The Tin Drum

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From earliest infancy, the unnaturally precocious Oskar Matzerath is so appalled by the cruel absurdities of life that he refuses to grow beyond the age of three. Choosing the perspective of infantile curiosity, he instead proceeds to unmask the world of the adults around him: the small-mindedness of his German father, the sensuality and guilt of his mother, and the weakness of her ineffectual Polish lover. Compensating for his own vulnerability with sly aggressiveness, Oskar becomes at least partially responsible for their unhappy fates.

During the 1920’s and 1930’s, Oskar’s hometown of Danzig (now Gdansk) was precariously perched between German and Polish spheres of influence. His deteriorating family life represents, therefore, not only a private tragedy but also the historical collapse of Danzig’s German-Polish symbiosis under the impact of Nazism and the horrors of war. An amoral will to live makes Oskar survive the catastrophe by alternately practicing strategies of accommodation and rebelliousness.

At the end of the war, possibilities of a new beginning in West Germany entice him to grow again. As these hopes are quickly crushed, his body revolts by developing a hump. Infantile desires and fears reassert themselves, and Oskar finally agrees to be committed to a mental institution.

Though the hero’s childish fascination with what is revolting, perverse, and sacrilegious scandalized many readers, Grass’s first novel was immediately recognized as a major event in postwar German literature. The shocking absence of moral restraint in Oskar’s fight with adult reality is, on the one hand, an indictment of that reality’s moral pretensions; on the other hand, however, it is also meant to challenge existing morality to come to terms with this fictional world, which offers few signposts for moral orientation and yet seems in such desperate need of them.

Bibliography:

Hatfield, Henry. “Günter Grass: The Artist as Satirist.” In The Contemporary Novel in German: A Symposium, edited by Robert R. Heitner. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1967. A paean of praise to Grass and The Tin Drum. Explains the satirical intent of many passages in the novel that are obscure to readers not intimately familiar with German history and the German language.

Hollington, Michael. Günter Grass: The Writer in a Pluralist Society. London: Marion Boyars, 1980. Although Hollington devotes only one chapter to The Tin Drum, references to the novel permeate the entire book. Hollington credits Grass with forcing Germans to look candidly at the Nazi era and with inspiring a younger generation to fight against the complacency of their elders.

Maurer, Robert. “The End of Innocence: Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum.” In Critical Essays on Günter Grass, edited by Patrick O’Neill. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987. A detailed interpretation of Grass’s novel but with some questionable conclusions. The major value of the article is that it delineates the many literary influences, ranging from Voltaire to Thomas Mann, that are manifest in The Tin Drum.

Miles, Keith. Günter Grass. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1975. Although only chapter 2 deals exclusively with The Tin Drum, readers will learn much about the novel and about its impact in the introduction and in the other seven chapters. Miles considers Grass to be Germany’s and perhaps the world’s greatest living novelist. His interpretations of and insights into The Tin Drum are perceptive and very useful to the reader trying to understand Grass’s often cryptic prose.

Tank, Kurt Lothar. Günter Grass. Translated by John Conway. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1969. Contains a short biography of Grass and considerable analysis of Grass’s early works, most especially The Tin Drum. The analysis might be difficult for readers not acquainted with German literature and the argot of literary criticism.

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The Tin Drum Grass, Günter