Literature Study GuidesThe Tin DrumBook 1 Chapters 15 16 Summary

The Tin Drum | Study Guide

Günther Grass

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The Tin Drum | Book 1, Chapters 15–16 | Summary



Chapter 15: Niobe

When Herbert can't find work, he and Oskar briefly take up lives of crime. This ends badly since they haven't the resources to find fences (or receivers) for their stolen goods. Times are hard for everyone. Meyn has stopped drinking and is no longer well paid, since his music has lost its authenticity. As a result his ill-fed cats "are going to the dogs." Herbert finds a job as a guard at the Maritime Museum, a place where trophies of Polish war victories testify to a history of "filthy rich" victors living among impoverished neighbors. Among the trophies is the figurehead of a 15th-century Florentine galleon, a vessel captured by Danzig pirates who murdered all on board when they took the ship. Violent history, represented in the museum's artifacts, repeats over the ages, and all who come into even peripheral contact with Niobe, "the green maiden"—the ship's figurehead—suffer and die.

Herbert jokes about the voluptuous figurehead as being too much woman for him, but succumbs to Niobe's curse. He is found dead, impaled by an axe on the wooden woman, whom he has attempted to mount and assault. Oskar beats the drum with his fists when the discovery is made. In the frame tale, Oscar, the memoirist, takes to pounding on his drum as he revisits the scene of Herbert's death.

Chapter 16: Faith Hope Love

Although Oskar doesn't believe in omens, there are signs of disaster all around him. After Herbert's death, Oskar recognizes that there is disaster everywhere, leaking into pipes and sewage lines, entering every house. He meets Crazy Leo, who appears at every funeral, drooling and trembling as he greets the mourners, reminding them that death brings joy and pain.

In the present day, Oskar tells the terrible story of Kristallnacht in a repetitious series, using the phrase "Once upon a time," derived from folk tales. Oskar witnesses his father's barbarity in enjoying the spectacle of burning synagogues and Jewish stores being looted. He finds Marcus the toy seller dead, a suicide to avoid Nazi violence. He avoids drumming for fear of discovery and knows full well the "bad times in store for midget drummers."

Oskar worries that he will no longer have drums. He takes the drums he finds and runs to find Matzerath, who is warming his hands over the fire set to burn holy books from the synagogue. He reflects that "an entire gullible nation" believed in Santa Claus, but Santa Claus "was really the Gasman" from the gas company. Faith in the Gasman will become "the state religion."


The novel acquires its full force as the child moves out of the small world of family life and into a violent and dangerous political environment. In this way, the novel is quite ordinary and true to life. Unlike most of his counterparts, Oskar is capable of change; throughout Book 1 he has been maturing, testing and acquiring ideas and relationships as he distances himself from his parents. His tragedy and subsequent guilt will be that he can't change quickly enough to avoid collusion with the Nazis.

Book 1 ends with narratives told in single sentences, reducing language to its essential elements. Throughout the text Grass shows that through language one can make a partial recovery from the past. The language must be authentic, preserving the trauma and violence of past events while avoiding propaganda and lies. And indeed, Oskar's narrative is in logical order, the wounds in full view, and their scrutiny by readers redemptive.

Oskar's comparison of Santa to "the Gasman" is part of the corruption of language theme in which meaning has been stretched and distorted. Hitler is the gasman—a supplier of goods, like Santa. His gas is a reference to the mass murder of prisoners with deadly gas in the Nazi killing centers known as death camps.

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