Günter Grass

Start Free Trial

Günter Grass Long Fiction Analysis

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Although Günter Grass’s novel The Tin Drum forms the first part of the Danzig Trilogy and shares some characters, events, and themes with Cat and Mouse and Dog Years, the novel was conceived independently and can be discussed without explicit reference to the other two works. Nevertheless, it should be noted that the title of the trilogy, which was later expanded to a “sextet,” reflects the extraordinary significance of Grass’s birthplace for his fiction. In fact, this significance has been compared to that of Dublin for James Joyce or Yoknapatawpha County for William Faulkner. Owing to political developments after World War II, Grass was forced to sever his ties with his place of birth forever: Danzig became the Polish Gdask, a city that the author was able to visit repeatedly and with which he maintained close ties, but a city that was no longer the predominantly German-speaking Danzig of his youth.

Hence, the very act of narration is an evocation of the past, a resurrection from oblivion. Grass, however, is not concerned either with nostalgic memories or with mourning the lost city; rather, he wants to keep alive in the collective memory the reasons for the loss of Danzig. These reasons are to be sought in history—more specifically, in the Nazi period. In The Tin Drum, Grass sets out to elucidate these reasons—albeit from a highly unconventional narrative perspective.

The Tin Drum

Oskar Matzerath, the narrator of The Tin Drum, is an inmate in an insane asylum in postwar West Germany—a fact that he freely admits in the very first sentence of the novel. Instead of endeavoring to offer his readers an explanation for his confinement—the reason, his implication in a murder, is only gradually revealed in the course of the novel—Oskar reverses the normal order of things by declaring his hospital bed to be his sanctuary and refuge that protects him from the outside world. Oskar’s position as an unapologetic outsider tends to disorient the reader and force him or her to assume a critical attitude.

Oskar’s memoirs, written during his confinement, are a record both of his family’s history, which began in Danzig around 1900, and of political history. The three books of the novel thus depict the prewar period, World War II, and the postwar period through 1954—the year in which Oskar turns thirty and completes his narration. As aids in his efforts to evoke the past and make history come alive, the narrator uses his tin drum—the instrument that gives the novel its name—and the family photograph album.

Although the novel is realistic in the sense that it provides exact details relating to the topography of Danzig, the speech patterns of various social groups, the milieu of the lower middle class, the chronology of historical events, and so on, fantastic and supernatural elements are by no means absent. In fact, they are introduced, somewhat in the manner of Franz Kafka’s Die Verwandlung (1915; The Metamorphosis, 1936), almost casually. Thus, Oskar claims that his mental faculties were fully developed at birth. Confronted with the unpleasant realization that a return to the safety of his mother’s womb is impossible, on his third birthday Oskar opts for the second-best solution—that is, to stop growing. He camouflages this willful act by injuring himself in a way that provides a medical explanation for his retarded physical development.

Without a doubt, Oskar’s refusal to grow up is a protest against the world of adults in general and the narrow petit bourgeois sphere of his parents in particular. His diminutive size affords Oskar the possibility of observing the adults...

(This entire section contains 4450 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

in their intimate moments—hence the sexually explicit passages that aroused controversy when the novel was published. Oskar, however, is not a mere voyeur. True, he has a keen eye for the triangular relationship that exists among his mother and his two “presumable” fathers, Matzerath, the German, and Bronski, the Pole, but the outsider Oskar also recognizes clearly the drift toward Nazism in Danzig, with its attendant evils, such as the beginning persecution of the Jews that reaches an early climax during the infamous Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass)—an event that robs him of his Jewish toy merchant and supplier of tin drums, who commits suicide.

Even though Oskar is an opponent of Nazism, he rarely uses his supernatural faculties—his evocative, spellbinding drumming and his ability to shatter glass with his voice—for acts of outright opposition. Admittedly, he does disrupt a Nazi rally by magically transforming the martial music of the drums and fifes into waltzes and the Charleston; conversely, Oskar employs his artistic abilities to contribute to the war effort by entertaining the German troops in France on the eve of the invasion of the Allies. Moreover, in some instances, Oskar’s shattering of glass seems to be inspired by a desire for wanton destruction rather than by an aroused conscience.

Ultimately, Oskar’s role remains somewhat ambivalent. His professed complicity in the deaths of Bronski and Matzerath, for example, appears less heartless when these deaths are viewed as inevitable consequences of his presumable fathers’ actions. When the amorous but cowardly Bronski deserts the defenders of the Polish post office in Danzig at the outbreak of World War II, Oskar leads him back to the besieged building; as a consequence, Bronski is executed by the Germans. Amiable Matzerath, who has become a member of the Nazi Party, is killed at the end of World War II by the Soviets, who have invaded Danzig; Oskar contributes to his demise by handing him the party badge that Matzerath has been desperately trying to get rid of.

The fates of Bronski and Matzerath demonstrate that Grass poses the question of the individual’s responsibility for his or her actions, regardless of station in life. This question also applies to Oskar himself—who, in fact, seriously ponders it at a decisive juncture in his life that coincides with the historical juncture constituted by the end of World War II. At Matzerath’s funeral, Oskar, who in 1945 has turned twenty-one and attained maturity, decides to grow and to assume his proper place in the adult world. Neither Maria, Matzerath’s second wife, nor her son Kurth accepts Oskar very enthusiastically as a husband and father substitute, however.

Despite his belated growth, Oskar does not develop into a physically normal adult; he never achieves average height and is disfigured by a hunchback. He thus remains a conspicuous outsider in postwar West German society; his attempts to start afresh and to assume responsibility have essentially failed. Oskar’s failure is shared by an entire society that is only too eager to forget the past and savor the blessings of the postwar economic miracle. Although Oskar, who has resumed his artistic drumming, keeps the past alive in the face of the general tendency to suppress it, he must acknowledge his complicity in the evil of the times, his standing aside while others acted. Its parodistic, comical, grotesque, picaresque, and mythical dimensions notwithstanding, in the final analysis the telling of the story, which results in the novel, is the artist Oskar’s way of atoning for his failure to conduct himself as a responsible citizen.

Cat and Mouse

The first-person narrator of Cat and Mouse, Pilenz, resembles Oskar in that he is compelled by guilt to tell the story of his ambivalent relationship with “the great Mahlke,” a youth in wartime Danzig whom he both admires and envies. Mahlke seeks to divert attention from his excessively protuberant Adam’s apple by accomplishing astonishing feats—among them an extended masturbation performance—that cannot be matched by his classmates. When Mahlke has become a highly decorated war hero, he gradually begins to realize that his youthful idealism has been misused. As a deserter, he endeavors to hide on a sunken Polish navy vessel, but he perishes in the attempt as a result of Pilenz’s lack of support, amounting to a betrayal. Somewhat in the manner of Oskar, Pilenz survives the war in order to be able to tell of his own failure and the martyrdom of Mahlke.

Dog Years

The title of the extraordinarily complex and voluminous novel Dog Years alludes to the German shepherd Harras; Harras sired Prince, and Prince became the favorite dog of Adolf Hitler. The period and the localities covered are largely familiar from The Tin Drum, although Dog Years features three narrators who form an “authors’ collective” under the direction of the amazingly versatile and artistically gifted Eduard Amsel. Amsel is of Jewish origin and is motivated in part by a desire to resurrect the past and trace its remnants in the present. He writes the first book, which covers the prewar years in Danzig and environs as well as his miraculous transformation and escape from the Nazis. The second book deals with the war years in Danzig and Berlin and is penned in the form of love letters from Harry Liebenau to his cousin Tulla Pokriefke, perhaps the most memorable female figure in Grass’s fiction; she also appears in Cat and Mouse and is resurrected in Crabwalk. The third book deals with the postwar economic development of West Germany—from the black market to the economic miracle. It is written by Walter Matern, Amsel’s erstwhile blood brother, who had turned against him and become a Nazi. In the postwar period, however, Matern directs his aggression at male supporters of the Third Reich; as a punishment, Matern infects their wives and daughters with sexually transmitted diseases. Despite the novel’s superabundance of grotesque and surreal elements, Dog Years draws attention to the time of World War II as well as the prewar period in order to trace their remnants in postwar society—albeit in a highly idiosyncratic fashion.

Local Anaesthetic

In Local Anaesthetic Grass largely abandons the Danzig past and turns to the present in that the narrative takes place in 1967 in the Western part of the divided city of Berlin. The first-person narrator, Starusch, is a teacher of German and history at a secondary school who undergoes a dental treatment. In the first book he projects his thoughts onto the television screen in the dentist’s office in an attempt to reconstruct his biography by mingling truth and fiction—a procedure that clearly shows the intertwining of Nazi past and postwar present. The second book, which essentially corresponds to Grass’s play Max, centers on the plan of Starusch’s gifted student Scherbaum, who wants to burn his dog publicly in order to provoke the complacent, dog-loving Berliners who appear to be indifferent to the fate of the Vietnamese who are suffering from the use of napalm by the Americans during the Vietnam War. Among the various options as to how to engage in a meaningful protest with the aim to alter conditions perceived as intolerable, Starusch’s unspectacular, gradualist approach ultimately prevails. Scherbaum accepts the position of editor of the school newspaper and will argue for a change of failed policies through persuasive arguments rather than spectacular actions. In the brief third book the dentist reiterates his conviction that hygiene and enlightenment rather than religion and ideology will promote progress—a pragmatic approach that is clearly directed against the radicalism of the leftist student movement in West Germany and West Berlin. Surprisingly, when Local Anaesthetic was published, Time magazine (April 13, 1970) devoted a cover story to the novel and its author and praised Grass for his attempt to overcome the generation gap by dispassionately discussing the “morality” of the protest movement.

The Flounder

Grass’s rejection of revolutionary, utopian designs is also evident in From the Diary of a Snail, a prose text of indistinct genre in which he relates his engagement in the 1969 election campaign on behalf of the Social Democratic Party and uses the snail as the symbol of glacially slow political and social progress. In his next, ambitious project, however, Grass turned to history on a grand scale. In The Flounder, and to a somewhat lesser extent in The Meeting at Telgte and Headbirths, there is a closer correspondence between author and narrator than in the Danzig Trilogy. This close correspondence enables Grass to transcend the chronological and spatial boundaries imposed on a single fictional first-person narrator and to give free rein to his exuberant and whimsical imagination. Here, history becomes the raw material to be reshaped and reinvented by the author, who provides alternative versions that challenge presumably established facts. Such imaginative reinterpretation of history is designed to counteract the reader’s tendency to regard history as an inevitable and ultimately meaningless process that absolves him or her from the responsibility of participating in it.

The Flounder is a novel set both in Danzig and in postwar Gdask, but in comparison to the Danzig Trilogy it employs a vastly expanded time frame. Amassing information from the most diverse fields of extant knowledge, Grass uses this encyclopedic material to buttress his plausible account of the antagonistic relationship of the sexes from the Neolithic Age to the 1970’s. In particular, Grass follows literary history fairly closely in developing his central conceit—the alleged former existence of a second version of the fairy tale “The Fisherman and His Wife,” by the Brothers Grimm. The narrator, who closely resembles the present-day author Grass but who has also assumed the identities of male figures in past centuries, avers that in contrast to the version printed by the Brothers Grimm, the lost second version showed an overweening, prideful male instead of a female falling prey to hubris. Because the predominantly male fairy-tale collectors of the Romantic age, foremost among them the Grimms, perceived the second version to be a potential threat to the patriarchal order, they burned it. Although the narrator was not a participant in the burning, his pervasive guilt as a male who has contributed to the exploitation of women throughout the centuries impels him to reconstruct the alternative version, which depicts women in a favorable light.

While mindful of and sympathetic toward women in general (they are chiefly represented in their vital function as food-providing cooks), the narrator/author warns of the excesses in which the extreme fringe of the women’s liberation movement is wont to indulge. On one hand, the women’s tribunal puts the mythical, omniscient Flounder of fairy-tale renown, for whom the novel is named, on trial as the embodiment of the male principle; on the other hand, the radical feminists accept the Flounder’s help in their efforts to establish their domination over men. In view of the continuing antagonism of the sexes, the novel suggests a synthesis that does not seek to derive the ideological justification for the male or female causes from one version of the fairy tale only; rather, as an old woman had told one of the fairy-tale collectors who had inquired about the “correct” version, both versions taken together would yield a viable solution. Without doubt, the novel represents a major achievement; however, it failed to impress feminist critics, who decried it as misogynistic.

The Meeting at Telgte and Headbirths

The Meeting at Telgte offers another instance of Grass’s imaginative re-creation of history and his exploration of alternative possibilities. In this narrative, a fictitious meeting of famous and lesser-known writers takes place in 1647, at the end of the Thirty Years’ War. The writers’ conference proceeds according to the rituals of Gruppe 47; like their twentieth century colleagues, the seventeenth century poets conceive of themselves as true patriots in a divided country, and they try to resurrect literature from the rubble caused by a devastating war—thereby demonstrating that literature will continue to flourish even in perilous times.

In a similar vein, Headbirths, Grass’s literary contribution to the election campaign of 1980, is concerned with the place of literature in society, the relationship of art and politics, and the function of the writer. The novel addresses a wide variety of topics; as the title suggests, it also playfully speculates on the possibility of the Germans dying out on account of their low birthrate—thus projecting history into the future. The work’s central theme, however, is of a literary nature—that is, how to ensure the survival of literature and, for that matter, life itself, in a world that is threatened by the nuclear arms race and other undesirable results of rampant technological progress. To characterize the magnitude of the task ahead, Grass discards the metaphor of the snail, symbol of slow progress, which he had used in From the Diary of a Snail; instead, he employs the myth of Sisyphus as derived from Albert Camus. Only Sisyphean labors, Grass avers, will be able to prevent the advent of the Orwellian state in the 1980’s.

The Rat

Although Grass deliberately omitted any genre classification in his next narrative, some critics have tended to view The Rat in terms of a conventional novel in order to be able to register their discontent with the imaginative narrative point of view. The rat that lends the narrative its title is both an actual rodent that the first-person narrator receives as a somewhat unusual Christmas present and the imaginary interlocutor with whom the narrator converses in his dreams. The imagined rat categorically proclaims at the very beginning that human history has come to an end as the result of a nuclear holocaust and that the despised and persecuted rats have inherited the earth on account of both their highly developed instincts for survival and their practice of self-effacing solidarity. These qualities, which are lacking in humankind, enabled them to survive both the biblical Flood, during which they were excluded from Noah’s Ark, and the atomic catastrophe. Although the narrator seeks to contradict the rat by positing the continuity of human history, in his dreams he sees himself as the sole human survivor, circling the completely devastated planet in a space capsule. When The Rat was published in 1986, several critics dismissed Grass’s dystopian vision and apocalyptic scenario as mere alarmism; yet the arms race, the major accident in April, 1986, at the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl in the Ukraine, which was then part of the former Soviet Union, and the continued ravaging of the environment provided indications that the doomsday apprehensions that Grass conveyed in his narrative were not entirely far-fetched.

In The Rat, Grass returns once more to Danzig/Gdask and reintroduces figures known from his previous fiction in several narrative strands that are indicative of the complex structure of the work. Thus Oskar Matzerath, well known from The Tin Drum, is now sixty years old. He has abandoned his spellbinding drumming and, somewhat in the manner of science fiction, has become a producer of videos in which the future is anticipated. The feminists who appear in The Flounder set out on a voyage in the Baltic—ostensibly to research ecological issues but really in search of Vineta, the Baltic Atlantis. There they hope to establish a matriarchy, but they find the city inhabited by rats. The Brothers Grimm, who also appear in The Flounder, fight unsuccessfully against the destruction of the forests; forests need to be preserved as the repository of fairy tales, which provide an important counterbalance to destructive reason, which results in unchecked scientific and technological progress. Ultimately, the tension between the narrator’s tentative hope for the survival of a gentler, more peaceful humankind and the rat’s categorical denial of such a possibility remains unresolved; Grass leaves it up to the reader to draw his or her own conclusions.

The Call of the Toad

The Call of the Toad, subtitled in the German original Eine Erzählung (prose narrative) but without generic classification in the English translation, was the first major literary work that Grass published after German reunification in 1990, the disappearance of the Iron Curtain, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Eastern European bloc in 1991. Grass’s well-known opposition to reunification, in conjunction with an unusually intense prepublication publicity campaign on the part of the author’s publisher, aroused both readers’ and critics’ curiosity as to how Grass would manage to convey his political concerns in his fiction.

The very title of the narrative provides an indication of Grass’s less-than-optimistic outlook regarding the prospects of future developments in reunited Germany in general and those of German-Polish relations in particular; according to a German proverbial saying, the call of the toad signifies a warning of impending disaster. The narrative begins on a positive note, however, in that it revolves around a not entirely common kind of love story—one involving two elderly people.

As their first names suggest, the male German academic Alexander and the female Polish restorer of art objects Alexandra, who happen to meet in Gdask, are destined for each other. Since both of them have suffered from being expelled from the cities of their births as a consequence of World War II—he from Danzig, she from Vilnius (Wilno), the capital of LithuaniA&Mdash;they devise a plan that is designed to promote reconciliation between Germans and Poles by establishing a Gdask cemetery association that will allow deceased expellees to be buried in their native soil. The couple’s well-intended plan goes awry, however, when a West German entrepreneur takes over the association and ruthlessly pursues the maximization of profits at the expense of fostering understanding between Germans and Poles. The narrative ends on a melancholy note in that both Alexander and Alexandra perish in a car accident; it is left to the virtually anonymous narrator—who is, indeed, a far cry from the highly visible Oskar Matzerath—to write the report of the failed experiment on the basis of Alexander’s notes. In general, critics were not very impressed with Grass’s first postreunification literary work, but the criticism directed toward The Call of the Toad appears muted in comparison to the fierce reactions that his next novel elicited.

Too Far Afield

In the massive novel Too Far Afield, Grass’s views on German reunification can be discerned more clearly than in the preceding, comparatively slim narrative The Call of the Toad. Too Far Afield is mostly set in Berlin, Germany’s erstwhile capital since the founding of the German Empire in 1871 until the end of World War II. Although the plot of the novel begins to unfold shortly after the opening of the Berlin Wall in November, 1989, Grass succeeds in presenting a vast historical panoramA&Mdash;primarily through the choice of an unconventional protagonist nicknamed Fonty, for nineteenth century Berlin novelist Theodor Fontane. “Revenant” Fonty identifies with his idol Fontane to such an extent that he quotes incessantly from the latter’s entire works, with which he is fully conversant; he also adopts Fontane’s habits and even dresses like him. Far from indulging in a mere display of vast literary knowledge, Fonty also cites Fontane’s political observations in general and those concerning Otto von Bismarck, the “Iron Chancellor” and chief architect of the 1871 unification, in particular.

Primarily through the views and utterances of Fonty, which are assiduously recorded by members of the Fontane Archives, who form a collective of anonymous narrators, Grass seeks to establish the parallelism between the 1871 unification “with blood and iron” and that of 1990, which Fonty depicts in terms of a colonial takeover of the socialist German Democratic Republic (GDR) by the capitalist Federal Republic. The authority chiefly responsible for this takeover is the “Handover Trust,” which was created after reunification in order to dispose of GDR state-owned property and has its headquarters in a Berlin building erected during the Nazi period. Septuagenarian Fonty, who serves the Trust as a low-level employee, has had the opportunity to encounter leading figures of both the Third Reich and the GDR in the building, particularly in its “paternoster,” a kind of elevator consisting of a chain of cabins without doors that are in constant motion. This contraption symbolizes the ups and downs—or, rather, circular movement—of German history, which seems to be doomed to repeat past mistakes.

It is not surprising that initial critical reaction to Too Far Afield was predominantly negative, owing to the fact that reviewers tended to judge the book in political rather than aesthetic terms. As Marcel Reich-Ranicki, Grass’s nemesis among critics, pointed out—not entirely without justification—the author’s negative assessment of reunification and the new Germany as well as his tendency to portray the former GDR in a somewhat positive light were not shared by the majority of Germans, even though former GDR citizens inclined toward a more favorable opinion. The debate about Too Far Afield reached an intensity that is rarely encountered at the publication of a novel—an indication of Grass’s public stature.


In pronounced contrast to the fairly pervasive drubbing that Too Far Afield received, Crabwalk elicited almost unmitigated praise when it appeared. For instance, in February, 2002, the prominent newsmagazine Der Spiegel, which had mercilessly panned Too Far Afield, published a laudatory cover story under the heading “The German Titanic,” a reference to the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff on January 30, 1945, by a Soviet submarine, the central event in Crabwalk. The sinking of that ship, which cost the lives of many thousands, among them a great number of children, is a gruesome chapter in the expulsion of Germans from the territories east of the Oder-Neisse line.

A great deal of debate revolved around the question of whether Germans were entitled to claim the status of victims in view of the suffering they had inflicted on others during World War II. The very fact that it took Grass almost fifty years to deal with an issue that was dear to his heart—the ship carried refugees from Danzig and East Prussia who were fleeing the advancing Soviet army—is indicative of the long-lasting reluctance, particularly on the part of the Left, to muddy the waters by blurring the distinction between perpetrators and victims. Grass, however, who appears in the narrative thinly disguised as the “old man” who pressures a journalist into writing the story, evens the score by drawing attention to the potential misuse of the victimhood discourse on the part of the Right: The journalist in question happens to be the son of memorable Tulla Pokriefke, a survivor of the ship’s sinking. His son Konrad has been influenced by right-wing Internet propaganda and eventually resorts to violence, killing an adherent of Philo-Semitism who pretends to be Jewish. While in prison, Konrad is elevated to the position of martyr of a right-wing movement—a clear warning that the one-sided emphasis on Germans as victims may have undesirable consequences.


Günter Grass Drama Analysis


Günter Grass World Literature Analysis