Sympathy In The Story Perfume English Literature Essay

2103 words (8 pages) Essay

1st Jan 1970 English Literature Reference this

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As ‘Perfume’ created by Suskind unravels the story of an olfactory vampire, the reader is introduced to its tragic anti-hero  Jean–Baptiste Grenouille – the literal translation of which is ‘frog’, an amphibian known for its despicable appearance and keen sense of smell. Grenouille is introduced with traits like “arrogance, misanthropy, immorality, or, more succinctly, wickedness” [1] .

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Born amidst the stench and the squalor of Paris with streets that “stank of manure, the stench of costic Iyes from the tanneries” [2] , Grenouille is rejected by his mother at his birth and by cutting of the “umbilical cord with her gutting knife” [3] she disassociates and distances herself from him forever. Unlike her four still births, who she left to die, Grenouille survived in this repulsive and sickening neighborhood to evolve into a serial killer. This childhood trauma of abandonment and abuse and the grotesque way in which the mother literally leaves Grenouille to fend for himself in the “foetid odour of burnt animal horn” [4] evokes pity and sympathy for the baby.These smells create an atmosphere and prepare the reader for what has yet to come. He is callously dumped in an orphanage where the other children almost asphyxiate him to death but “he survived the measles, chicken pox, a twenty foot fall into a well and a scalding with boiling water poured over his chest” [5] which left him with a “slightly crippled foot” [6] and a limp “but he lived.” [7] Any other child faced with such traumatic experience without the care of a mother’s warmth would have breathed his last, but not Grenouille. He was a survivor and ironically lived in the claustrophobic world of eighteenth century France in which he was overpowered by olfactory experiences.

‘The House of the Spirits’ crafted by Isabelle Allende is set against the backdrop of political turmoil and social upheaval of Chile – a politically volatile country in Latin America. Esteban Trueba belonged to that minority of socially and economically elite class which controlled the fortunes of the majority: peasants and laborers. He is the outcome of an alliance between his wealthy mother Dona Ester Trueba and a “good for nothing immigrant” [8] father who squandered away the wealth leaving his children to resurrect their lives. Esteban is, like Grenouille, devoid of warm, caring touch of his mother since she was “immobile in her chair” and “was put back into her bed, propped up in the half seated position that was the only one her arthritis allowed” [9] . Being in the company of a money driven father and a bed ridden mother, Esteban Trueba is a character sculpted by the circumstances. “His had been a childhood of privations, discomfort, harshness, interminable night-time rosaries, fear, and guilt.” [10]  

In ‘Perfume’ the uncanny description of Grenouille committing his first murder accidentally to “capture” the smell of a young virgin elicits two strong emotions from the reader: repulsion for killing an innocent; bafflement at having not assaulted her;However,Grenouillerealized the “meaning and goal and purpose of his life had a higher destiny: nothing less than to revolutionize the odiferous world.” [11] “A murder had been start of his splendor. If he was at all aware of the fact, it was a matter of total indifference to him.” [12] Later, when he begs Baldini to give him work the reader wants him to succeed even though we hope that he fails. Moreover, in his ruthless killing of young girls in pursuit of a distilled, pure scent, we are morbidly fascinated by the vials of perfume yet sickened by our own thoughts. The reader is confronted with Grenouille’s desperation and his need for acceptance for which he would go to any length. At the end of his self imposed hibernation, he realizes that “only one odour was not there-his own odor” [13] , “a scream as dreadful and loud as if he were being burned alive” [14] came out of him.Since Grenouille determines identity through smell and the fact that he cannot smell himself brings himthe realisation that he does not have an identity. He experiences the fear of not knowing anything about himself. The reader identifies and sympathises with the insecurity that Grenouille possesses, because he has no odour and thus he is an outcast in society.

Similarly, Esteban is a savage and a barbaric in Tres Marias “tumbling young girls on the rushes of the riverbank…sowing the entire region with his bastard offspring.” [15] However, Tres Marias is the microcosm of the systematic and generational abuse of the labour class and Esteban represents the autocratic dictator. “he could tolerate no opposition; he viewed the slightest disagreement as a provocation” [16] This evokes extreme dislike for Esteban but by bringing out the callous and insensitive side of Esteban, Allende depicts the oligarchy that controlled the government, preventing the voice of the people from being expressed.”The peasants had not heard of unions, or Sundays off, or the minimum wages.” [17] Atrocities were committed against the citizens as torture, beatings, and rape was common practice. Esteban Trueba’s rape of PanchaGarcía is a reflection of the exploitation of the peasant classes by the upper classes. Thus, Esteban is a metaphor for all the ills plaguing the society at that time. He has to be seen not as a cruel patriarch but embodiment of the rotting, declining system that mirrors the class struggle, the gender bias and the political dichotomy. 

Both books follow the tradition of bildungsroman: the protagonists suffer an emotional loss in the beginning of the story and both feature their journey through life, conflicts between them and society and their steely determination to excel and follow the path they have chartered for themselves. Grenouille found purpose to his life in Baldini’s perfumery and Suskind cheats the reader into believing that they are witness to a genius in making. Grenouille is driven, excessively obsessed with the idea of perfecting the best perfume. The reader admires his passion, his frantic pace of rushing against time to prove something to himself for which he suffered tiny cramped living quarters, surviving on bare minimum food and winning the battle against life threatening “syphilitic small pox”.

In ‘The House of the spirits’ Esteban Trueba’s cruel treatment of his wife, daughter, and female workers represents Allende’s depiction of females as sexual objects. But despite the fact that Esteban rapes, pillages, kills and conspires, he never entirely loses the reader’s sympathy. It is a remarkable achievement to make the old monster lovable not just to his wife, daughter, and granddaughter, and the other women in his life, but also to the reader. This is done through the third voice that belongs to Esteban Trueba, whose first person accounts serve to express either his intense passion or his acute suffering. “I’m the patron here now.” Esteban is a complex character as his words would reveal. Had these words not been there, we would have summarily dismissed him as a fiendish rogue. Despite his hatred of peasants, Esteban is driven by a desire for the attention and affection of others. Approaching death however, he begins to see the negative outcomes of his violent, selfish actions and becomes increasingly aware of how lonely he is.

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 The gothic and the gruesome start early in ‘The House of the Spirits’ with Clara witnessing the autopsy of her sister and the assistant ravaging her corpse. When Nivea meets with an accident and her head is split from her body and thrown away in the bushes an acute chill runs down the reader’s spine which is further accentuated by the head being brought and placed in the basement of the house. These gory images coupled with a matter of fact tone to bring forth the massacre, violence and Alba’s captivity during the coup serve to highlight that the characters and their situations are mirrors of the clash and turmoil in Chile at that time.

We respond to the tragic and repulsive nature of the unfortunate Grenouille and Esteban with a certain amount of horror and pity. Grenouille’s mastery at creating an unparalleled perfume is not overshadowed by the mass orgy that he evokes on dousing himself with this perfume made from the skin of virgins. It is ironic that “each man, each woman, in the hands of the little man in the blue frock coat for better or worse loved him.” [18] Ironic also because of the terror instilled by the murders that went into the making of the scent.  We admire his intelligence and his amazing sense of smell which leads to his success in achieving acceptance from society. He does not kill others for pleasure, but to obtain their scent. For this reasons his victims were only the ones who Grenouille thought had extraordinary scents. Since the reader knows that scent represents identity it could be said that Grenouille’s motive for murdering his victims is to acquire an identity.

Suskind and Alende’s writing techniques are also distinctive in the way that they use phrases and imagery to make violent and grotesque descriptions realistic and repulsive. “They drove their claws and teeth into his flesh, they attacked him like hyenas” [19] and “Esteban wore a tiny suede bag …in it were his wife’s false teeth, which he treated as a token of good luck and expiation” [20] Through these techniques, we are drawn into the world of Grenouille and Esteban.

Esteban and Grenouille follow the path that they charter for themselves. In their pursuit to seek identity and acceptance, they commit unforgivable crimes for which the reader does not pardon them but accepts their reasons for doing so. They hold a mirror to the society and ask the question: who really is the monster?

As ‘Perfume’ created by Suskind unravels the story of an olfactory vampire, the reader is introduced to its tragic anti-hero  Jean–Baptiste Grenouille – the literal translation of which is ‘frog’, an amphibian known for its despicable appearance and keen sense of smell. Grenouille is introduced with traits like “arrogance, misanthropy, immorality, or, more succinctly, wickedness” [1] .

Born amidst the stench and the squalor of Paris with streets that “stank of manure, the stench of costic Iyes from the tanneries” [2] , Grenouille is rejected by his mother at his birth and by cutting of the “umbilical cord with her gutting knife” [3] she disassociates and distances herself from him forever. Unlike her four still births, who she left to die, Grenouille survived in this repulsive and sickening neighborhood to evolve into a serial killer. This childhood trauma of abandonment and abuse and the grotesque way in which the mother literally leaves Grenouille to fend for himself in the “foetid odour of burnt animal horn” [4] evokes pity and sympathy for the baby.These smells create an atmosphere and prepare the reader for what has yet to come. He is callously dumped in an orphanage where the other children almost asphyxiate him to death but “he survived the measles, chicken pox, a twenty foot fall into a well and a scalding with boiling water poured over his chest” [5] which left him with a “slightly crippled foot” [6] and a limp “but he lived.” [7] Any other child faced with such traumatic experience without the care of a mother’s warmth would have breathed his last, but not Grenouille. He was a survivor and ironically lived in the claustrophobic world of eighteenth century France in which he was overpowered by olfactory experiences.

‘The House of the Spirits’ crafted by Isabelle Allende is set against the backdrop of political turmoil and social upheaval of Chile – a politically volatile country in Latin America. Esteban Trueba belonged to that minority of socially and economically elite class which controlled the fortunes of the majority: peasants and laborers. He is the outcome of an alliance between his wealthy mother Dona Ester Trueba and a “good for nothing immigrant” [8] father who squandered away the wealth leaving his children to resurrect their lives. Esteban is, like Grenouille, devoid of warm, caring touch of his mother since she was “immobile in her chair” and “was put back into her bed, propped up in the half seated position that was the only one her arthritis allowed” [9] . Being in the company of a money driven father and a bed ridden mother, Esteban Trueba is a character sculpted by the circumstances. “His had been a childhood of privations, discomfort, harshness, interminable night-time rosaries, fear, and guilt.” [10]  

In ‘Perfume’ the uncanny description of Grenouille committing his first murder accidentally to “capture” the smell of a young virgin elicits two strong emotions from the reader: repulsion for killing an innocent; bafflement at having not assaulted her;However,Grenouillerealized the “meaning and goal and purpose of his life had a higher destiny: nothing less than to revolutionize the odiferous world.” [11] “A murder had been start of his splendor. If he was at all aware of the fact, it was a matter of total indifference to him.” [12] Later, when he begs Baldini to give him work the reader wants him to succeed even though we hope that he fails. Moreover, in his ruthless killing of young girls in pursuit of a distilled, pure scent, we are morbidly fascinated by the vials of perfume yet sickened by our own thoughts. The reader is confronted with Grenouille’s desperation and his need for acceptance for which he would go to any length. At the end of his self imposed hibernation, he realizes that “only one odour was not there-his own odor” [13] , “a scream as dreadful and loud as if he were being burned alive” [14] came out of him.Since Grenouille determines identity through smell and the fact that he cannot smell himself brings himthe realisation that he does not have an identity. He experiences the fear of not knowing anything about himself. The reader identifies and sympathises with the insecurity that Grenouille possesses, because he has no odour and thus he is an outcast in society.

Similarly, Esteban is a savage and a barbaric in Tres Marias “tumbling young girls on the rushes of the riverbank…sowing the entire region with his bastard offspring.” [15] However, Tres Marias is the microcosm of the systematic and generational abuse of the labour class and Esteban represents the autocratic dictator. “he could tolerate no opposition; he viewed the slightest disagreement as a provocation” [16] This evokes extreme dislike for Esteban but by bringing out the callous and insensitive side of Esteban, Allende depicts the oligarchy that controlled the government, preventing the voice of the people from being expressed.”The peasants had not heard of unions, or Sundays off, or the minimum wages.” [17] Atrocities were committed against the citizens as torture, beatings, and rape was common practice. Esteban Trueba’s rape of PanchaGarcía is a reflection of the exploitation of the peasant classes by the upper classes. Thus, Esteban is a metaphor for all the ills plaguing the society at that time. He has to be seen not as a cruel patriarch but embodiment of the rotting, declining system that mirrors the class struggle, the gender bias and the political dichotomy. 

Both books follow the tradition of bildungsroman: the protagonists suffer an emotional loss in the beginning of the story and both feature their journey through life, conflicts between them and society and their steely determination to excel and follow the path they have chartered for themselves. Grenouille found purpose to his life in Baldini’s perfumery and Suskind cheats the reader into believing that they are witness to a genius in making. Grenouille is driven, excessively obsessed with the idea of perfecting the best perfume. The reader admires his passion, his frantic pace of rushing against time to prove something to himself for which he suffered tiny cramped living quarters, surviving on bare minimum food and winning the battle against life threatening “syphilitic small pox”.

In ‘The House of the spirits’ Esteban Trueba’s cruel treatment of his wife, daughter, and female workers represents Allende’s depiction of females as sexual objects. But despite the fact that Esteban rapes, pillages, kills and conspires, he never entirely loses the reader’s sympathy. It is a remarkable achievement to make the old monster lovable not just to his wife, daughter, and granddaughter, and the other women in his life, but also to the reader. This is done through the third voice that belongs to Esteban Trueba, whose first person accounts serve to express either his intense passion or his acute suffering. “I’m the patron here now.” Esteban is a complex character as his words would reveal. Had these words not been there, we would have summarily dismissed him as a fiendish rogue. Despite his hatred of peasants, Esteban is driven by a desire for the attention and affection of others. Approaching death however, he begins to see the negative outcomes of his violent, selfish actions and becomes increasingly aware of how lonely he is.

 The gothic and the gruesome start early in ‘The House of the Spirits’ with Clara witnessing the autopsy of her sister and the assistant ravaging her corpse. When Nivea meets with an accident and her head is split from her body and thrown away in the bushes an acute chill runs down the reader’s spine which is further accentuated by the head being brought and placed in the basement of the house. These gory images coupled with a matter of fact tone to bring forth the massacre, violence and Alba’s captivity during the coup serve to highlight that the characters and their situations are mirrors of the clash and turmoil in Chile at that time.

We respond to the tragic and repulsive nature of the unfortunate Grenouille and Esteban with a certain amount of horror and pity. Grenouille’s mastery at creating an unparalleled perfume is not overshadowed by the mass orgy that he evokes on dousing himself with this perfume made from the skin of virgins. It is ironic that “each man, each woman, in the hands of the little man in the blue frock coat for better or worse loved him.” [18] Ironic also because of the terror instilled by the murders that went into the making of the scent.  We admire his intelligence and his amazing sense of smell which leads to his success in achieving acceptance from society. He does not kill others for pleasure, but to obtain their scent. For this reasons his victims were only the ones who Grenouille thought had extraordinary scents. Since the reader knows that scent represents identity it could be said that Grenouille’s motive for murdering his victims is to acquire an identity.

Suskind and Alende’s writing techniques are also distinctive in the way that they use phrases and imagery to make violent and grotesque descriptions realistic and repulsive. “They drove their claws and teeth into his flesh, they attacked him like hyenas” [19] and “Esteban wore a tiny suede bag …in it were his wife’s false teeth, which he treated as a token of good luck and expiation” [20] Through these techniques, we are drawn into the world of Grenouille and Esteban.

Esteban and Grenouille follow the path that they charter for themselves. In their pursuit to seek identity and acceptance, they commit unforgivable crimes for which the reader does not pardon them but accepts their reasons for doing so. They hold a mirror to the society and ask the question: who really is the monster?

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