The two novels are very different in style and consequently the ways in which the protagonists are presented also differ. However despite this stylistic difference with Zola’s naturalistic style creating believable and gritty characters while Susskind’s post- modern approach is characterized by a far-fetched storyline featuring fantastic almost supernatural characters, some of the effects are remarkably similar.
One of the ways in which the two novels could be said to be similar is the sense of detachment and distance the narrators of both books seem to create from their characters. In perfume the author directly identifies himself with the reader ‘we as moderns, with are knowledge of physics’ this use of meta-narrative creates an overall effect of separation from Grenouille and encourages us not to empathize with but instead to be repulsed by him This lack of emotional engagement is very important in the development of Grenouille as a character as it is an echo of the lack of empathy that Grenouille himself shows towards his victims and indeed anyone in the novel.
Zola also creates a sense of distance between the narrator and the characters in Therese Raquin but not by the use of meta-narrative but by the language that he uses to describe them. When developing the character of Laurent he is described in not just unsympathetic ways, but in condescending ways. A criticism often made of Zola is that his style can be very arrogant and verging on offensive, Laurent is described as being ‘of simple peasant nature’ and his brutish looks are ‘of true farming stock’. This tone creates a sense of mocking, it’s almost as though Zola is poking fun at the working class and the proletariat for the entertainment of his readers, who would likely be the intellectual French middle classes.
The detachment between the narrator and the characters in both of the novels can be seen as something which they have in common. However a way in which the novels differ in terms of characterization of their protagonists could be the use of comparisons to other characters int the novels.
For example in Therese Raquin Laurent is described in physicality as a binary opposite to Camille. His ‘handsome full-blooded face’ and ‘well developed full muscles’ form a stark juxtaposition to Camille who is described as a ‘sickly child’ with a ‘puny and languid appearance’. The contrast is made all the more apparent when Zola reveals Therese’s thoughts upon seeing Laurent ‘she had never seen a real man before… Laurent filled her with astonishment’. This celebration of the physical defines Laurent by what he is in relation to Camille, a real man with animalistic qualities who can at last answer the ‘unfulfilled passions’ of Therese.
Whereas Zola develops Laurent by what he is and by what qualities he possesses, Susskind does the exact opposite. When developing Grenouille’s character he is defined by what he lacks, namely a smell. This lack of an odour creates profound, extreme and very unexpected reactions in the people who experience it, Father Terrier for example. Susskind presents Terrier to the reader as ‘an educated’ man with ‘a high opinion of his own critical faculties’, when the wet nurse Jeanne Bussie comes to him in order to rid herself of the young Grenouille because she can’t stand him not having a smell he berates her for holding the ‘superstitious notions of the simple folk’. This makes Terrier’s inevitable repulsion to the child all the more shocking. he tries to get the ‘screaming brat’ as far away as possible, ‘to another parish if possible’, this creates the most impact possible as he was after all an educated man free the simple superstitions of the common folk.
The way in which the two novels characterize their protagonists is symptomatic of the two genres from which the authors are writing. Zola is one of the leaders of the naturalistic school of writing in France and this is reflected in his development of Laurent. Laurent is everything the naturalistic movement believed made flesh, in concordance with naturalistic beliefs he lacks any meaningful definition of free will. Instead he is controlled by his erotic, animalistic desire for Therese. She responds favorably to this new powerful man and through this acceptance Zola tries to convince his audience that it is indeed the nature of the human condition to surrender to our more primal desires. If it were not then why would Therese choose the wild and exciting lover in a passionate affair over the steady, safe albeit boring life of a ‘1200 franks a week man’? Clearly she is driven by her animalistic desires.
The characterization in Perfume is also typical of the style it is written in. However instead of being a novel from the naturalist school of writing this is a very post-modern novel. The priest Terrier rejects Grenouille on the basis of not having a smell even going so far as to cal him evil. This raises the idea of what is evil? And can it really be described as the privation of a smell? The nature and causes of evil and the battle of materialistic and dualistic ideas are two very prominent themes in the post-modern novel. I think it’s justified to call Perfume a novel of dualistic values.
Dualism is the belief that humans are made up of two ‘parts’, these are the physical body and also the ‘essence’ of what it is to be a human. This essence can be defined as different things according to different dualist belief systems but according to Christianity it is our immortal soul.
The fact that Suskind chooses a holy man, Father Terrier to be so repulsed by the child due to his lack of smell suggests that perhaps this lack of smell is actually a metaphor for Grenouille lacking a soul, or whatever else we define the dualist ‘essence’ as. Although initially this assertion sounds a little far-fetched there is actually a surprising amount of evidence for it in the text. It explains why the children at the orphanage were so fearful of him. It wouldn’t even be too tenuous a link too suggest that the reason Grenouille desires the love and control over people that his perfumes give him is that he simply desires that which he has never known. As he has no soul he has never felt love or even friendship in his whole life and this feeds his motivation to create awe inspiring perfumes.
Another area that both novels explore while developing the character of their main protagonists are violence and what it tells us about the perpetrators, and by implication ourselves. In Therese Raquin Zola celebrates the physical, he is a naturalist and throughout the novel the animalistic and gritty sides of humanity are, although perhaps not always approved of they are unflinchingly portrayed. The world Zola creates is a realistic one, and although not exactly Gomorrah its inhabitant’s actions are far removed from virtuous. However I think it’s a mistake to say that Zola approved of his characters.
The physical violence in the novel is conducted by Laurent when he murders Camille by throwing him over the side of the rowing boat they are sharing with Therese. In the light of the setting Zola has created these seams to be merely an extension of the animalistic nature which attracted Therese to Laurent in the first place. However the murder quickly starts to weigh heavily on their on their relationship. When Laurent goes to the morgue to find Camille’s body the corpses ‘seemed to be mocking him with their leering grimaces’. Such gory imagery as is used in the morgue scenes such as ‘the jet playing on the face was digging a hole’ is used by Zola to playfully repulse his readers in the same way a modern horror film might, it also echoes with Susskind’s grotesque realism. The mocking of the corpses is not all that torments Laurent, when he starts to paint again all his paintings take on the countenance of Camille. Through the use of these torturous techniques Zola seams to be giving a warning for life, if you behave in this way you will be punished. He also seams to telling us something about the nature of evil. In Therese Raquin evil stems from human ‘corruption’ of the soul, namely Laurent and Therese’s lusts.
However the opposite is true for Perfume. In this novel, if we accept my earlier idea that someone’s scent is a metaphor for their soul, then evil is caused not by a corruption but by a lack of a soul and the desire to gain something which can simulate its effects. This something is the perfect perfume and the effects are to be accepted by and have the chance to be loved by normal members of society.
In conclusion both novels draw upon the darker side of humanity to create their protagonists. Susskind’s Post-modern style creates an almost supernatural fantastical character whose rejection from mainstream society turns him into a sociopath who desires nothing more than acceptance and will stop at nothing to achieve it. Zola on the other hand doesn’t describe a dangerous outsider, but instead warns against the dangers of idleness and immorality by showing the dreadful consequences of acting in such a way. The truths of the character are brought home by Zola’s naturalist believable style, making Laurent the opposite of Grenouille. Grenouille is a man who’s shown as evil because he can’t engage or be accepted by society, whereas Laurent is evil as the personification of a decadent one.