Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is born in Paris in 1738, behind his mother's fish stall. She is wrongly accused of attempted infanticide by passersby. Tried, she is found guilty and guillotined.

Grenouille is taken to a cloister where the wet-nurses refuse to suckle him because he has no personal scent whatsoever, an abnormality that scares them. He is sent to a Madame Gaillard who runs an orphanage for cash. Gaillard has no sense of smell. Grenouille grows up to discover that he, on the other hand, has an extraordinary sense of smell.

Aged nine, Grenouille is apprenticed to a tanner. Aged 13, he kills a girl in Paris when he becomes intoxicated by her scent. That same night, he decides to become a perfumier.

Grenouille meets Baldini, a master perfumier who is fascinated by Grenouille's brilliant sense of smell. For five years, Grenouille works for Baldini but becomes deathly ill in his frustrated attempts to distill the smell of inanimate objects. Upon recovery, Grenouille leaves Baldini and sets out to discover the ultimate scent.

On his journey, Grenouille discovers he can no longer bear the scent of humans and takes a detour to the highest and most remote mountain in France, Plomb du Cantal. He spends seven years as a hermit in a mountain cave. Here, he discovers his own lack of personal odor.

Reemerging into the world, he sets out to acquire a personal scent that will intoxicate people.

In Grasse, he rediscovers the scent of the girl he murdered and learns how to capture it. He distills the bodies of 25 dead virgins for their scents, but is captured after he murders the teenage daughter of a city high official. However, through cunning use of his newly formulated scent, he drives the townsfolk into a paroxysm of erotic, ecstatic fervour and a mass orgy occurs. During this, he escapes.

Back in Paris and disillusioned, Grenouille commits suicide by dousing himself in his new perfume: as in Grasse, it drives the street people of Paris into a frenzy of passion, and they tear him limb from limb in their fervour.