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Within a novel, authors incorporate and implement symbols into their works in order to transfer more detailed ideas and deeper meanings through to the reader; ideas richer than what they actually write. In the novel Perfume by Patrick Süskind, Grenouille, an odd character with an extraordinary sense of smell, journeys on a quest to find his identity through various encounters with women and perfumery methods. The setting within this story, specifically the historical place and time, mimics the life of Grenouille, and can be much easier to identify due to the inclusion of strategic symbols within the book. Through the use of girls, flowers, and perfume as symbols surrounding the life and experiences of Grenouille within the novel, Süskind illustrates the significance of the time period in France, including the historical views on women and the role of the enlightenment.
The reoccurring symbols and metaphorical interplay between flowers and women is very reflective of the pre-revolutionary time period in France. During this era, women were commonly seen merely for their attributes of beauty and their likelihood to wed. In this way, Grenouille’s opinions echo that of the time period, where his feelings towards flowers are symbolic of his thoughts toward women. Because of this metaphorical connection, he finds beauty in the girls through their scents, while “the rest of the stupid stuff… [are] of no concern to him” (100). Grenouille’s lack of interest in the nonolfactory aspects of the flowers serves as a metaphor to display his feelings regarding the girls as well, however, it’s also a testament to how society at the time commonly objectified women in a similar manor.
Furthermore, Grenouille directly compares extracting scent from a woman to extracting scent from a blossom, saying that “ultimately it ought to be no more difficult than robbing a rare flower of its perfume” (178). These ideas produced by Grenouille further present women as objects within society and establish them as mere articles at the disposal of men. The idea of objectification is also present more specifically in the case of Laure, whose appealing features not only attract the attention of many men, including Grenouille, but also cause her own father, Richis, to develop incestual thoughts to “lie down next her, on her, in her” (208).
The fact that Richis’ thoughts and emotions are nearly uncontrollable in this situation is also symbolic of the role women played in the society, portraying how men so became devoted to finding a sexually mature and attractive lady that any other factor, even blood relation, could not interfere with their desires. Grenouille also treats the second red-headed girl he kills the same as he would a flower, waiting for her to blossom the necessities to yield scent, in fact, he directly refers to the girl as a blossom when it’s said that “the flower would flourish there without his aid” (179). Once again, the worth and standards of females are being lowered to a level that meets that of society, and in this case, the blossoming of flowers is symbolic not only of the sexual maturation of women, but it also of how women were only valued when they were still virgins during this time period. For this very same reason, Richis wishes to have Laure wed as soon as possible to eliminate her from being a possible target of Grenouille’s, seeing as how Grenouille, like almost every other man in France at the time, only wanted a girl of purity and sexual innocence.
The perfume was Grenouille’s approach towards finding his identity, similar to how enlightenment thinkers would seek to find themselves through logic and reasoning. However, Grenouille’s attempts to seek out his identity through murderous perfumery is not only symbolic of the French society during the enlightenment time period, rather, it also represents what went wrong with this time of reason as well. He signifies the act of taking free thought too far and serves as evidence of the consequences that came along with enlightened thinking. Likewise, the perfume, more specifically, the extraction of scent in both women and flowers that is used to create the perfume, is symbolic of how in order to get to the core of society, Grenouille first had to break down what it was founded upon. As with the flowers and girls, where both of them had to be killed in order for their true beauty, their scents, to be apprehended, enlightened thinkers had to first deteriorate the basis of society’s ideologies in order to express and share their more refined methods of thinking.
This unusual symbolic sacrifice is what ties multiple areas of the story to the setting, and more specifically, the enlightenment itself. Similarly, the techniques Grenouille uses to extract scents is representative of how thinkers at the time also broke everything down to their basic elements. The scents or “souls” of the flowers/girls “had to be coaxed methodically”, similar to how a thinker of the time period would approach philosophy, thus we are provided not only with insight into the character of Grenouille, but also into the enlightenment time period as well.
The multiple symbols that exist within this novel all allow the reader to experience and receive a deeper understanding of the story and of Grenouille specifically. The flowers, the girls, and the connections between scent and perfume all networked to illustrate the reality of the time period. However, it was not the symbols themselves that accomplished this task, rather, the specific ideas that the symbols created within the novel. S?skind illustrates the implication of the time period in France, including the historical roles women played within the society and the purpose of the enlightenment.
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