Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1054
The Flounder examines the issues inherent in the age-old war between the sexes. Written in the first person, the novel is a long chronicle in which every aspect of this war is examined by the author. Beginning with the neolithic period and proceeding through modern times, Günter Grass leaves no feminist issue unchallenged, no sexist stone unturned. Even the way in which the chapters are arranged (in nine monthly headings signifying the pregnancy of the narrator’s current wife, Ilsebill) indicates that the war has not abated, that it will continue long after the novel has finished.
The novel begins in the neolithic period, with the catching of a flounder by a primitive fisherman. This flatfish is no ordinary fish but a magical entity who teaches the primitive fisherman many things: how to count on his fingers, how to explore outside his local domain, and how to subjugate the womenfolk of his clan.
The neolithic fisherman, the reader is informed, is only one of the many lives of the narrator. In fact, by the end of the novel, this same narrator has passed through at least nine different periods of history under dozens of guises and occupations. Throughout this time, the Flounder remains his spiritual adviser, ready at any moment to be summoned from the sea for advice on how to run the world. This arrangement continues for centuries.
One day, in the late 1970’s, three feminists who are fishing in Lubeck Bay catch the Flounder—or rather, he allows himself to be caught. The fish, to their surprise, bluntly informs them that he is tired of serving men, that men have ruined the world. He now wants to help women run things. Women, he insists, are the only salvation of the world.
The feminists, instead of accepting his offer, decide that the Flounder should be tried as a criminal, a war criminal, for his many offenses against womankind. They drop him into a tank of seawater and ship him back to Berlin to stand trial before a tribunal of women.
The remainder of the book, its bulk, alternates between the many different lives of the narrator and the trial of the Flounder. The way in which the book moves between historical periods serves as a means of seeing both the past and the present. The narrator might talk about himself, for example, as a sword-smith in the Middle Ages and expound on what the relationship with his wife was like. Then he will invariably turn to the women’s tribunal to get the views of that time period. This device allows the narrator to view the historical differences and relationships between the sexes from a variety of perspectives.
The narrator proceeds in great detail, following each of his lives more or less in historical order but always returning to the tribunal to gain the women’s opinions. He also manages to balance his own views with those of whatever woman happens to be his cook at the time. Although seemingly a sexist label, “cook” is probably the most appropriate term for these women simply because that was the only thing they all had in common. Not all were wives, lovers, or even companions to the narrator. Yet all of them cooked for him.
The cooks vary greatly between historical periods. In the neolithic period, his cook is named Awa. She is ruler of the tribe, possessor of three breasts. This is a point in history when matriarchy is in the ascendancy, when men serve women in blissful ignorance. This is also the time when the Flounder enters the scene, advising the narrator on how to forge iron, make axes, and start war. Soon thereafter, Awa loses her third breast, and the matriarchy begins to crumble.
The cooks serve as links to the history of women. There is Metswina, who lives in the pagan Europe of the sixth century and is hanged for the murder of a dour Christian missionary. There is Fat Gret, a plump abbess in a medieval convent, who rules the town with her wit and cast-iron pot of soup. There is Dorothea, the narrator’s wife at the time of the Crusades, who indulges in acts of masochism in the name of Christ; it is her hope to be canonized eventually. There is Sophie, a Prussian cook who poisons five officers of Napoleon’s army because they were holding her betrothed in prison. Finally, there is Lena Stubbe, the wife of a Danzig dockyard worker; she invented the proletarian cookbook at the beginning of the twentieth century.
One by one, the narrator writes about his cooks, often devoting more space to their stories than to his own. His most important cook, however, is his late wife, Ilsebill. She is the woman carrying his child. Much of the narrative is an ongoing argument between Ilsebill and the narrator about the inherent differences between the sexes. This argument seems to have no end.
In the meantime, the woman’s tribunal is also examining the lives of these women, attempting to determine whether the Flounder is guilty of helping the male to oppress them. The cooks take affidavits, they submit documents, and they file motions. The Flounder makes long, rhetorical speeches about the differences between the sexes; the prosecutor objects to these speeches; and the defense lawyer objects to her objections. In the end, the trial becomes a media circus.
In the process, the group raises questions about fundamental issues such as domesticity, romantic love, strength, masculinity, and femininity. In addition it manages to make its own survey of history, as a counterpoint to the character-lives of the narrator. When the stories are all told and the closing arguments are made, the tribunal renders its verdict against the Flounder: guilty on all counts. The group sentences the guilty flatfish to a huge banquet held in front of him in which the main course is baked flounder. The tribunal eats the meal with relish and then, as a final gesture of contempt, throws the bare fish bones into the Flounder’s tank.
Eventually, despite an assassination attempt by a group of radical feminists, the Flounder is dumped back into the Baltic Sea by members of the tribunal, with his promise that he will serve womankind forever. He is, one might say, on parole.