Günter Grass

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Günter Grass World Literature Analysis

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History and objects are almost an obsession with Grass. Most of his fiction is driven by the momentous events of history, and Grass employs objects, and extended metaphors with these objects, until they become symbols of that history. He is both praised and condemned for his use of minute details in his novels, and this mass of detail contributes to the bulk of most of his works. When he employs less detail, as in Cat and Mouse and Headbirths, the works are significantly shorter.

World War II is the overwhelming background in many of Grass’s works, such as The Tin Drum, Cat and Mouse, and Dog Years, while The Flounder tackles the entire history of the human race, especially the history of males and females. The tin drum, in the novel of the same name, serves as the symbol of Germany’s military aggression, as well as other human violence. In Cat and Mouse, the character Mahlke has an Adam’s apple “like a mouse,” and the narrator is “the cat” intent on (and successful at) destroying Mahlke the mouse. Other historical symbols of destruction abound in this novel, including a sunken minesweeper and a stolen Iron Cross. In Dog Years, scarecrows, dogs, and ballerinas are only a few of the objects that become symbols of destruction, violence, and (at times) rebirth. In The Flounder, a talking fish becomes the guiding intelligence throughout humankind’s violent history and continual rebirth.

Another hallmark of Grass’s fiction is its point of view: shifting, unpredictable, self-aware. Many of his narrators are unreliable, shifting between the first and the third person in telling their own tales, changing their minds, and telling different versions of the same events. Oskar of The Tin Drum begins his story with the line, “Granted: I am an inmate of a mental hospital,” and he shifts constantly between “I” and “he, Oskar,” sometimes within the same sentence. The three narrators in Dog Years contradict one another. The first-person narrator of The Flounder is a different male during each period of history, as well as the contemporary man in the tale; the “I” in this novel is a different version of each of his male predecessors while, at the same time, encompassing all of these ancestors. In his later works The Call of the Toad, Too Far Afield, and Crabwalk, Grass uses multiple points of view to examine the German past, its present, and its future.

Many of Grass’s narrators are highly self-aware artists and storytellers. The Tin Drum’s Oskar says, “I have just reread the last paragraph. . . . Oskar’s pen . . . has managed . . . to lie.” Local Anesthetic opens with, “I told my dentist all this.” Grass’s narrators know that they are creating art: They debate the merits of doing so, mock their audience, and despair of their ability to create the best art possible. The journalist narrator of Crabwalk questions his ability to tell the story his mother wants him to tell.

Religious and political themes dominate Grass’s work. Indeed, religion and politics are inseparable from his fiction. After a visit to the Church of the Sacred Heart in The Tin Drum, Oskar insists that he is more Jesus than Jesus because the plaster statue is unable to play Oskar’s tin drum. Mahlke of Cat and Mouse worships the Virgin Mary and builds shrines to her. The historical politics of World War II are pervasive in The Danzig Trilogy, Call of the Toad, and Crabwalk . The politics of religion throughout history are...

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woven into the structure ofThe Flounder, and contemporary politics appear when the flounder is put on trial for giving men, and not women, advice. From the Diary of a Snail, Headbirths, and Too Far Afield continue this discursive weaving of art, politics, and religion.

The Tin Drum

First published: Die Blechtrommel, 1959 (English translation, 1961)

Type of work: Novel

Against the backdrop of the rise of Nazism, World War II, and Germany’s collapse, the self-made dwarf Oskar Matzerath narrates his life story.

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 increasingly sordid Danzig environs, paralleling the rise of National Socialism. Germany’s increasing aggression mirrors the deteriorating personal moral standards of the characters. Oskar’s tin drum serves as an extended metaphor not only for Germany’s military aggression but also for all human violence, as well as for Oskar’s refusal to grow up.

Book 2 parallels World War II. The attack on the Polish post office makes a partisan martyr out of Oskar’s “presumptive father” Jan Bronski. In this book, Oskar’s association with violence and immorality increases, though he does not actually commit the crimes himself (a defense that, historically, has often been claimed by accused Nazi war criminals). Oskar travels with the dwarf Bebra, whom he met in book 1, who is now part of Joseph Goebbels’s Nazi propaganda machine. In Nazi uniform, Oskar tours Paris and other occupied territories, playing his drum and breaking glass for the German soldiers with his voice. Oskar’s disillusionment with the church in general, and with Catholicism in particular, which began in book 1, continues until Oskar decides that he himself is Jesus. Oskar/Jesus leads a gang of juvenile delinquents, called the Dusters, inspiring them to commit ever greater crimes. After the gang is betrayed, Oskar/Jesus is put on trial but found innocent because of his age. This trial foreshadows the trial in book 3, in which Oskar is found guilty and placed in a mental institution. The violence and destruction of book 2 increases, resulting in Alfred Matzerath’s death. At Matzerath’s funeral, Oskar is hit in the head by a rock, throws himself into Matzerath’s grave, and decides to grow, to begin a responsible, adult life.

Book 3 is the reconstruction of Oskar’s life, just as it is the rebuilding of Poland, Germany, and Europe after the war. Oskar’s fascination with women continues. In book 1, his mother was the object of his interest. In book 2 he was interested in Maria, until she was unfaithful; then he turned to the midget Roswitha. In book 3, Oskar is fascinated with Sister Dorothea, whom he never sees and with whose murder he is charged. The details of Grass’s various postwar occupations appear here: Oskar becomes an apprentice stonemason and a jazz drummer. Oskar also becomes a wealthy recording star by taking old people, through his drumming, back to their childhoods. Oskar spends most of book 3 ruminating about the events in books 1 and 2. Book 3 is considered, almost unanimously by the critics, to be less effective than the earlier parts of the novel, perhaps because Grass tries, unsuccessfully, to show Oskar’s (Germany’s) survival despite his having become deformed during his growth spurt, or perhaps because Grass lacked the necessary distance to present his material objectively. The film version of The Tin Drum did not include book 3, ending with Oskar’s beginning to grow and leaving his birthplace of Danzig. The novel ends with a children’s rhyme about the Black Witch, a line to which Oskar has repeatedly referred throughout the novel: “Here’s the black, wicked Witch./ Ha! ha! ha!”


First published: Kopfgeburten, 1980 (English translation, 1982)

Type of work: Novel/autobiography

Grass’s own political thoughts are interwoven with the travels of Harm and Dörte Peters, who are indecisive about having a child.

In Headbirths, Grass becomes the narrator of his own novel, a technique that he used in From the Diary of a Snail. Though not a novel in the traditional sense, Headbirths presents the story of a German couple, Harm and Dörte Peters, who, even as they travel through Asia, are unable to get away from the political upheavals at home and who are unable to decide whether to have a baby of their own. This decision is the source of the title: The only births are “head births,” and at this rate, writes Grass, the German race will die out. Grass also ponders a world populated with as many Germans as there are Chinese, for example, and at the end of the novel Grass puts Harm and Dörte in their old Volkswagen in the midst of a huge crowd of Turkish, Indian, Chinese, and African children, still unable to decide on a child of their own.

Headbirths explores one of Grass’s major interests: the making of art and the relationship of artist, art, and audience. In this novel, Grass writes that Harm and Dörte disagree with him on certain issues, so that Grass is “forced” to change his original ideas. His other major interest, politics, also is an integral part of this book. Grass presents not only his own political views but also Harm and Dörte arguments about the upcoming political election at home. Sometimes Grass and Dörte “agree” with each other, and Grass writes that he and Dörte attend press conferences together, a plot point that blurs the line between art and reality. Though Grass actually did travel to Asia, Headbirths is more about his political and theoretical ruminations than about the actual travels. Harm and Dörte, though sometimes shown visiting fertility temples, or indirectly presented arguing about politics or the “Yes-to-baby/No-to-baby” question, are never fully developed as characters. Rather, they serve as a springboard for Grass to present his political views and concerns.


First published: Im Krebsgang, 2002 (English translation, 2003)

Type of work: Novel

This multilayered novel examines the Russian sinking of a German refugee ship from the perspectives of three different characters, each of whom represents some facet of political opinion about the event.

In Crabwalk, Grass uses the Russian sinking of the German refugee carrier Wilhelm Gustloff as a tool to examine the German past, present, and future. In 1945, a Soviet submarine launched an attack on the German ship, sinking it and sending nine thousand people to their deaths in the icy Baltic.

The narrator, a middle-aged journalist, was born on that night to an unwed mother who was in one of the ship’s lifeboats. Hounding him to uncover the events that transpired that night, she serves as the voice of the proud German past and its wartime glories.

In his research, the journalist uncovers that the man for whom the ship was named was a hero to the Third Reich. An organizer for the Nazi Party, Wilhelm Gustloff established new troops for the Hitler Youth and the League of German Girls. Gustloff became a hero and a martyr when he was assassinated by a Jew, David Frankfurter. The ship was named after Gustloff as a memorial to honor his service to the Third Reich. When it sinks, the proud image of German military glory and might is called into question.

The journalist’s research also carries him into the small corners of the Internet, where conversations on a right-wing chat room catch his attention. The chats not only reveal pride in the Nazi past but also glorify the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff as a symbol of Germany’s sufferings in the war. The organizer of the chat room calls for revenge for the death of Wilhelm Gustloff. As he searches more deeply, the journalist discovers that his own son is the organizing voice on the chat room of neo-Nazis.

Family history collides with the history of Germany as the journalist, his mother, and the journalist’s son scuttle crablike from left to right in their search for clues about the history and identity of Germany.

Peeling the Onion

First published: Beim Häuten der Zweibel, 2006 (English translation, 2007)

Type of work: Autobiography

In his first true memoir, Grass reveals his feelings about his involvement in the Nazi youth movement, his hunger to be an artist, his first love, and the demands of the writing life.

In August, 2006, Grass aroused emotions across the literary world when he revealed in his memoir Peeling the Onion that he had been a member of the Waffen-SS as a teenager. Reaction to the news was swift, with many calling for him to return the Nobel Prize he received in 1999. Others were more supportive of Grass, pointing out that he had already paid the price of his youthful actions by living all those years with his guilt over having served in the SS.

In Peeling the Onion, Grass recalls his involvement with the Waffen-SS. He admits that as a teenager he became a part of this military operation, and he offers a quite stark portrait of life in the Nazi youth movement. He also admits honestly and poignantly, though, that he never fired a shot and that the guilt and shame of his involvement have gnawed ceaselessly at him since then.

Peeling the Onion does not stop with his youthful military involvement. Grass recalls the tortures of his youthful life: his flirtations with religion, his lustful hunger for various young women, his consuming desire for art, and his earliest forays into the writing life. Peeling the Onion records Grass’s life from his birth up until the publication of The Tin Drum (1959).

In Peeling the Onion, Grass uses the image of hunger to describe the stages of his life. Literally, after the war he could not get enough to eat. Another hunger—the lustful desire of a young man for a young woman—soon began to compete with his physical hunger. The hunger that most motivated his life, however, was his hunger for art. As a young boy, he had collected coupons from cigarette boxes that reproduced classic works of art. He also read voraciously, seeing books as his entry into other worlds. In the late 1940’s, he apprenticed himself to a tombstone maker in order to become a sculptor. During those years he began writing poetry and discovered the way that words could satisfy this new hunger. From then on, Grass lived in the world of his characters and from the writing of one book until the next.


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