The Use of Smell in Fiction

I have just finished reading Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale and am finishing Mark Treanor’s A Quiet Cadence, a novel I’m reading for review. I’m struck by how often both authors depend on aromas to create an emotional effect. Treanor’s use of smells is particularly effective for me because his story is about Marines in Vietnam. More than half the text describes combat. Treanor’s descriptions match my memory: the odors of the battlefield—smoke, gunpowder, sweat, churned dirt, burned flesh, human waste—were overwhelming.

My first reaction to the use of smell to invoke an emotion was to find it strange. After all, we humans first and foremost depend on sight to determine what is going on around us. Hearing stands in when we can’t see. The sense of touch gives us data about textures and surfaces. Smell seems to be our weakest link with physical reality.

What I overlooked was what seems to me to be the close link between smell and emotion. I have no data to base my belief on, but it appears to me that scents spark emotions more quickly than sights or sounds do. I can report about myself that a smell spurs a feeling more readily than something I see or hear. So often these days, for example, when I step outside, I smell smoke from a wood fire. I’m immediately alarmed, afraid that a house is burning. When my reason kicks in, I realize that what I am smelling is somebody’s fireplace. I instantly intellectualize stimuli seen or heard, but I can’t do that for aromas.

At the same time I was reading the Atwood and the Treanor novels, I was doing a final read-through of the finished text of my novel, Secretocracy for publication. I was surprised to discover that I, too, rely on scents to trigger emotions. How odd that I was never consciously aware that I was doing it.

Once again the way the human mind works amazes me. So much in the creative process goes on in the unconscious. As an artist, I am better off to let that process play out without too much directed attention on my part. I already know that to release my creative juices, I need to put myself in a meditative state so that my unconscious can feed inspiration to my conscious mind. Turns out that’s happening even when I don’t try to do it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: