(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Major Themes

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Die Vorzüge der Windhühner (poetry, prose) 1956
Die Blechtrommel [The Tin Drum] (novel) 1959
Gleisdreieck (poetry) 1960
Katz und Maus [Cat and Mouse] (novel) 1961
Hundejahre [Dog Years] (novel) 1963
Die Plebejer proben den Aufstand: Ein deutsches Trauerspiel [The Plebians Rehearse the Uprising: A German Tragedy] (play) 1966
Ausgefragt (poetry) 1967
Four Plays (plays) 1967
Örtlich betaeubt [Local Anesthetic] (novel) 1969
Speak Out! Speeches, Open Letters, Commentaries (nonfiction) 1969
Aus dem Tagebuch einer Schnecke [From the Diary of a Snail] (novel) 1972
Der Butt [The Flounder] (novel) 1977
In the Egg, and Other Poems (poetry) 1978
Das Treffen in Telgte [The Meeting at Telgte] (novel) 1979
Kopfgeburten oder Die Deutschen sterben aus [Headbirths; or, The Germans Are Dying Out] (novel) 1980
Zeichnungen und Texte 1954–1977: Zeichnen und Schreiben I [Drawings and Words 1954–1977: Graphics and Writing I] (prose and drawings) 1982
Radierungen und Texte 1972–1982: Zeichnen und Schreiben II [Etchings and Words 1972–1982: Graphics and Writing II] (prose and drawings) 1984
On Writing and Politics: 1967–1983 (essays) 1985
Die Rättin [The Rat] (novel) 1986
Werkausgabe in zehn Bänden. 10 vols. (novels, essays, plays, poetry, speeches, and journals) 1988
Zunge zeigen [Show Your Tongue] (journals and poems) 1988
Deutschland, einig Vaterland? [Two States—One Nation?: The Case Against German Reunification] (essays and speeches) 1990

∗These novels were published in one volume in 1980 as Danziger Trilogie, translated as The Danzig Trilogy in 1987.

†Includes The Flood; Mister, Mister; Only Ten Minutes to Buffalo; and The Wicked Cooks.

W. Gordon Cunliffe (essay date 1969)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum)," in Günter Grass, Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1969, pp. 52-86.

[Cunliffe is an English-born scholar of German history and literature. In the following excerpt, he presents a detailed examination of the main characters and major themes in the first section of The Tin Drum.]

[The madness of The Tin Drum's main character and narrator, Oskar,] has no historic parallels and none of the associations with Nietzsche, Hölderlin, and Beethoven that lend grandeur to Thomas Mann's Adrian Leverkühn. Oskar is not a case of "O, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown," but rather of "a tale told by an idiot / Full of sound and...

(The entire section is 6418 words.)

Kurt Lothar Tank (essay date 1969)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Live with Matzerath?" and "Don't Ask Oskar," in Günter Grass, translated by John Conway, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1969, pp. 1-12, 67-84.

[In the following excerpt, Tank discusses the reaction of European critics to The Tin Drum. He also examines Grass's working methods, the process of the novel's composition, and the book's main themes.]

In Oskar, the tin drummer, Günter Grass has succeeded in creating a peculiar and indeed original figure, at once very simple and highly complex. It is a figure which invites the most varied and contradictory interpretations—and yet which resists all interpretations, preserving its secret like a figure in a...

(The entire section is 4825 words.)

Keith Miles (essay date 1975)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Tin Drum," in Günter Grass, Barnes and Noble Books, 1975, pp. 48-83.

[Miles is an English dramatist, short story writer, novelist, author of children's literature, critic, and educator. In the following excerpt, a small portion of which was reprinted in CLC-15, he discusses the literary influences of Herman Melville, Lawrence Sterne, and Thomas Mann on The Tin Drum, and examines Grass's portrayal of Oskar, who acts as commentator on "the character and history of the German people in the twentieth century."]

It was not out of modesty that I wanted to become a drummer. That is the highest thing, the rest is a trifle....

(The entire section is 14148 words.)

Michael Hollington (essay date 1980)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Danzig Trilogy I: The Tin Drum," in Günter Grass: The Writer in a Pluralist Society, Marion Boyars, 1980, pp. 20-50.

[In the following excerpt, Hollington discusses Grass's portrayal of bourgeois values in Nazi Germany.]

Since 1964 Grass has repeatedly asked that the three novels on which his fame and reputation as a writer chiefly rest—The Tin Drum, Cat and Mouse and Dog Years—be considered as components of a 'Danzig trilogy'; the arrangement has now been formalized by the Luchterhand reissue of the novels under that title. It is not easy to assess the significance to be attached to this grouping. That the novels have important...

(The entire section is 9479 words.)

Stacey Olster (essay date Spring 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Inconstant Harmony in The Tin Drum," Studies in the Novel, Vol. XIV, No. 1, Spring, 1982, pp. 66-81.

[In the following excerpt, Olster examines the character Oskar, focusing specifically on the significance of his drumming.]

At an early point in Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf, a strange man gives Harry Haller a pamphlet to read in which the latter finds his tormented condition both described and generalized.

There are a good many people of the same kind as Harry. Many artists are of his kind. These persons all have two souls, two beings within them. There is God and the devil in them; the mother's blood and the...

(The entire section is 6996 words.)

Richard H. Lawson (essay date 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Tin Drum," in Günter Grass, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co. Inc., 1985, pp. 19-40, 153-56.

[Lawson is an American educator and author of several books and articles on German literature. In the following excerpt, he discusses the plot and characters of The Tin Drum, and explores Grass's use of symbolism throughout the novel.]

There is some suggestion that Grass, piqued at his extremely modest success, or actually lack of success with his early dramas, set to work on The Tin Drum in something of an "I'll show them" spirit. If so, he surely succeeded beyond his most sanguine expectations. The dubiously successful dramatist, the...

(The entire section is 7158 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Hughes, John. "The Tin Drum: Volker Schlöndorff's 'Dream of Childhood.'" Film Quarterly XXXIV, No. 3 (Spring 1981): 2-10.

Presents interviews with Volker Schlöndorff and Jean-Claude Currière—director and screenwriter, respectively, of the 1979 film version of The Tin Drum. Each discusses the main themes of the novel, the difficulties it poses for filmmakers, and the changes in the German sociopolitical climate since the novel's publication.

Linquist, Wayne P. "The Materniads: Grass's Paradoxical Conclusion to the Danzig Trilogy." Critique XXX, No. 3 (Spring 1989): 179-92.


(The entire section is 322 words.)