Literature Study GuidesThe Tin DrumBook 2 Chapters 17 18 Summary

The Tin Drum | Study Guide

Günther Grass

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The Tin Drum | Book 2, Chapters 17–18 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 17: Scrap Metal

In the present-day narrative, Oskar has received a new drum from Maria, his father's second wife and his first lover, who delivers drums to him in the mental hospital. He asks her to store the old drum he is exchanging with the new one in the cellar of his father's house, where he collects drums and other worn-out instruments. He has been keeping his old drums since 1949, although they have begun to take up the space reserved for winter potatoes. He notes that his obsession with keeping disabled drums started on 10 November 1938, the day on which he lost Markus, his "custodian of drums." Returning to memory, he recalls taking Matzerath's charity box in an attempt to use it as a drum; but, alas, there is no substitute for a drum: "a tin can is no tin drum, a bucket is a bucket." Similarly Mazareth and Jan attempt on several occasions to enlist a third man in order to play skat and have to face the hard facts: the skat games fail to work without Agnes. Competing interests, politics, and ethnicities have rendered the comforts of skat that were available to the love triangle inaccessible to this mix of men.

Oskar returns with Jan to the Polish Post Office in search of the lame janitor Kobyella, whom Oskar believes can fix his drum. What Oskar doesn't realize is that Jan has run off from the post office because it is under attack by the Germans and Jan is afraid. He and Oskar manage to get into the post office, and the employees are cold to Jan because they see him as a deserter. Oskar can't find the janitor, and crawls off into a mail basket, falling asleep.

Chapter 18: The Polish Post Office

The Germans attack the post office, shooting into the building, and Oskar hides his drum in a mail basket in the dead-letter room and slips out. He finds Jan in another room, cowering, while Kobyella, the janitor, hunkers down beside him, behind sandbags. Oskar says that Jan actually tries to lift a leg up to the window to see if he can get shot so he can limp away, a wounded man leaving the fray. The men take one of the wounded and place him in the basket where Oskar's old drum is.

Meanwhile, Oskar goes to the second floor of the post office, which is the apartment of the Postmaster General. He sees a new tin drum up on a shelf in the nursery of the postmaster's home. He asks for someone to get it for him, but everyone is too busy trying to fend off the Germans, who are now attacking with tanks. He tries to reach it himself but is thrown down to the sandbags by Kobyella. Kobyella is shot; Jan loses the skat cards in his pocket and a photo of Agnes; and the wall where the toys are is shot down. All the toys fall, Oskar gets his drum, Kobyella is happy that his private parts are still intact, and Jan manages to find all of his cards.

Analysis

In 1949 German philosopher Theodor Adorno declared poetry dead, saying it was "barbaric" to write poetry after Auschwitz—that the barbarism of the German people had corrupted its language. The Tin Drum is openly a response to this statement; Grass addressed it in his Nobel Prize Lecture in 1999. The novel shows that it is indeed possible to write lyrically if the language and ideas preserve the wounds of Germany's past. In Grass's words, "The only way writing after Auschwitz ... could proceed was by becoming memory and preventing the past from coming to an end ... only then could the wound be kept open and the much desired and prescribed forgetting be reversed." Thus it is significant that Oskar has been keeping his old drums since 1949.

The drum is Oskar's gauge of emotional register and mode of expression (perhaps it is his conscience). It is certainly more important to him than the family's foundational sustenance. And the date of his obsession with drums, 10 November 1938, is the day his Jewish "custodian of drums," Markus, died. With Oskar's discovery that a "tin can is no tin drum," readers recognize that language is being successfully cleansed: Oskar is beginning to find an authentic self as well as self-expression. That he ignores danger to search for the lame janitor who might be able to fix his drum suggests Kobyella has a function in Oskar's life similar to Markus's. The janitor's injury was caused in service to Pilsudski's "legendary legion," the brave men who wrested Poland from Russian rule in 1918 and suffered thereafter. So another victim from a time of ethnic rivalries and power struggles might have become the most recent custodian of the drum—or, to extend the allegory, he might have been an inspiration to the memoirist, just as the persecuted Jew was.

By this point in the novel, readers can view Oskar's growth as a matter of his ability to recognize suffering. In this sense, he is the courageous artist who will put his survival on the line to preserve his opportunity to make art out of empathy, to have his drum fixed by another brave soul. He has no concern for Jan's safety as he withdraws to a windowless room to sleep, avoiding any consequences of his return with Jan to the Post Office. His avoidance marks the theme of apathy. He is not yet fully formed, and he withdraws in denial of the danger at the Post Office. Also, he has been Jan's victim and rival throughout his early years. It is not to Oskar's great credit that he may not care what happens to Jan, but readers can understand his attitude nonetheless.

As the attack intensifies and injuries mount, Oskar reverts to his three-year-old self, angry, irrational, selfish, entirely occupied by details with which he cannot cope. In the end, each survivor checks for what he holds dear, the essential thing of his individuality and identity: Jan, his skat cards; Kobyella, his masculine parts; and Oskar, his latest drum.

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