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Critical Essay by Richard H. Lawson
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 poet whose verse, however meritorious, had failed to find much public acceptance, became a hugely successful novelist with The Tin Drum. Public acceptance of the novel when it appeared was decidedly not unanimous. In the fifties and early sixties charges of blasphemy and pornography could still be sustained, at least in the short run. By 1965 such carping, both legal and critical, had largely subsided, and the novel was on its way to becoming a classic of post-World War II literature, an international as well as a German classic.
Success in this case begets success. Grass, anything but a novelistic flash in the pan, has continued to write prose of the standard set by The Tin Drum, even though not necessarily (after The Danzig Trilogy, of which The Tin Drum is the first part) on a par with The Tin Drum. It is reasonable to suppose too that the movie of the same name, premiered May 4, 1979, directed by Volker Schlöndorff in close association with Günter Grass, has contributed to the continuing success and reception of the novel.
As Grass declares, he aimed with The Tin Drum to break away from the prose fashion of the fifties, which in the wake of Franz Kafka was continuing to offer up "timeless and placeless parables…. I bypass parables, and I have a direct connection with geography and with time." Expressed in somewhat different terms, Grass is restating for his novel the fundamentality of objects, the same fundamentality that hitherto had prevailed in his poetry and his plays. The fundamental object in The Tin Drum is Nazism. We see it in all its evocations, in all its crimes, but we are never far from the sense that it is at bottom a political movement, sprung from and enlisting the German lower middle class—Oskar Matzerath's people.
The primary geographic setting of the novel is Günter Grass's native city of Danzig, formerly in German West Prussia, now the Polish port of Gdańsk. With Danzig, both in The Tin Drum and in much of his subsequent fiction, Grass retains a direct, sometimes poignant connection. In book 3 of the novel, after Oskar's flight at the end of World War II, the setting is Düsseldorf, West Germany. The times in The Tin Drum are the periods 1952 to 1954 and 1899 to 1954. While we are encouraged to see a cyclicity or identity of events during those two periods, the periods themselves are clearly demarcated. In other words, despite cyclicity or similarity of events time itself in the novel is not circular. It proceeds in a straight line, conservatively and chronologically, not much more complicatedly, if only one keeps the two levels and periods in mind, than in a novel of the nineteenth century. The complexities of The Tin Drum are of a different order.
During the period 1952–1954 the twenty-eight to thirty-year-old Oskar Matzerath writes his memoirs as an inmate of an insane asylum. To be sure, Oskar discourses with at least seeming rationality about his writing project—his autobiographical novel. It is not to be a modern novel that dispenses entirely with time and place, or even one that begins in the middle of things. Nor is it to be a novel lacking, in the modern fashion, a hero. It will have two heroes, says Oskar: Oskar himself, who is inside a door equipped with a peephole, and Bruno Münsterberg, his keeper, who watches him through the peephole (and has obtained the paper on which Oskar writes). At the moment Oskar seems to be involved in some kind of litigation, for among his not very welcome once-a-week visitors is his lawyer.
Oskar, continuing in a literary-critical vein, feels that any autobiography is an impertinence unless the author has the patience "to say a word or two about at least half of his grandparents before plunging into his own existence." (The concept "plunge" will turn out to be a highly important one for Oskar.) He introduces us to his grandmother Anna in 1899 and thus to the longer time period of the novel, which like the shorter period will end in 1954. Toward the end the two periods converge or overlap. The end point of both is Oskar's thirtieth birthday in September 1954.
We meet Anna Bronski—Anna Koljaiczek as a young woman before her marriage—in a potato field in Kashubia sitting before a fire trying to keep warm. She is wearing four skirts, a protection that serves as a motif on which Oskar dwells lovingly in connection with his grandmother, for later these voluminous skirts became his frequent childhood refuge from an altogether distasteful world. At the present moment they are also a refuge for the arsonist Joseph Koljaiczek in his flight across the potato fields ahead of two not very bright policemen. While hiding under Anna's skirts, Joseph begets Oskar's mother—"my poor mother," Agnes Koljaiczek.
Joseph Koljaiczek is an arsonist in an era when setting fire to sawmills in the area around Danzig—that is, West Prussia under German rule—was a symbol of Polish patriotism. But Joseph Koljaiczek's career as a firebug ends while his daughter Agnes is still a nursing infant. Fleeing the gendarmes again he jumps from float to float, from log to log, on a pond in the Mottlau River. His pursuers fire at him, he jumps from the last float into the water and disappears under the logs. Some say he drowned, although others are less certain. There are even stories that he got to Buffalo, N.Y., and became a millionaire as a stockholder in match companies and as a founder of several fire insurance companies.
As Oskar's future mother Agnes grows up, she falls in love at seventeen with her cousin Jan Bronski, a frail young man turned down four times for military service in World War I. Their relationship had been more than cousinly for some time, Oskar believes, and yet Anna Koljaiczek apparently put up with it. But Agnes does not marry Jan. She falls in love with a wounded soldier in the hospital where she is serving as an auxiliary nurse. Alfred Matzerath, from the Rhineland, captivates all the nurses with his merry ways—especially Agnes, who appreciates additionally his talent for cookery.
Alfred Matzerath remains in Danzig after World War I, representing the paper firm for which he had previously worked in the Rhineland. Later, after marrying Agnes, he becomes a business partner with her in successfully running a grocery store. Jan Bronski, the stamp collector with his roots in rural Kashubia, marries Hedwig Lemke and casts his lot in with the Poles, going to work for the Polish Post Office in the post-World War I Free City of Danzig. Despite their differing political allegiances, the three, Jan Bronski, Alfred Matzerath, and Agnes, always appear together in snapshots that serve Oskar as a guide to his family history. The two men, different as they were and despite Jan's marriage to Hedwig, are united in their love of Agnes. To be sure, it is Alfred whom she marries, but she and Jan "were steeped in adultery from the very first day of Mama's marriage." Oskar, born in September 1924, is effectively the product of this trinity, with Jan as well as Alfred, Alfred as well as Jan, his putative father.
With the assistance of a midwife, Oskar is born under two sixty-watt light bulbs. Clairaudient—that is, capable of hearing what is not present to the ear—and with his mental development completed at birth and needing only a little filling in, Oskar from that moment "took a very critical attitude toward the first utterances to slip from [his] parents beneath the light bulbs." He decides to do certain things in life and not do other things. He combines an utterance of his mother, "When little Oskar is three, he will have a toy drum," with his perception of a moth persistently hitting the light bulb, chattering against the bulb as if to unburden itself, as if the dialogue with the light were its last confession. In short, the moth is "drumming," and is thereby Oskar's master. It is only the prospect of receiving his drum in three years that prevents him from giving stronger vent to his desire to have nothing to do with the world, to return to the womb as a rejection of the world and of Matzerath's joyous plans for Oskar's later participation in the running of the family grocery store.
On his third birthday, a sunny September day, Oskar receives his tin drum with its band of serrated red and white; the event is commemorated in a full-length portrait photo. On the occasion of the photo, Oskar reiterates even more forcefully his resolution not to become a grocer, adding a similar absolute refusal to become a politician. So profound is his loathing of the world of adults of the lower middle class who could not and never would understand him that he then and there resolves to remain as he is—that is, not to grow any more. How to realize that resolution? By arranging an accident in which he would fall through a trap door carelessly left open down into basement warehouse of the grocery store. The plunge is a complete success. Upon recovering from his injuries, unspecified except that his head bled but in any case requiring four weeks in the hospital, Oskar ceases to grow any further. His height remains fixed at three feet, one inch. He begins to drum.
The cheap toy wears out after four weeks of drumming in protest at the world, both on the streets of Danzig and in the Matzerath home. The tin has broken off into the inside of the drum where it clatters away, while Oskar's drumming wrists are dangerously close to the jagged edges. Although his mother has a certain sympathy for him, his "father" does not. Moreover, after Oskar's damaging plunge through the carelessly left-open trap door, Matzerath is doubly sensitive to any danger to his presumed son. He tries to take the drum away. Oskar lets loose a glass-shattering shriek, destroying the front of a grandfather's clock. In this way an incredulous Oskar learns that he can use his voice to protect his drum from those who would take it.
Oskar uses his drumming talent defensively at first. When the neighborhood children—their names, including that of the redoubtable Susi Kater, are still unknown to us—are playing such games as "Where's the Witch, black as pitch?" Oskar professes unconcern, but picks up the rhythm of their jingle as he marches down the street, drumming. Similarly, he uses his unique vocal talent defensively at first, but later "out of pure playfulness"—that is, destructively. As early Nazism increases around him, his glass-shattering becomes increasingly destructive. The most sensational episode of art for art's sake, as Oskar calls it, occurs when he climbs to the top of the 150-foot Stockturm, a brick tower giving a panoramic view of Danzig, and lets out a shriek that spectacularly bursts the windows and doors of the nearby municipal theater. The beginning of the next chapter, an abrupt narrative switch in time to 1952–1954, contains a withering denunciation of the consuming society in postwar West Germany, underlining the fact that the novel is, among other things, political in intent.
From his seventh to tenth years, Oskar wears out a drum every two weeks. His source of replacement is the toy store run by Sigismund Markus, a Jew. Markus is an admirer of Oskar's mother Agnes, but although she is friendly with Markus she reserves her extramarital affection, as Oskar is well aware, for rendezvous with Jan Bronski. Nothing escapes Oskar, including Jan's indefatigable fondling of Agnes, sometimes almost under Alfred Matzerath's eyes.
In August 1935, just short of his eleventh birthday, Oskar plays his drum at a huge outdoor Nazi rally, such as were increasingly frequent in the mid-thirties. Oskar plays not as a guest, but as a crasher, and not out in the open, but underneath the platform. As a prominent Nazi party official approaches, accompanied by a complement of storm troopers, march music is quite obviously called for. But Oskar strikes up a waltz tempo. He plays insistently, and at a crucial moment his rhythm is picked up by the official drummers. A clarinetist plays the melody of "The Blue Danube" waltz. As the Nazi dignitaries rage, men and women begin dancing Viennese waltzes on the meadow. The rally disintegrates; a rainstorm completes its dissolution. The special significance of the waltz used to break up the Nazi rally lies in Hitler's known hatred of the waltz: "a stupid waste of time and these Viennese waltzes are too effeminate for a man to dance" [quoted by John Toland, in his Adolf Hitler, 1976].
At the age of fourteen Oskar frequently accompanies his mother to church confessions that barely keep pace with her adulteries with Jan Bronski. There Oskar observes a striking physical resemblance between himself and a plaster Christ-child seated in a Virgin Mary's lap. But can the Christ-child drum as well as Oskar? Oskar puts the drum cord around His neck, the drumsticks in His hands, and challenges the Christ-child to a drumming contest. If Christ can do everything, he ought to be able to druml Oskar demonstrates. The plaster statue fails to perform. Oskar gives Him a blow to the head.
Oskar's poor mama, Agnes, is pregnant again when the inseparable trinity—Agnes, Jan, and Alfred—accompanied by Oskar and his ubiquitous drum, take a walk on the beach on Good Friday, 1938. They watch as a longshoreman hauls in a clothesline at the end of which is a horse's head, used as bait to trap eels. The longshoreman props open the jaws, forces the eels out, and puts them in a potato sack containing salt, in which they writhe in their death throes. Agnes's face turns chalky white at the spectacle. She vomits her breakfast, attracting seagulls, which even Oskar's drumming cannot disperse.
Alfred Matzerath prepares the eels for cooking and tries to force Agnes to eat them, as Oskar drums away. Although Agnes is pregnant, she is most reluctant to carry on the life cycle by eating eels which, the longshoreman has said, feast not only on horses' heads but also on human corpses. (The reader may infer irony, or even blasphemy, in the relationship of this hint of reincarnation to that implicit in Good Friday.) Agnes, refusing to eat the eels, flees the room, throwing herself on the marital bed. Alfred tries to console her, fails, and summons Jan to "pacify" her. Her composure restored, she returns to the dining room, and eats eel. Not much later, in personal desperation at the rise of Nazism as it affects her—Jan with the Poles, Alfred a Nazi—Agnes commits suicide by the uncontroiled, unremitting eating of fish, of which plenty are at hand in the family grocery.
In a foreshadowing of the infamous "Crystal Night" [Kristallnacht] November 1938, Oskar two years earlier had shrieked show windows into shards of glass. His action was minor compared to the violence and destruction wrought by the Nazis on Jews, on the synagogue, and on Jewish stores on Crystal Night—named for the broken glass. Among the casualties is Oskar's friend and supplier of drums, the toy merchant Sigismund Markus, whom Oskar finds dead at his desk, along with the dregs of the poison he has taken. Moved, but also concerned about his future supply of drums, Oskar reckons this moment as the end of his childhood.
As book 2 begins, Alfred Matzerath has hired a teenage girl by the name of Maria Truczinski to help him run the grocery store. Oskar has his first sexual experiences with Maria, discovering that a simple seltzer powder in Maria's navel exerts a pronounced aphrodisiac effect on her. Maria is also an adept worker in the grocery store. That and proximity endear her to Alfred Matzerath. She becomes pregnant. At an advanced stage she on one occasion awakens just before Oskar can plunge a pair of scissors into her body. Although Alfred marries her, it is never certain whether Oskar or Alfred is the father of her child Kurt, born in 1941. Oskar believes he is, Alfred believes he is.
Oskar leaves Danzig as part of a theatrical troupe of dwarves led by Bebra, whom he had met some years earlier at a circus. Now with the war on, Bebra is a captain in Special Services, taking his troupe to France to entertain the occupation troops. At first Oskar is not quite sure he wants to join the troupe, but when he is introduced to the lady on Bebra's arm—the three-foot three-inch Roswitha Raguna—he cannot resist. Oskar's theatrical act consists of using his voice to shatter glasses and bottles. Not surprisingly, an affair develops between him and Roswitha, who seems to him at once young and ageless. While the troupe is visiting the fortifications on the coast of Normandy, the Allied invasion begins, and Oskar's beloved Roswitha is killed by a naval artillery shell. Oskar returns to his native Danzig on June 11, 1944, the day before his son's, or possibly his half-brother's, third birthday.
For Kurt's birthday Oskar brings him a red-and-white lacquered tin drum, like his own. Showing no inclination to follow Oskar's path as a drummer, Kurt destroys the instrument and from then on becomes increasingly insufferable to Oskar. Feeling at loose ends at home—"Maria had Matzerath"—Oskar takes up churchgoing. At the same time he becomes the mascot and leader of "The Dusters," a youth gang, such as proliferated in Germany at the close of the war. Oskar, who begins to call himself "Jesus," persuades The Dusters to become churchgoers. While the boys are sawing up a plaster statue of the Virgin Mary, the Christ-child, and John the Baptist, they are surprised and apprehended by the police. In the trial that follows, Oskar palms himself off as an invalid not in possession of his mental faculties. He is acquitted.
By now, December 1944, the German Second Army has taken up defensive positions in the heights surrounding Danzig, and the populace is living in basements. In January the city is burned and occupied by the Russians. With the Matzerath family and friends hiding in the grocery basement and the Russians advancing block by block, Alfred Matzerath is advised that it might be a good idea to remove his Nazi lapel pin. Oskar so contrives matters however that his supposed father is in possession of the damning emblem as the Russians enter. Alfred attempts to swallow the pin. A Kalmuck soldier empties the magazine of his tommy gun on him. Clearly, Nazi Germany is in its final stage.
A coffin to bury Alfred in is fashioned of margarine crates, which however is not so well carpentered as to keep Matzerath's hand from emerging, as Oskar looks on and Kurt throws rocks at the crosses that mark nearby graves. Oskar reminds himself that he is twenty-one years old, without parents, without any more presumptive fathers. He ponders whether or not to throw his drum into Matzerath's grave: "should I or shouldn't I?" He decides he should. As the third shovelful of sand covers the drum, Oskar, suffering a severe nosebleed, begins to grow. Only in an apparent throw-away line in the following chapter does Oskar let the reader know that one of Kurt's stones, finding a target other than crosses, has hit him in the back of the head: "It was only [then] that I began to grow." It is a curious and perhaps significant point, since it is Grass's way of reminding the reader of Oskar's degree of sanity or insanity and thus his reliability as a narrator.
Oskar, Maria, and Kurt join the throng of refugees on a freight train leaving Danzig and Kashubia for the West. After Polish soldiers throw a bale of straw into each car, at approximately 11 A.M. on June 12, 1945, the train pulls out of Danzig, which is already being called Gdańsk. Oskar painfully grows en route, three and a half to four inches between Danzig and Stettin, mostly in his legs, only a little in the chest or head. He suffers fever and convulsions, and a hump emerges on his back. Having attained a height just short of four feet, he winds up in the Düsseldorf City Hospital, remaining there from August 1945 to May 1946. In his later asylum refuge, where Oskar prevails on his keeper Bruno to write down some of his autobiography, he finally attains a height of four feet two, the last inch coming while he is telling Bruno about his growth in the freight car coming West.
The third book dwells on Oskar's attempt to integrate himself into a new, adult, bourgeois life in the new post-World War II political entity, West Germany, bereft of both his drum and his ability to shatter glass by shrieking. He tries and abandons night school. He completes an apprenticeship in stonecutting. Wishing to bear responsibility, he provides for Maria and Kurt. Although he sometimes goes out with a nurse Gertrud, he proposes marriage to Maria. She finally declines, hoping, however, that Oskar will remain her friend. In Oskar's opinion Maria's response was really dictated by the West German currency reform of 1948: Maria thrives in the striving, consuming society that was becoming characteristic of the West.
In the meanwhile, having escaped the destiny of a bourgeois husband and entrepreneur, Oskar frequents the Düsseldorf Art Academy, where he picks up fees for modeling. He takes a room near another nurse, Dorothea. As fizz-powder had served the teenage Maria, so a coconutfiber mat proves aphrodisiac to nurse Dorothea. Now referring to himself (and his penis) as Satan, Oskar proves inadequate to the occasion. Dorothea feels compelled to move away, while Oskar devotes his energies to a jazz band, in which he plays drums.
The band performs in a unique Düsseldorf basement nightclub called the Onion Cellar. It caters especially to those members of the middle class who in 1950 were back on the road to prosperity after the currency reform in West Germany. Because in recent decades the German capacity to cry has been much attenuated, despite more than ample suffering all around, the Onion Cellar provides a meaningful service for its patrons: it distributes onions, to help them shed tears. In his own opinion, Oskar has plenty to cry about: the loss of his fathers, of his poor mother. However, the musicians are contractually prohibited from using onions to cry. In fact, they do not need onions. Oskar's drum helps. He has but to play a few bars and he can cry.
With the recovery of his talent both for drumming and for glass-shattering, Oskar is persuaded to go on a concert tour, including a visit to the Norman coast, where he had performed with Bebra and Roswitha during the Allied landings in World War II. As a proper West German—he has already opened a savings account—Oskar too becomes rich, in his case by becoming a popular recording star.
As the novel draws to a close the reader discovers the nature of the trial that Oskar has cryptically referred to at its beginning. In July 1951 he was walking in a rye field in the suburbs with his rented dog, Lux. Lux, having run off a bit—perhaps wanting to be a dog by himself, Oskar speculates—returns with something between his jaws that proves to be a woman's finger with a ring on it. How or where Lux came by the severed finger is unclear. Oskar in any case is eventually accused of the murder of nurse Dorothea. We learn that the criminal case is to be resumed and that Oskar, in the insane asylum on his thirtieth birthday, is confined only for observation. Not only behind him, but also ahead of him, he recognizes the Black Witch as he summons her by playing the ditty learned on his drums long ago in his childhood from Susi Kater and her backyard gang of eight- to ten-year olds.
The initial and closing scenes of the novel at the insane asylum are not the only occasions on which Oskar picks up the narrative threads of the 1952–1954 period. Such occasions occur rather frequently as Oskar interrupts his 1899–1954 narrative, and the reader is temporarily back in asylum quarters while the latter writes or dictates and, most importantly, discourses on contemporary topics. This is the structural means by which Grass underscores the cyclicity of events or situations, the similarity between an event in, say, 1932 and one in 1953 or 1954. In all-important political-social terms this amounts to underlining a similarity between the pre-Nazi or proto-Nazi or vintage Nazi past and the presumably different—but as Grass is demonstrating, not so different—post-Nazi West Germany.
When Oskar climbs the Danzig Stockturm, for example, toward the end of 1932, to shatter the glass windows and doors of the municipal theater, his apparently irrational rage seems to be directed not toward any affront to him, as was his earlier glass-shattering, but rather in response to the vibrations stirred in him by the rise of Nazism, by the imminence of the Nazi takeover. That takeover in fact occurs in 1933, and its first purely military conquest—that of Poland—occurs in 1939. At the conclusion of the premonitory glass-shattering from the Stockturm the reader is transported to Oskar in his asylum bed, where Oskar declaims against a possible German reconquest of Poland in the early 1950s, fired by revanchism and conducted with the assistance of the prosperity, the consumer goods, and the shallow remorse of the Federal Republic that is, for example, capable of giving former Nazis political office.
The Tin Drum is not merely a political simile. It is much richer, much more complex, much more ambiguous than that. As one considers some of the details of this richness, complexity, and ambiguity, it is well to bear in mind that Günter Grass is a political man and a political writer, and that to him, to be a writer means to be an engaged writer.
More than one critic reminds us that the title of the novel is The Tin Drum, not The Tin Drummer, and that the reader should concentrate attention more on the drum and less on the person who beats it. It is certainly true that Grass's book-jacket design of Oskar and the drum contrives, by means of both composition and color, to attract the eye to the drum. Still, to focus all attention on the drum seems a self-limiting approach to a novel bursting with ambiguities—rather like deciding the pervasive Grass egg-chicken conundrum (most concentrated in the poem "In the Egg") in favor of the primacy of the egg because that's in the name of the poem. The drum is different things at different times and different things at the same time. Surely not least, the drum is martial. It symbolizes at once the militaristic Nazi ideology forcing its way from the outside as well as the denunciation of and warning against that ideology working from the inside out by way of Oskar's wrists and drumsticks.
The drum is a musical instrument as well as a symbol of artistic creation. Grass himself is an adept at the drum, having played professionally in a jazz group. To give Oskar his due, he is apparently a good and versatile drummer. One is probably justified in extracting whatever musical metaphor can be usefully applied to a given drumming—as was applied some pages above to the waltz-time drumming at a Nazi rally. (But still, it is a drummer, Oskar, who makes the instrument resound to a three-quarter beat.) As symbols of artistic creation, Oskar's drums are perhaps limited by the fact that his single overriding art is protest. The drum also has sexual connotations: Oskar uses the term "drummings" to describe his sexual intercourse with Maria. And Oskar's drum is silent at the time of his impotence with nurse Dorothea. On the other hand, one would be obliged to consult Freudian dogma to attach sexual importance to Oskar's catalytic desire for a drum on his third birthday.
A mythic interpretation of The Tin Drum regards the dwarf Oskar as a demigod and epic hero. To be sure, he is born a mortal, but already he is clairaudient and knows his strengths. On his mother's suggestion of a drum in his future his mind focuses on the full knowledge of the drum's instrumentality to his mission. Oskar's conversations with Jesus and Satan are not the dialogues of a possible lunatic with his alternating alter egos, but rather dialogues between a demigod and mythic powers. The same demigod has access to gods—that is, to Alfred and Agnes Matzerath, Jan Bronski, Maria Truczinski, Sigismund Markus, Bebra, and so on—and his ritual adventures impinge on those gods.
As epic hero and dwarf, Oskar has a decided proclivity toward the subterranean—basements especially. One may also think of bunkers, as on the Norman coast. And in the more general category of concealment there are, for example, Grandmother Anna's skirts, closets, bedrooms, under tables, under Nazi rostrums. In subterranean or hidden places Oskar continually finds renewed strength for his mission of protest. His plunge at age three into the Matzerath basement is the most momentous accumulation of strength for the future. As a primitive demigod his immortality is based on just such a "death"—on going down into the earth, and on renewal, emerging from the earth. Oskar's drum—or drums, for they too require renewal—are the symbol and means of his connection with both his social world and his sacred world. Thus on the one hand he uses his drum to entertain the troops or to make money in show business, while on the other hand he drums up, in the manner of a shaman, the Black Witch that stands before him at the end. Needless to say, within the mythic environment the hero may have recourse to the symbolic qualities of the drum, certainly including the sexual and the invocational. The guarantee and supplement of the drum, Oskar's glass-shattering voice, is quite literally supernatural.
Related to the concept of Oskar as demigod and epic hero is the concept of Oskar as an embodiment of freedom, of power to act at will. This myth requires two assumptions: that the novel, because it is chronological, is also linear; and that it is a picaresque novel, with Oskar as the sovereign picaro, outside society's pale, free to dupe that society. In the first place, though, the novel is not one-dimensionally linear. In the second place, while it can indeed be rewarding to consider Oskar as a picaro, in doing so one may well become persuaded that, as also in the case of mythic hero, he is both that and more, both that and something quite different as well. For ambiguity, not singularity, is Grass's mode, and that is as true of his fiction as it is of his drama or poetry.
The picaro, whose antecedence in western Europe goes back to Spain of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, is a skeptical outsider, quite free of the burden of principle, not to mention that of bourgeois morality. (Lazarillo de Tormes , of unknown authorship, and Guzmán de Alfarache , by Mateo Alemán, are prototypical examples.) The picaro's character is static, he or she (there are picaras too) is an astute observer and trickster more than a doer. The picaro characteristically feigns ignorance to mask his cleverness. A picaresque novel is the biography (usually the autobiography) of such a wandering rogue as he undergoes adventures with a cross section of society, the adventures being recounted ironically or satirically.
Oskar, or at least some of Oskar, reflects many of these picaresque characteristics. He is an outsider. Even beyond that, he is a loner with very few consistent affective relationships—with Grandmother Anna, for example. If Oskar's status as an outsider, if his detachment should be threatened, he can take recourse to his drum to reestablish that picaresque essential. Oskar gets by, he survives, usually with a measure of duplicity. For example, he emerges unscathed from the battle at the Polish Post Office that results in the death of his father, Jan Bronski; he alone of The Dusters escapes punishment; he walks away whistling from the fiasco that he and his drums make of the Nazi party rally.
The picaro's adventures in a variety of social levels and situations lead to his playing a variety of roles, to which he adapts with the versatility of a chameleon. Oskar even adapts to those features of his hated, native lower-middle-class society that give him protection, or pleasure. His supreme role adaptation is to that of being forever three years old. He exploits this role to the full, and it serves him well as long as he is picaro enough to preserve his detachment, his lack of involvement.
The trouble with Oskar as a picaro is that he can't very well protest beyond a certain point without becoming involved—emotionally involved, including suffering—and when that stage is reached his status as a picaro is compromised. The first striking instance of emotional involvement—as distinguished from a continuing affective relationship—is at the death of his mother, at which his pain is laid bare. His ironic phrase from birth, "my poor mama," becomes straightforward in his pain. There have been other, less verbal, indications of Oskar's capacity or obligation to suffer. While his glass-shattering voice is proof against the designs of adults, it has no power against children. Oskar is revealingly helpless against the backyard gang led by Susi Kater. Not only do the gang members physically force Oskar to ingest the foul concoction they have brewed up, but with their ditty they invoke the Black Witch. Oskar also is made to suffer a whipping at the hands of his presumed son Kurt on the latter's third birthday. Indeed Kurt's continuing refusal to follow Oskar's footsteps, Kurt's inclination to be a follower within society rather than an outsider, is a continuing source of increased suffering for Oskar.
Quite likely the greatest source of emotional involvement and unabashed suffering lies in Oskar's relationship with Maria. He is thrown into a violent if powerless fury when he finds his supposed father Alfred having sexual intercourse with her. His subsequent punching of Maria, as well as his inchoate attempt to stab her in the belly with a pair of scissors, are measures of the intensity of his emotional hurt. His suffering is hardly diminished by her sensible refusal of his later marriage proposal.
Oskar's loneliness as an outsider, far from sharpening his wits, as would be the case with a consistent picaro, seems to condemn him to increasing inability to cope, to increasing guilt, to increasing unherolike impotence (as with nurse Dorothea) and bungling, thus suffering. Small wonder that he takes walks in the fields with a dog. Even this lonely pastime, with the unearthing of the ring finger, brings him further pain. For however much he may wish to return to his earlier relatively value-free existence as an ostensible three-year-old, as a picaro, or even as a fetus, he cannot.
Oskar is referred to as an adapter to various roles. Certainly—to extend the theatrical metaphor—he is given to play-acting, to feigning for effect. Nor is all his acting confined to roles off the stage; he actually goes on the stage as a performer. (His performance under the stage is an ironic harbinger.) The novel itself is clearly not a drama, but it contains a drama. Several pages of a chapter in book 2, "Inspector of Concrete, or Barbaric, Mystical, Bored," are written as drama, a reminder, if we need one, that Grass was a dramatist before he was a writer of fiction. Books 1 and 2 of the novel obviously contain a movie, which now exists. All of which suggests that, among other possibilities, a theatrical interpretation of The Tin Drum might also yield its insights.
Among other Oskar roles, all partial, that one needs to consider are Oskar as Jesus and Oskar as Hitler. He conspicuously assigns himself the former. However parodistic, not to say blasphemous, the effect, there are some obvious common features. The question of paternity is problematic in both cases, although in different ways. Childhood precocity characterizes both Jesus and Oskar. There seems to be a physical similarity: Oskar asserts that the plaster statue of the Christ-child is his own "spit and image." One would not go far astray in declaring that Oskar nurtures a love-hate relationship with, at least, the statue of the Christ-child, whom on the one hand he can attempt to teach his drumming art to, whom on the other hand he can whack on the head with a drumstick or destroy with a saw.
With his violence against the Christ-child Oskar is denouncing, in a larger sense, that sort of Catholicism that found an accommodation with what ought to have been anathematic Nazism. Impaired as was the plaster Christchild's ability as a drummer, both the biblical Jesus and Oskar fulfill a mission that consists essentially of awakening, protesting, and warning of imminent bestiality and catastrophe. One may speculatively carry that joint identity a step further and suggest that in neither instance is much heed paid.
Oskar nowhere proclaims, "I am Hitler," as he does "I am Jesus." It is true, though, that both Hitler and Oskar write autobiographies, and sometimes less than credible autobiographies. Both Hitler and Oskar are born into the Catholic lower middle class, whose values they reject even as they are shaped by them. Ancestry in both cases is cloudy, and illegitimacy a factor, although in Hitler's case only to the extent that he had an illegitimate half-brother. Both boys have good singing voices, even if Oskar's singing is of a unique sort. Both very early decide on art as a profession, and in both cases that art emerges as a quasi art. The enumeration of common or almost common features could continue, but it is probably clear by now that these are largely fortuitous similarities, many of them commonplaces associated with the German or German-Austrian Catholic lower middle class in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Oskar, whose mission is to denounce Nazism, is no Hitler, if in some ways a parody of Hitler.
If ambiguity is to characterize the overall perception of Oskar, The Tin Drum, and the various interpretational possibilities, it would be inconsistent to accept Oskar's autobiography with more credulity than doubt. As narrator of his own actions, his reliability is certainly open to question. The first three or four pages of the novel are suggestive. The first line, in fact, contains a warning signal: how much credence should the reader place in the reports of "an inmate of a mental hospital"? Especially the reports of an apparent misanthrope who sows doubt about his own accuracy, who speculates on ways in which writers may hoodwink their readers?
Oskar at three years of age is in the hospital for a month, and a patient at home after that, all as a consequence of his apparently deliberate plunge through the trap door to the basement for the purpose of gaining a plausible explanation for his arrested growth. Oskar's convalescence was not a brief one. What if the supposed accident was a genuine accident? The alternative assumption would make the reader skeptical about taking the autobiographical word of an inmate of a mental institution whose mind is possibly arrested at the level of a three-year-old.
As to his resumption of growth after throwing his drum into Matzerath's grave, Oskar's testimony is even more ambiguous. At first, the reader is given to understand that it is the burial of the drum and Oskar's concomitant resolution to grow that are effective. Only significantly later, in another chapter, does Oskar attribute his renewed growth to the blow on the back of the head by a rock. The movie, given Grass's aversion to flashbacks, treats the episode in such a way that Kurt makes a prophet (ironically?) of his perhaps deranged putative father. Oskar, looking at the sand covering his drum, says, "I shall, I must, I will—grow!" At this, Kurt assumes a throwing stance, aims at the back of Oskar's head, throws, and hits the mark. One may well speculate that that trauma contributes as little as the one received in the Matzerath basement to Oskar's narrative reliability.
Bruno Münsterberg, Oskar's keeper in the asylum, intervenes repeatedly in the narration, by no means subtly casting doubt on Oskar's veracity. On the other hand, given the specific warder-and-patient relationship, Bruno has ample reason to take verbal jabs at Oskar while himself presuming to a laudable objectivity. It is true that Oskar often enough contradicts his own reports, for example, his conflicting versions of events at the battle for the Polish Post Office. On the other hand, it is difficult to judge whether "often enough" is enough to qualify Oskar's narrative divagations as pathological rather than run-of-the-mill narrative reembroidering. As elsewhere in the novel, ambiguity prevails. The two chief themes—political, as it happens, or sociopolitical—that rise out of the ambiguity are: disdain for the monstrosity of Nazism; and fear, warning of those elements in West Germany, the comfortable consuming society, that may well contribute to a recurrence of Nazism.
The Tin Drum was awarded the prize of Group 47 when it was still an incomplete manuscript in 1958. It has gone on to win acclaim as one of the epochal novels of the Western world and at the same time to become a best-seller with millions of copies in a variety of languages. Combining features of nineteenth-century novel structure with the material and the perceptions of the twentieth century, it proved the reports of the death of the novel to be premature. It resists any single-level interpretation (which might be at once appropriate and deficient) because its mode is that of highly developed ambiguity. Perhaps the single most pervasive characteristic (allied with a wealth of others) is that of protest against a monumentally criminal political deformity, supplemented in book 3 by a gathering fear and implicit warning against the recurrence of the deformity. It is an eloquent polemic but, again, far more.
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