The Tin Drum Günter Grass
(Full name Günter Wilhelm Grass) The following entry presents criticism on Grass's novel Die Blechtrommel (1959; The Tin Drum). For further discussion of Grass's life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 2, 4, 6, 11, 15, 22, and 32.
Narrated by the insane dwarf Oskar, The Tin Drum incorporates elements of German folklore and the grotesque to explore the political, economic, and social complexities of German life from 1900 through World War II and the beginning of the German postwar "Economic Miracle." Set in Danzig and Düsseldorf, the story chronicles the fortunes of Oskar and his family during the rise and fall of Nazism. Since its publication, the novel has raised profound and painful issues for contemporary Germans, including the extent to which the German public was complicit in and remains responsible for Nazi war crimes. For these reasons, The Tin Drum is widely regarded as Grass's most important, influential, and thought-provoking work.
Plot and Major Characters
The Tin Drum is narrated by Oskar Matzerath, a thirty-year-old inmate in an institution for the criminally insane. Although Grass avoids a strictly linear narrative structure, allowing Oskar to alternately discuss his present situation and reminisce about his past, the novel is divided into three chronological components. Book One begins with Oskar's grandparents and the birth of his mother, Agnes, in 1900. Agnes marries Alfred Matzerath, a grocer and future Nazi Party member, but continues her love affair with Polish post-office employee Jan Bronski, thus raising questions about Oskar's paternity. When Oskar is three years old, he decides, in an act of demonic will, not to grow any taller or to develop physically; already convinced of his intellectual superiority and disgusted by petit-bourgeois German society, he chooses to remain the size of a child and be perceived a freak. Oskar is given a tin drum, which he keeps with him as a talisman at all times. His drumming and his preternatural ability to scream allow him to destroy and disrupt things, including the family's grandfather clock, Nazi rallies, and the windows in the Danzig state theater. After Agnes kills herself by gorging on fish and eels, Book One ends with Oskar recounting the suicide of Sigismund Markus, the Jewish toy and tin drum merchant, who poisons himself during the ransacking of synagogues and Jewish businesses known as Kristallnacht; the "night of broken glass," Kristallnacht served as a prelude to Hitler's attempt to exterminate the Jews. In Book Two, Oskar's widowed father hires a young woman, Maria, to work in his grocery store. Both he and Oskar have sexual relations with her and she becomes pregnant. Oskar then decides to leave Danzig and devote himself to a dissolute life of sex and thievery. He eventually returns to find Maria has given birth to Kurt, who is either Oskar's son or half-brother. As the Russian Army enters and gains control of Danzig in 1944, Alfred swallows his Nazi Party lapel pin to protect himself, and, in doing so, chokes to death. Book Two concludes with Alfred's burial and Oskar's decision to stop drumming. At the funeral, Oskar throws his drum into his father's grave, and Kurt hits Oskar in the head with a rock, causing him to grow. Book Three opens in postwar Germany. After Maria rejects Oskar's proposal of marriage, he moves to Düsseldorf where he models at the Arts Academy and lusts after a nurse, Sister Dorothea, who lives in his apartment building. He resumes his drumming, playing with the clarinetist Klepp at the Onion Cellar—a popular Düsseldorf nightclub where Germans go to peel onions, remember the past, and cry. Oskar becomes a widely popular performer but grows terribly lonely. One day while out walking, his rented dog presents him with a human finger it has found. Oskar keeps the finger, preserving it in a jar. Identified as Dorothea's, the finger—and Oskar's feelings for her—is used to convict him of her brutal murder. The novel closes with Oskar patiently awaiting his release from the asylum.
As Keith Miles observes, The Tin Drum illustrates Seneca's axiom, "The knowledge of sin is the beginning of salvation." Grass depicts the sins of Nazism through Oskar's recollections of the grotesque public and personal events that shaped his life and the lives of the people around him. Oskar's rejection of adulthood and his drumming and screaming can be seen as metaphors of stunted development, immorality, and senseless destruction that illuminate some of the effects of Nazism. The novel also addresses the role of the Christian Church under the Nazis. For instance, Grass depicts a seminarian and ardent Nazi, Schugger, who is able to easily reconcile his faith with Nazi ideology. Grass also draws explicit and ironic parallels between Oskar and Jesus, showing how the former becomes a savior/führer figure for a band of boy thieves during the war. Finally, Grass examines German alienation in the postwar era through Oskar's aimless wanderings in Book Three. Grass's pessimism about Germany's future is reflected in the fact that although Oskar tries to cope with the changes wrought by Germany's defeat and economic revival by returning to the old comforts of his drumming, he repeats the sins of the past with the murder—and morbid fascination with the dismembered appendage—of Sister Dorothea.
The Tin Drum became a literary and commercial success soon after its publication in 1959. Many critics noted that Grass's provocative, critical, and parodistic use of fantasy and German folklore makes explicit and subverts the ways in which the Nazis employed the language and images of German Romanticism as a way of legitimizing their destructive ideology. For example, Oskar frequently refers to the Black Cook or Black Witch, a folkloric figure of evil, who seems to guide his life, appearing at such significant events as Agnes's death and in the brooding spirit that hovers over Kristallnacht. Some critics, such as Richard H. Lawson, discuss the picaresque characteristics of the novel, describing Oskar as a grotesque variation on the classic picaro, a rascal and cunningly industrious individual who lives by his wits. Oskar has also been described as an epic hero with demigod traits due to his ability to survive and even match the threats of Nazism. Critics point out, however, that Grass's technique of moving back and forth in time and mixing fantasy and reality can be confusing to some readers. The matter is further complicated by Oskar's unreliable narration, which—given that Oskar is insane—continually forces the reader to assess the veracity of what he is being told. Most critics agree, however, that The Tin Drum is a literary masterpiece, arguing that its technique and its grasp of historical reality make it utterly original.