Suskind does not cease to demonstrate to the reader the prejudice and mistreatment Grenouille is subjected to, particularly in his younger years. All characters that take care of him as an infant find something repulsive about him and wish to get rid of him. This begins with Father Terrier, who finds the baby’s obsession with smell terrifying, and then progresses to characters such as Jeanne Bussie who cannot stand his absence of personal scent, claiming “this baby makes my flesh creep”. Suskind highlights the unjustified nature of such hostility towards a newborn baby, emphasizing how such a dire upbringing gave Grenouille no option but to “merely exist like an animal with a most nebulous self-awareness.”
Suskind does not restrict the idea of society producing monstrous individuals to merely the formation of Grenouille himself. In the first few opening lines he reminds the reader of several “gifted and abominable personages in an era that knew no lack of [them]”, instilling a sense of fear with names such as “de Sade” and “Saint-Just”. Suskind then later uses very concise, emphatic language to make very clear to the reader that Grenouille too has become one of these “personages” for “he was evil, thoroughly evil”. This reinforces Suskind’s social comment regarding social determinism and societal influence as something that is not a seldom occurrence but repeatedly occurring and a serious concern to innocent lives.
Suskind’s second social comment is the critique of enlightened thinkers and the characteristic traits brought about by the Enlightenment. He uses minor characters to demonstrate the aloof, conceited and arrogant traits brought about by this period of supposed revolution in thought. Suskind seeks to expose their hypocrisy in an attempt to criticize and falsify their thinking. Beginning with Father Terrier who is an “educated” man yet Suskind writes of “his filthiest thoughts” making him look incredulous as a priest and a father of God. Despite being “God-fearing” he is also said to be “given to reason”, making him once again appear to be very duplicitous and unsure. The Marquis la Taillade-Espinasse is another character presented in a very farcical way. Suskind critiques the fantastical and indulgent nature of scientific theories that are regarded sincerely despite making ludicrously implausible claims. Interestingly, Suskind revolves the book around smell - an intangible phenomenon - yet one that appears to have far more power (particularly at the end of the novel) than any scientific or enlightened person or thought in the entire text. Suskind uses this as a final criticism of the Enlightenment, showing that it has created nothing but arrogant individuals that know and can produce less than Grenouille - an unscientific, uneducated young boy.
Following from the focus of smell and the olfactory in the novel comes Suskind’s third social comment regarding the socially defined dominance of sight over all other senses. Smell is one of the first things that Suskind describes in the novel, the potent stench of the marketplace where Grenouille is born immediately defies convention and places smell above sight in the sense hierarchy. The rest of the book follows in a very similar fashion, Grenouille follows his nose whilst all those affected by the Enlightenment around him search with their eyes. Suskind wishes to emphasize that “people are stupid and use their noses only for blowing”, yet they will “believe absolutely anything they see with their eyes”. He satirizes society’s reliance on sight and the association that seeing something is ‘proof’ of it being true, yet exposes the hypocrisy in many people believing in God without anyone having ever seen him. Father Terrier, as seen before is a man “given to reason” and an enlightened thinker, yet he believes in God - a supernatural deity that he has no experience of. Smell is seen to be too primal and basic in the time setting of the text where new ideas, theories and revolutionary thought meant that people undervalued and underestimated its power. Ultimately, it takes Grenouille’s perfume for society to realize the true power of scent, resulting in the orgy that leaves them feeling “uncommonly proud.” Suskind highlights that scent allowed the people to do something they had never before because “for the first time they had done something out of Love.”
Suskind’s final social comment is another critique, this time of the western societal values that are commonly associated with excess and corruption. He depicts a satirical view of 18th century France throughout the novel, set in an age where negative values of poverty and superstition uncomfortably coexisted with progression and emerging reason. This combined with the juxtaposition between social classes creates a jarring inequity throughout. The inadequacy of a social system to allow such antithesis to exist is what lead people to corruption in an attempt to better themselves and their lives. Suskind critiques the way in which society at the time left people with very few moral options to try improve their wellbeing and so offers smell as a means to unify all of humanity instead.
Literature is often a voice for social commentary. Perfume comments on 18th century pre revolutionary society in France. Suskind critiques the societal values of the time, the class system and the traits of enlightened thinkers. He exposes the hypocrisy of the Enlightenment and challenges society’s pre-defined reliance on sight as our primary sense. Finally, and more importantly, Suskind highlights the impact of social determinism and society’s influential role in creating monstrous individuals.