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The Relationship Between the Corporeal Body and the Spirit in the Context of the Novels “Perfume: the Story of a Murderer” and “Hunger”

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| World Literature Assignment 1 | The Relationship Between the Corporeal Body and the Spirit In the Context of the Novels “Perfume: The Story Of A Murderer” and “Hunger” | | | |


Subject: English A1 Higher Level
Session: May 2010
Word Count: 1500
The constitution of the human being is often classified into two parts: the body and the mind or soul. Whereas these two aspects of the being, supernatural and physical, are often considered two inseparable parts of a whole, they are regarded, rather, as distinct features in both the novels, Perfume and Hunger, that work together in order to form the complete individual. However, though the particular relationships between the individual’s corporeal body and the metaphysical mind or soul in these two novels are portrayed similarly in a number of aspects, they are not without their unique attributes. A distinct correlation between the portrayal of the body and the state of the individual’s internal being is seen to be present in the context of both texts. Grenouille, in the novel Perfume, is described, even from infancy, as having “…eyes…of an uncertain color, covered with a kind of slimy film…” (Suskind 16) and a nose “…like the cups of…[a]…small meat-eating plant…” (Suskind 17) It can be seen here that his abnormal and parasitic tendencies have been reflected in his physical appearance, as it is throughout the book. Because the eyes are commonly described as the window to the soul, the fact that his eyes covered by a film, is symbolic of the abnormality, or rather, absence of his soul; just as his eyes are tools for vision that are not fit for sight, they are also the supposed windows to a soul that does not exist. Moreover, his nose, the very thing that defines who he is, is compared to a small carnivorous plant. This description is in agreement with his parasitic nature that has been seen to have led to the unfortunate fates of his many hosts throughout the course of the novel; though he appears pathetic and insignificant, he is capable of bringing significant misfortune, unseen. Also, the fact that the victims that Grenouille are attracted to, are “…always girls just approaching womanhood, and always very beautiful…” (Suskind 196), serves to reinforce the previous claim as well. The girls’ scents are in contrast to the “stench barely conceivable to us modern men and women,” (Suskind 3) or corruption of eighteenth century-France, which therefore implies that their purity is one of the reasons as to Grenouille attraction to them. Because his victims are ones on brink of entry into adulthood, they have yet to be corrupted though they have gained the beauty of maturity. The fact that both their physical beauty and purity can be reflected in the girls’ scents, which is representative of one’s soul, indicates that there is indeed relationship between the body and spirit.
This positive correlation can also be observed in the context of Hunger, as well. Physical hunger is seen to have a direct impact on the mental stability of the protagonist as is indicated by the flow of his narration. As his hunger increases, the narrator’s thought pattern grows more and more nonsensical, describing them himself as being “…like a madman.” (Hamsun 68) Moreover, this phenomenon can also be further justified as Hunger can be regarded as a semi-autobiographical piece, mirroring the period of desperation with his writing during the author’s time in Christiania. Physical hunger in the novel therefore also symbolizes the hunger of the soul that Hamsun experienced during this time- the desire to succeed in his writing career. This claim can be supported by the protagonist’s physical reaction to food. One instance describes the narrator as he attempts to eat the bone that had been attained from the butcher shop with the excuse that it was for his dog. He describes it as having “no taste at all; a nauseating odor of dried blood [rising] from the bone.” (Hamsun 161) He then proceeds to repeatedly vomit following his numerous attempts. The description of the food as being tasteless suggests that he cannot consume physical sustenance because he has not yet been spiritually satisfied by any literary successes; it was not food that he earned with his own effort and therefore carried no satisfaction. The protagonist’s wandering thoughts and revelations throughout the novel are accompanied by constant physical wandering, which also exemplifies this relationship between the body and spirit. The protagonist fails to draw a solid conclusion about anything, just as how he continues to wander around the city aimlessly. An example of this would be his thoughts regarding God; while he states that his discovery of the word “kuboaa” was “…thanks to God” (Hamsun 79), by the next page he exclaims: “God in heaven, how black it is!” (Hamsun 80) However, in the fourth part of the novel, as the protagonist approaches his moment of catharsis, he ceases his wandering and gets himself a room. The protagonist also physically departs from Christiania, a symbol of a time of turmoil and confusion, the moment he is able to find the answer to his quest, or representation of the suitable direction to take with his writing. He does this while stating that he will “…[say] goodbye for now to the city…” (Hamsun 232), implying that he could very well find himself at a loss which his writing once more, reinforcing the previous statement. However, despite this observable relationship between these two aspects, there is a notably heavier emphasis on the spirit in Perfume; this is under the assumption that scent is representative of the soul in this novel. Despite Grenouille’s hyperawareness of his surroundings, the focus of his attention is always shown to be the scent, rather than any other physical attributes. Even during the murder of the girl washing plums, his first kill, only a single sentence was designated for any sort of indication of the fact that she was dead. This is at a contrast with the length of a full page dedicated to an elaborate explanation of her scent, which indicates that to Grenouille, the physical body of the girl, despite it being beautiful, had no value. In fact, the stoic diction used to describe the kill, conveys that to him, the disposal of the body was a chore and nothing more. Likewise, this message is also further reinforced by the fact that during the perfuming process, the body is seen as yet another thing to be filtered out in the process in order to “…[rob] a living creature of its aromatic soul.” (Suskind 186) Similarly, the physical form is seen to play no role in the identity of the individual; all focus is on the scent. Despite the fact that Grenouille is nothing like Laure, once he wears the perfume containing her scent, Richi describes Grenouille as “…much like her…beautiful like her…” (Suskind 244) Lastly, the basic physical requirements are seen to be nuisance or an obstacle for Grenouille in the way that it prevents his complete descent into his internal world. It is stated that he “…was concerned only with getting back into his crypt as quickly as possible once he had taken care of the most basic chores necessary for simple survival. For here, inside the crypt, was where he truly lived….” (Suskind 123), which implies that the meaning of life needs to be sought internally, rather than in the outside world. This statement can be supported by the fact that in “Grenouille’s case…He had withdrawn…only to be closer to himself.” (Suskind 123)
However, this is not necessarily true in Hunger; both the protagonist’s psyche and body have the opportunity to enjoy moments of dominance. The protagonist of the book makes a choice about starving; he voluntarily chooses to not consume food even when he is given the chance. To him, life is a perverse game-- almost an experiment to see how long he can go on without any form of sustenance. Despite the fact he is starving from his lack of money, he decides the waste “…the entire fifty ore…not at all upset,” (Hamsun 11) paying more than necessary for some bread and cheese. This implies that he is starving on his own will. Considering that the hallucinations caused by his hunger was what became the key his catharsis, and his eventual escape from Christiania, this fact can then be interpreted as the sacrifice of his physical well being for the sake of his spiritual or literary successes. However, it is also a fact that his physical state dictates his mental state, “...every time [he] went hungry…[his] brains simply [running]…out of [his] head…” (Hamsun 21) Therefore, it can be said that it was due to his physical being that he was able to reach catharsis on an intellectual level. In this respect, both the protagonist’s physical and spiritual body can be said to be equally important. The concepts of the physical and metaphysical in these two novels have been integrated seamlessly into various aspects of the text. Though correlation can be found between one’s external and internal being is present in both Hunger as well as Perfume, the heavier importance of the spirit found in the latter cannot be said to be true in regard to the other. For this reason, it can be said that despite the similarities in their representation, the concept of the interaction between these two aspects of the being, do possess unique qualities in each book.

Bibliography * Hamsun, Knut. Hunger. Trans. Robert Bly. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.

* Süskind, Patrick. Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. Trans. John E. Woods. New York Vintage International, 2001.

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