The Tin Drum | Study Guide

Günther Grass

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The Tin Drum | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


Book 1

The form of The Tin Drum is a story within a story. The frame tale introduces Oskar Matzerath, the writer of a memoir, who is incarcerated in a mental institution. He is dependent on Bruno Münsterberg, his keeper, for his supplies. Also, Oskar needs Bruno's attention as witness to his guilt. Oskar measures his sins in an autobiographical account, a picaresque series of events that begins two generations before his birth with his grandparents. Oskar's maternal grandmother, Anna Koljaiczek, a potato seller, shelters her prospective husband, Joseph—a stranger and an alleged arsonist—under her four skirts as he hides from the police. She finds herself pregnant, presumably as a result of this encounter, although an incestuous relationship with her brother leaves the baby's paternity in doubt. Agnes, Oskar's mother, is Anna's child; she does not know her father. Oskar's paternity is also unclear, as the pattern of incest follows into the next generation. His father could be the grocer Alfred Matzerath, Agnes's husband, or her first cousin, Jan Bronski, with whom she has a sexual liaison.

The memoir explores Oskar's birth and coming of age. From birth, Oskar has an adult mentality. A "clairaudient" child, he is able to hear sounds beyond the normal range of the human ear. Witness to the rise of the Third Reich, Oskar, his family, and their social circle participate in the denial of a growing public violence against outsiders. As Oskar comes increasingly to understand the growing Nazi horror he begins to rebel against the family. At age three, he is given a tin drum and soon thereafter vows to use the drum rather than to speak. He also decides to avoid adult life by a self-induced fall that halts his physical growth.

When his parents try to take away the tin drum, Oskar discovers that his angry shouts can shatter glass. He uses this questionable gift to manipulate his way through early childhood; it allows him to escape school and other responsibilities. His life is dictated by the need to keep replacing each worn-out tin drum with a new one. Oskar's drumming reveals his spirit and mood, while his glass shattering evolves as a series of increasingly conscious choices, in resistance to the status quo.

His mother, Agnes, carries on an affair with Jan Bronski, his uncle, who Oskar knows is one of his possible fathers. When Agnes becomes pregnant, she gorges on fish and rancid fish oil until she becomes fatally ill. In addition to this loss, Oskar's drum source, the toy store owner Markus, kills himself on Kristallnacht rather than allow himself to be taken away by the Nazis. His store is completely destroyed. Oskar's response is to take all the drums he can find and run back to Matzerath, who is found warming his hands over a bonfire of holy books in front of a burnt-out synagogue.

Book 2

Book 2 begins after the start of Nazi attacks on Danzig's Jewish and Polish populations and covers Oskar's experiences during World War II. Matzerath doesn't replace Oskar's worn-out drum, so Oskar implores Jan for help. Helpless to repair the drum himself, Jan takes Oskar and the drum to the Polish Post Office, where a janitor can fix the drum. The problem is, Jan, the head postal clerk, has just tried to escape the post office, which is under attack by the Nazi Home Guard. Oskar ends up pointing out Jan to the Home Guard when they break down the post office defenses, and Jan is arrested and shot along with the other survivors of the attack. Oskar's main concern is keeping his drum.

Matzerath hires a woman named Maria to mind the store and help take care of Oskar, who ends up having intercourse with her. Matzerath has sex with her soon afterward, and when she discovers she is pregnant, Matzerath marries her. Oskar is devastated and is sure that Kurt, the baby, is his. Oskar takes his sexual frustration to Frau Greff, the wife of the repressed homosexual greengrocer. Greff receives a court summons and, rather than be sent off to a camp because of his attraction to young boys, hangs himself.

Oskar then runs off with Bebra and Roswitha, two little people who have a circus-like show they put on for the soldiers at the front. He becomes friends with the performers and Corporal Lankes, who murders nuns and talks about encasing a live puppy in concrete when building a bunker. Oskar becomes Roswitha's lover until she is killed by an artillery shell. Oskar ends up joining a street gang called the Dusters and convinces them he is Jesus. They break into a church to try to get a statue of Jesus to perform a miracle with Oskar's tin drum. They are caught, however, and Oskar is brought back home by Maria and Matzerath after a court appearance.

When Danzig is taken by the Russians, Matzerath tries to hide his Nazi Party pin, but Oskar hands it back to him, open. Matzerath swallows it and chokes, and the Russians shoot and kill him. They rape Frau Greff but leave Maria alone, as she has Kurt with her. Oskar buries his drum with Matzerath at the funeral, is hit on the head by a rock thrown by his bratty son, Kurt, and begins to grow physically. A man named Herr Fajngold takes over Matzerath's store and lets Oskar's family live in the basement. Fajngold asks Maria to marry him, but she refuses. Maria, Oskar, and Kurt leave in a boxcar for the Rhineland, where they will live with Maria's sister, Guste.

Book 3

Kurt becomes a small businessman, selling flintstones. Maria sells synthetic honey on the black market. Oskar doesn't have a job and feels terrible, especially because Maria chides him for it. Oskar apprentices himself to a gravestone cutter and helps the family financially. When the currency of Germany changes from Reichsmarks to German marks, Oskar leaves the stonecutter so he won't burden the man. Oskar then ends up posing nude for an art school with Ulla, the muse of his old friend Lankes, and makes a decent living. Maria is upset with him for doing this, and he decides he can't live with her and Kurt anymore.

He goes to live in a flat next to Sister Dorothea, a nurse with whom he becomes obsessed enough to break into her room and sift through her things when she is at work. Oskar meets Klepp, a slovenly neighbor, who feeds him, and ends up playing music with Oskar on a flute. Oskar tries to seduce Dorothea but can't perform. When she realizes who he is, she packs up and leaves her room. He is broken-hearted, but Klepp pulls him together, along with Scholle, a guitarist. They form a jazz band, playing at a club called The Onion Cellar, where people slice onions to cry for catharsis.

Oskar meets up with Lankes again and also finds Bebra, who becomes his concert promoter. Oskar makes a lot of money as a jazz musician, becomes famous, and buys Maria a deli. However, he can't get Dorothea off his mind. He rents a dog named Lux, who goes for walks with him and finds a severed finger in the field where Dorothea has been murdered by Beate, a rival nurse. Oskar keeps the finger, wrapping it in a handkerchief. He then runs into a man named Vittlar, who is sitting in an apple tree, and they become friends. Oskar has his stonecutter friend cast the finger in plaster to make molds of it. Oskar also puts the finger in a jar and prays to it. He tries to convince a judge that he murdered Dorothea. Vittlar provides testimony and says that Oskar gave him the finger in the jar to take to the police. Oskar is convicted and put into the mental institution. He is likely to be released, but he is tormented by his memories and unsure what he will do when he gets out.

The Tin Drum Plot Diagram

123456789101112131415ClimaxResolutionIntroductionRising ActionFalling Action


1 Joseph hides under Anna's skirts and gets her pregnant.

Rising Action

2 Agnes loves Matzerath and Jan; she gives birth to Oskar.

3 Oskar gets a tin drum for his birthday and shatters glass.

4 Agnes dies in an apparent suicide by fish overdose.

5 Oskar's drum supplier, Markus, commits suicide.

6 Jan is shot by the Home Guard at the Polish post office.

7 Oskar sleeps with Maria; Matzerath marries Maria.

8 Maria gives birth to Kurt; Oskar thinks he's the father.

9 Oskar has sex with Frau Greff, and Greff kills himself.

10 Oskar joins the Dusters and gets arrested.


11 Matzerath dies, and Maria and Oskar move away with Kurt.

Falling Action

12 Oskar becomes a gravestone cutter and then a nude model.

13 Oskar abuses Sister Dorothea and forms a jazz band.

14 Oskar finds Sister Dorothea's finger and admits to murder.


15 Oskar turns 30 and fears being released from the asylum.

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