Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 419
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.