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The Tin Drum | Quotes


Granted: I'm an inmate in a mental institution.

Oskar Matzerath, Book 1, Chapter 1

The opening line from the novel tells readers several things, hints at others, and may color what they think going forward. First, the story is a memoir. Second, the narrator is a character that society has placed in an institution. From these facts the reader must consider the narrator as unreliable, questioning his judgment and his hold on reality.


Following my grandmother ... came Joseph ... who could no longer free himself from her skirts.

Oskar Matzerath, Book 1, Chapter 1

Joseph, Oskar's grandfather, is an arsonist who hides under his grandmother's skirts to escape from the police. However, he also takes the opportunity to have sexual contact with Anna and eventually marries her. This quote marks the start of Oskar's story. It also establishes the tone of nearly every sexual encounter Oskar has or witnesses throughout the novel: often irreverent and comic.


When little Oskar is three years old, we'll give him a tin drum.

Agnes Koljaiczek, Book 1, Chapter 3

This quote introduces the titular tin drum and thus promises its prominence in the novel. Oskar's mother decides that she and Matzerath will give Oskar a tin drum, and this promise is the thing that keeps Oskar from trying to crawl back into his mother's womb. The drum becomes his obsessive mode of communication.


When I screamed, something ... valuable would burst into pieces: I was able to singshatter glass.

Oskar Matzerath, Book 1, Chapter 5

Oskar's newfound talent to sing-shatter glass becomes his tool for not only manipulating people into allowing him to do whatever he wants but also making them do what he wants. It is also a survival strategy for him, both figuratively and literally, as when he shatters the glass in a factory to make the Dusters respect him.


And what I failed to bring low with my drum I slew with my voice.

Oskar Matzerath, Book 1, Chapter 10

Oskar uses his drum to confuse rallies, performances, and gatherings of any kind. He uses his voice to manipulate people into stealing from stores when ordinarily they would not. He silently slices a hole in shop windows to tempt passersby to steal. At this point in the novel Oskar is selfish and destructive; he will have much to atone for.


Her head is going to bob up, she'll have to vomit again, something inside her still wants out.

Oskar Matzerath, Book 1, Chapter 13

Oskar can't shake the feeling during his mother's funeral that she still needs to get something out of her. The quote reflects Agnes's inability to be satisfied—even, Oskar suggests, in death.


Is there any other shape in the world so admirably suited to the human form?

Oskar Matzerath, Book 1, Chapter 13

This quote, Oskar's reflection on his mother's coffin, embodies Grass's concerns about the nature of authentic language. The theme of language and experiments with language operate throughout the novel. The notion that a form would conform to its purpose faithfully is a concern for authentic expression, for a conformation between words and things, and a movement away from Nazi propaganda in all the forms in which lies are made palatable.


I clung ... to my despised drum, for it didn't die as a mother does.

Oskar Matzerath, Book 1, Chapter 14

Oskar hears his grandmother blaming his drumming for his mother's death. Yet even if the drum caused her to die, it gives him consolation. It is an object that can be perpetually replaced, allowing him to escape from pain and reality for as long as he can be supplied with new drums.


The wooden replica of a woman named Niobe can ... serve as an unforgetting witness.

Oskar Matzerath, Book 1, Chapter 15

Oskar believes in the power of material objects; his relationship to his drum is the prime example. The figurehead Niobe, which has witnessed violence over centuries, has actually accumulated the power to kill, much as the drum has the mysterious power to control those who hear its voice.


Some museum might eventually find my disabled drums of interest.

Oskar Matzerath, Book 2, Chapter 17

Maria has been visiting Oskar in the institution, regularly bringing him new drums to replace those he's worn out. Each time, he instructs her to number the retired drum and store it in the cellar. He also jots data and details about the drum on notes to be entered in a log also kept in the cellar. He's scrupulous in caring for these old, beat up drums. Why? In Oskar's misplaced sense of his own importance, he believes some museum may want them.


Oskar ... put on a show of pathetic weeping and pointed at Jan ... with accusatory gestures.

Oskar Matzerath, Book 2, Chapter 20

Oskar has just narrated the events of the siege at the post office; Jan is lined up against a wall. Oskar now appears to rethink his role in the episode, and he retells it, showing some honesty by admitting his responsibility for Jan's capture and execution.


I educated myself and formed my own judgments.

Oskar Matzerath, Book 2, Chapter 25

Oskar, who got out of going to school by sing-shattering his teacher's spectacles, has learned to read and write only through the works of Rasputin and Goethe. He pretends not to understand these works but insists on having them read to him, over and over again. Then he steals the pages of the books, one at a time, to hide in his attic, in order to educate himself on his own terms.


Title: Mystical, barbaric, bored.

Oskar Matzerath, Book 2, Chapter 27

When Lankes reads the title of the bunker aloud, Bebra responds, "You have given our century its name." The phrase encompasses the "mystical" achievements of the 20th century, its two barbaric wars, and boredom, the state of apathy that allows the barbarism to happen.


I began to drum, told it all in order, in the beginning was the beginning.

Oskar Matzerath, Book 3, Chapter 40

Stung by Klepp's insult into grabbing the drum he has been given and playing it, Oskar beats out his life story. His narrative of birth, death, love, and war is so beautiful and so true that Klepp understands and responds in song. The moment serves as a sort of resurrection for both Klepp and Oskar, who have been denying their desperate need to communicate and tell stories through their music.


Better start running, the Black Cook's coming! Ha! Ha! Ha!

Oskar Matzerath, Book 3, Chapter 46

Oskar realizes that at 30, adulthood is catching up to him, and it feels as if the Black Cook, a witchlike figure from a children's rhyme, is going to catch him. The Black Cook is a symbol of death; he realizes his own mortality. At the same time, he realizes it is the prospect of death that must shape his plans for living the rest of his life.

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