Oskar receives a red and white enameled tin drum as a gift from his mother when he turns three. Even into his 20s, Oskar wears out and replaces identical drums. Drumming is his means of expression and communication: in fact, his survival. From birth, Oskar has had the ability to perceive things beyond the natural range of human senses. His tin drum symbolically offers comment on the tin ear (eardrums) of an apathetic populace and Oskar's auditory capacities, his ability to hear "voices beyond the reach of ordinary experience." Unpleasant as it is, Oskar hears the authentic noises of his world, past and present, and thus attempts to record the cruel truths that a war-damaged nation resists. Oskar's experiences are, for the most part, violent and often repugnant, reminding the reader of the importance of embracing reality, no matter how disturbing.
Agnes loves her cousin Jan Bronski but marries Alfred Matzerath. Despite her marriage, she doesn't give up on Jan but continues an indiscreet affair with him throughout her marriage. She cares for her baby Oskar, giving him his first drum and dutifully replacing successive drums when they wear out. Agnes is a sensual woman who worries little about how much adult activity Oskar witnesses.
Jan carries on an affair with his cousin Agnes while also maintaining a relationship with both her and her husband, Matzerath. He is kind to young Oskar, who in fact may be his son. A Polish postal clerk, he is shot by a firing squad after he unwillingly defends the post office during the German invasion of Danzig.
Matzerath turns a blind eye to his wife's affair with her cousin Jan and spends most of his free time in the kitchen, cooking for everyone. He left the cellar trapdoor open, which allows Oskar to tumble down the stairs. This event provides Oskar with an excuse for not growing up. Matzerath's guilt over this accident may be why he refuses to allow Oskar to be institutionalized. Matzerath joins Nazi Party activities and supports the German invasion of Danzig.
Anna Koljaiczek Bronski
Anna is an elderly potato seller who is devoted to her daughter, Agnes. As a young woman she allowed an arsonist running from the police to hide under her four skirts. She marries the arsonist, Joseph, and bears Agnes, Oskar's mother. Oskar later hides under the four skirts just as his grandfather once did. Anna enjoys Oskar's atmospheric drumming when he hides under her skirts.
Maria is a young girl who has no boundaries with Oskar. He is her age, but she thinks of him as a baby because he is so small. Thus she exposes herself to him in inappropriate ways, which results in their sexual contact. She marries Matzerath after Agnes's death because she thinks he is the one who got her pregnant with her son, Kurt. Maria continues to deliver drums to Oskar in the insane asylum.
Bruno is an artistic, serious man who is Oskar's keeper in the insane asylum. He watches Oskar through a peephole in the bedroom door. Bruno sometimes writes Oskar's story for him when Oskar's writing hand is tired, allowing readers to see Oskar from another perspective. Bruno creates knotted works of art from scraps of string that describe each of Oskar's stories visually.