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Bildungsroman novels are identified by the grueling quest a protagonist undergoes in his search for place in society. The experiences the protagonist undergoes within this search contribute to their moral and psychological growth, building to one pinnacle point in their life, the long awaited identification of who they are or in some cases, the lack of it. In Patrick Susskind’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, the quest and transitions Granouille undergoes build his character and aids him in his search for identity.
Throughout the novel, the existence of identity is determined through whether or not an individual emits an odor. Initially the wet nurse Jean-Bussie states that Granouille himself does not emit an odor, foreshadowing what he will spend his days trying to achieve and establishing the fact that he has no identity. As he is passed on to Father Terrier, we are given a small yet telling demonstration of his extra-ordinary power of scent, as he smells the priest upon awakening. However, this power gets Granouille no closer to his goal of identity and while he may have the bodily form of a human being, it is his bodily existence that closes all possibilities for him to become one. Leaving his home, Granouille is adamant in his search for identity. In Pierre fort, the virgin girls he murders are out of his craving to obtain human scent or in other words, human identity. Ironically, while Granouille is successful in his capturing of the perfect scent (essence aboslu), upon witnessing the thousands of people engage in a sex orgy he realized that he had failed to obtain human identity. The scent did not give him the identity of a human but rather a god-like status. Additionally, it makes Granouille realize that the people loved the scent and not him so no matter how hard he tries, he will never be considered among the humans. This illustrates that while Granouille may chase human identification, he will always be seen as a god among men.
Granouille, who was hunchbacked, walked with a limp, and had many scars on his face, thought that his physical appearance made him no different from anyone else. During the Marquis’s show, Granouille wore nice clothes for the first time in his life. Upon looking at himself in the mirror, he thought that, “[H]e looked like a thousand other people”, (144), yet “he felt not one bit different from”, (145). Granouille believed that the being that looked back at him in the mirror was what truly mattered, the “odorless figure”. He was able to influence others through how others viewed him, and the ability to wear various perfumes or clothes subsequently gave him various identities. At this point, it was not what you are that mattered to Granouille, but how and what you look like. Shortly after his experience with the Marquis, Granouille began to formulate human odors. With this, Granouille was able to settle into his surroundings and manipulate people through his use of odors. He could make people believe he was anyone, allowing the man with no identity to become the man with a plethora of identities.
Coming to the realization that he can no longer be among humans, Granouille abandons his search for identity and ends the quest, or so it seems. Following Granouille’s realization that the people loved the scent and not him, he retreats back to Paris to end his life. Even though “his perfume might allow him to appear before the world as god,” it meant little to him, as “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” (252). While it makes sense for a man to go back to his birthplace to end his life, there is a misconception of Granouille’s alleged death wish. As Granouille douses himself with the entire bottle of essence aboslu, already knowing what a single drop of the essence is capable of, he is devoured by “thieves, murderers, cutthroats, whores, deserters, and young desperadoes” (253). While many view this as an act of desperation, it can alternatively be viewed as a staged act in the hope of resurrection. Granouille is likened to a tick several times throughout the novel due to his tenacity, which we have become accustomed to, so it does not make sense for him to simply want to kill himself. What makes sense, however, is for Granouille to commit this act in the hope of being reborn with a human scent and thus a human identity. In a nutshell, the destruction of Granouille’s own body was to achieve a clean slate through rebirth.
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