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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 419

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Cat and Mouse is a 1961 novella written by German novelist, poet, and playwright Günter Grass. It is the second installment in his series of novels and novellas titled the Danzig Trilogy, coming after Grass’s controversial and critically acclaimed The Tin Drum and followed by Dog Years. Set during the Second World War, the novel tells the story of Joachim Mahlke—a 14 year old boy with an abnormally large larynx, who decides to battle all his insecurities and abnormalities and become a national hero.

Typical of Grass’s style, Cat and Mouse is filled with numerous metaphors and symbols, and as such, it belongs in the literary genre of contemporary realism. For instance, the title itself is a metaphor of the war stricken society divided by violence, injustice, and Nazism. In this scenario, the cat is the society and the mouse is Mahlke. There is an interesting scene in which the narrator (Mahlke’s best friend, Pilenz) recalls how a cat attacked Mahlke's throat, trying to scratch his Adam’s apple. Basically, the scene symbolically describes how a corrupted and immoral society can affect (or even destroy) a person’s conscience and distort his or her values.

Mahlke, a skilled swimmer and diver, decides to join the war so that he can make a speech at his school in front of his peers. He joins the Penzer division and is honored with the Iron Cross for his successful contribution to the war as a civilian. When he returns to his school, however, the principal forbids him to make a speech. Mahlke gives up on his wish, abandons his military service, and becomes a deserter, which is punishable by death. Thus, he goes to his underwater hideout.

Pilenz continuously describes Mahlke as kind, humble, brave, and independent and rarely uses any bad words, which might be Pilenz’s way of expressing grief and regret for a yet unknown event. By the end of the novel, we realize that this event was the moment when Pilenz forced the weakened and unhealthy Mahlke to dive underwater to hide, knowing that he might die. After that, The Great Mahlke is never to be seen or heard from again.

Essentially, Cat and Mouse is a story of boyhood and adolescence amidst the Second World War. It is a complex novel with a thought-provoking narrative and well-developed characters, and as such, received many positive reviews. However, it did receive a bit of criticism as well, mainly for its amount of crudity and sexual themes.

Places Discussed

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 279


*Danzig (DAN-zik). Polish city (now known as Gdansk) on the Baltic that was occupied by Nazi Germany during the time in which this novella is set. Grass re-creates the city of his youth by using such specific place names as Osterzeile and Westerzeile, streets in a working-class neighborhood. Here, look-alike, one-family homes with copycat yards illustrate the sterile, conformist society easily conquered by National Socialism.

*Neufahrwasser Harbor

*Neufahrwasser Harbor (noy-FAHR-wahser). Danzig harbor near which the Rybitwa, a partially submerged Polish minesweeper, provides the major setting for the story’s action. The ship’s bridge, which rises above the surface of the water, covered by rust and gull droppings, illustrates the long-lasting destructiveness of war. Joachim Mahlke, a Danzig schoolboy, and his schoolmates spend their summers playing on and swimming around the ship’s bridge. Mahlke brings his prized possessions, an assortment of religious items and cultural artifacts, from his dry attic room to the ship’s radio room. The narrator sees this transfer of possessions as an act of absurd and “deliberate destructiveness.” The minesweeper becomes the last refuge for Mahlke after his rejection by his school’s principal.


*Conradinum (kohn-rahd-EEN-um). Mahlke’s school, whose neogothic windows infuse its gymnasium and dressing room, dubbed the “Sacristy,” with a “mystical light.” The new martial religion as preached by the returning war heroes stands in contrast to the school’s humanistic foundation. The appearances of the returning heroes foster Mahlke’s desire to win the Knight’s Cross.

St. Mary’s Chapel

St. Mary’s Chapel. Converted gymnasium, which, in contrast to the school, has bright lights and lacks the “mystical light” and is rendered impotent by wartime Danzig.


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Cunliffe, W. Gordon. Günter Grass. New York: Twayne, 1969. This basic study places Grass’s work in its historical and political context. Includes one chapter on Cat and Mouse.

Hayman, Ronald. Günter Grass. New York: Methuen, 1985. A survey of Grass’s work that places Cat and Mouse in the context of Grass’s aesthetic ideas and emphasizes the unreliable narrator. Also compares the text to other works by German writers who have focused on the clown archetype.

Keele, Alan Frank. Understanding Günter Grass. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1988. This general study of Grass’s work examines Cat and Mouse primarily as a political allegory, drawing parallels between Mahlke and Germany, as well as between Pilenz and Grass himself.

Lawson, Richard H. Günter Grass. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1985. This survey of Grass’s work includes a chapter on Cat and Mouse that discusses the text from a variety of perspectives. Includes a good discussion of the novella genre and traces the quest motif in the work.

Reddick, John. The Danzig Trilogy of Günter Grass: A Study of “The Tin Drum,” “Cat and Mouse,” and “Dog Years.” London: Secker and Warburg, 1975. A good in-depth study of Cat and Mouse that examines the structure, imagery, setting, themes, and symbols of the work and relates it to the other elements of the Danzig trilogy.


Critical Essays