Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 403

To be fully appreciated, the relatively small and tentative Headbirths must be read in the context of other works by Günter Grass. His first books, including The Tin Drum, Katz und Maus (1961; Cat and Mouse, 1963), and Hundejahre (1963; Dog Years, 1965), came to grips with the evil of Hitler’s Third Reich by capturing it in a mythical paradigm of life-giving good versus life-taking evil.

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Subsequent books, such as Ortlich betaubt (1969; Local Anaesthetic, 1969), applied this same mythic paradigm to the modern, postwar world, seeking the heirs of Nazism, evils in their most primal forms, and attempting to exorcise them. Aus dem Tagebuch einer Schnecke (1972; From the Diary of a Snail, 1973) further explored the political possibilities for creating a more humane world without yielding to frustration and resorting to inhumane means. Similar themes and characters in all these novels illuminate those in Headbirths. Many of the characters imagine themselves to be enlightened liberals, for example, and not a few, like the Peterses, are teachers.

The Flounder is particularly helpful in understanding Headbirths. A voluminous history of the world from Neolithic times to the present, told as a history of nutrition and of the battle of the sexes, it posits a coming new age of the earth, a great “headbirth” of humankind. Typical male patterns of behavior—the creation of weapons of war and oppression, including starvation, of the weak—will give way to a new, balanced culture. Under the aegis of a new Weltanschaung from a blend of archetypal mother goddesses, the innate female impulse to nourish and nurture will again be given free rein.

In this context, the mythic dimensions of such figures as Dorte, Harm, and Dr. Wenthien, only sketched out in Headbirths, become abundantly clear. Dorte’s involvement with the serpent goddess and her impulse to nurture life take on deeper meaning, as do Harm’s frustrations as a male, liberal European who, deep down, desires to become a violent dictator in order to solve the world’s problems. The demiurge Dr. Wenthien, like the flounder, is a harbinger of a new era.

Headbirths, though a short book, is important as a succinct reiteration of Günter Grass’s deep concern about world hunger and related issues. If Grass has taken literary risks, writing a didactic work replete with current events which could easily date it, it is because he is willing to enlist even his fame in the fight against famine.

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