can never love like others, nor can he smell himself, but he has the power to do whatever he wants: 'the invincible power to command the love of mankind.' When he returns to the fish market where he was born, he tips the flask over his head. The criminals prowling around the market see him as an angel, and eat him. When they are done, it feels as though they had 'for the first time in their life, done something purely out of love.'
As a baby, Grenouille is said to have dull eyes, 'of an uncertain colour, between oyster grey and creamy opal white' and 'not very well adapted for sight.' When he lives with Madame Gaillard, he is described as ugly, but not so ugly that he scares other people. When Grenouille has lived in his cave for seven years, his hair has grown to his knees and his beard has grown to his navel, and the first people he meets run away screaming. The Marquis de la Taillade-Espinasse gives Grenouille new clothes, powders his face, and has his nails and hair cut. He tells Grenouille that he was a beast but the Marquis has turned him into a person. Here it is revealed how completely normal he looks, although a bit on the short side. Because he has no body odour of his own, Grenouille is usually unnoticed.
Throughout the book, Grenouille is called a solitary tick. His lack of scent scares other people, even if they don't directly realize it. He travels at night to avoid other people as much as possible. A psychopath, he has both antisocial personality disorder and borderline personality disorder. He also displays narcissistic and schizotypal features, wanting to be better than everyone else by giving himself a better smell. Grenouille feels no remorse whatsoever for his murders, but he does not murder for the thrill of it; he kills his victims because he needs their scents and can only capture them by killing. On the night he murders Laure Richis, Grenouille is so satisfied with himself that he thanks himself for being the way he is. At the orgy, Grenouille feels only contempt for all the other people, even though they adore him. The perfume cannot make him love other people, and his scentlessness stops other people from loving him. His perfume gives him all the power in the world, but it cannot help him smell himself or know himself, and he comes to believe his life is pointless.
In 2006, the novel was adapted into a film of the same name, directed by Tom Twyker and starring Ben Whishaw as Grenouille. Film producer Bernd Eichinger stated that Whishaw "embodied both the innocent and the murderer."
The film suggests that Grenouille has feelings, more so than his portrayal in the novel. In the book, Grenouille is completely aware of what he is doing when he strangles the girl with the plums; he shows no remorse, thinking only of capturing her scent. In the film, the girl (Karoline Herfurth) has already met Grenouille in town, when he scares her by sniffing her hand. When she notices him standing behind her later on, she screams and he puts his hand to her mouth to stop her from doing so. He appears to be surprised when he notices she's dead. He even stands there looking sorry for a while. During the orgy in the film, he thinks back to the girl and daydreams about kissing her, which causes him to cry.
There are also differences in Grenouille's age. In the book Grenouille is 15 when he strangles the plum girl and starts to work for Baldini, 18 when he leaves Paris and 25 when he leaves his cave. In the film he is already in his early 20s when he strangles his first victim, and he doesn't spend as much time in the cave.
- Das Parfum, Diognes Verlag AG Zurich
- Perfume, p. 17