The Tin Drum Summary
by Gunter Grass

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The Tin Drum Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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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...

(The entire section is 1,619 words.)