In his quest to isolate and preserve scents, he becomes apprenticed to a great perfumier, Baldini, and proves a talented pupil, making Baldini the most popular perfumier in Paris. But Baldini cannot teach him how to isolate the scent of glass and iron. He falls ill with small pox but, on discovering that techniques other than distillation can be used to preserve such odours, he miraculously recovers and resolves to journey to the city of Grasse to further his quest.
On his way to Grasse, Grenouille becomes so disgusted by the scent of humanity that he spends seven years in a cave on top of the Massif Central. One day he wakes with a start from a nightmare of being suffocated by his own body odour, and realises with a shock that he has no personal scent at all.
Grenouille journeys to Montpelier where an amateur scientist, the Marquis de La Taillade-Espinasse, uses Grenouille to test his thesis of the "so-called fluidium letale". The Marquis combines a treatment of decontamination and revitalization for Grenouille, and subsequently, Grenouille looks like a clean gentleman for the first time in his life. Grenouille in turn tricks his way into the laboratory of a famous perfumier. There he creates a body odour for himself from ingredients including "cat shit," "cheese," and "vinegar", whereupon he is accepted by society. But he doesn't want acceptance, he wants to have power and be able to manipulate those within the world who disgust him so much.
Moving to Grasse, Grenouille once again becomes intoxicated by the scent of a young woman, Laure. He decides that she is not quite mature and resolves to kill her in two years time. Meanwhile he embarks on a career of serial murder of beautiful virgins to form a base for the scent he will make from Laure, while at the same time refining his powers until he can preserve any smell.
Eventually Laure's father pieces together the pattern of murders and realises that Laure is to be the next victim. He flees with Laure but Grenouille pursues them and kills Laure, capturing her scent.
He is eventually apprehended and sentenced to death, but on the day of his execution the intoxicating scent of Laure combined with the backdrop essences of the twenty-four virgins he murdered, overwhelms all present, and instead of an execution the whole town becomes a massive orgy.
Grenouille is pardoned for his crimes, and Laure's father even wants to adopt him. But the experience of the power has dissatisfied Grenouille, because he is not loved for himself, but for the perfume which he created. He realises that he had always found gratification 'in hatred, in hating and being hated', not love. He decides to return to Paris upon finding that the satisfaction that he initially felt has transformed itself into hatred and disgust.
In Paris, Grenouille approaches a group of low-life people (thieves, murderers, whores, etc), who do not notice him approaching. He deliberately douses himself with the perfume he created, while among the group. Overcome with desire, they tear him to pieces and devour the remains. They feel slightly disgusted having just eaten a human being, but they feel overwhelmed with happiness. They are "uncommonly proud. For the first time they had done something out of love."