Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
The Tin Drum opens with the line, “Granted: I am an inmate of a mental hospital,” thus setting the stage for its unreliable narrator, Oskar Matzerath, who tells varying versions of his story throughout the book. Oskar begins his life story with his Kashubian grandmother Anna Bronski and her improbable impregnation by Joseph Koljaiczek, who eludes police by hiding under Anna’s four skirts as she sits in a potato field. This fantastic conception is only one of the “miraculous” events that occur in the novel. The importance of history is evident in Oskar’s concern with the ancestry details.
Anna’s daughter Agnes grows up into a lovely woman, falls in love with her beautiful cousin Jan Bronski, but marries the German Alfred Matzerath, whom she nurses during the war. Throughout the first part of the novel, Agnes is torn between these two men, just as the Poles are torn between Germany and Poland, and Oskar continually speculates on the true nature of his parentage, unable to decide which of the two men is his real father. When Oskar is born, clairaudient and with his mental development completed at birth, Alfred Matzerath promises that Oskar shall inherit the grocery when he grows up. Preferring his mother’s promise of a tin drum on his third birthday, and entranced by the sound of a moth beating its wings against a sixty-watt light bulb, Oskar decides to stay: “Besides, the midwife had already cut my umbilical cord.” That is a pattern with Oskar: Whenever possible, Oskar chooses childhood pursuits over adult responsibilities; whenever possible, he claims responsibility for actions that have already occurred or that he could not have controlled.
On his third birthday, Oskar does indeed receive his drum, and, disgusted with the world of adults, with its deception and sordidness, including his mother’s ongoing affair with her cousin Jan, Oskar decides that he will not become an adult: He throws himself down the cellar stairs in order to have an explanation for his having stopped growing at the age of three. Throughout book 1, Oskar drums his way through the...
(The entire section is 864 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
In 1899, Oskar’s Kashubian grandmother is sitting in a potato field, her wide skirts concealing the fugitive Joseph Koljaiczek from pursuing constables. She thereby conceives Oskar’s mother, Agnes. In 1923, in the free city of Danzig, Agnes Koljaiczek marries Alfred Matzerath, a citizen of the German Reich, and introduces him to her Polish cousin and lover, Jan Bronski, with whom Alfred becomes fast friends. When Oskar is born, he soon shows himself to be an infant whose mental development is complete at birth.
Oskar is promised a drum for his third birthday. That drum, in its many atavistic recurrences, allows him mutely to voice his protest against the meaninglessness of a world that formulates its destructive nonsense in empty language. The drum also allows him to re-create the history of his consciousness and to recall in the varied music of the drum the rhythms of his mind’s apprehensions of the world around him. On his third birthday, Oskar, by a sheer act of will, decides to stop growing and to remain with his three-year-old body and his totally conscious mind for the rest of his life. As he later boasts, he remains from then on a precocious three-year-old in a world of adults who tower over him but are nevertheless inferior to him. While he is complete both inside and out, free from all necessity to grow, develop, and change as time passes, they continue to move toward old age and the grave.
Oskar’s refusal to grow, to measure his shadow by that of older persons, or to compete for the things they desire, is the assertion of his individuality against a world that, misconstruing him, tries to force him into an alien pattern. He is pleased when he discovers his ability to shatter glass with his voice, a talent that becomes not only a means of destruction, the venting of his hostility and outrage, but also an art...
(The entire section is 755 words.)