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The Tin Drum | Symbols

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Oskar's Tin Drum

A red and white enameled tin drum is his mother's gift to Oskar when he turns three. Oskar wears out and replaces identical drums. For Oskar, drumming becomes a means of expression and communication, and later, his means of survival. Red and white are in fact the national colors of Poland, his country of origin.

Sometimes drumbeats measure Oskar's emotions, culminating in an angry or derisive commotion in which his cries shatter glass. At other times, he can use the drum to arouse the emotions of others. Oskar can hear the authentic noises of his world, past and present, and thus attempts to communicate the cruel truths his war-damaged nation resists.

The drum also operates throughout the novel at the level of political and social satire. From birth, Oskar has had the ability to perceive things beyond the natural range of human senses. In opposition to Oskar's tin drum, which recognizes truth and expresses Oskar's uncontainable rage, is an apathetic populace with tin ears: people deaf to the looming atrocities as the Nazi's take power. Thus the tin drum acquires a string of associations emphasizing social distress and political urgency for a German population incapable of resistance and in denial of growing Nazi oppression and war crimes. Finally, in a story that emphasizes doubling—from Oskar's double fathers to the dual storytelling alternating between past and present—the novel itself becomes a tin drum played by a man-child as troubled and flawed as any of his neighbors.

The Four Skirts

The four skirts that Oskar's grandmother, Anna, wears symbolize sexual experiences as well as escape from responsibility. In Chapter 1 Oskar's grandfather, Joseph, the arsonist, uses Anna's skirts to hide from the police. While he is under the skirts he takes the opportunity to sexually pleasure himself and Anna. The police interrogate Anna, but she denies any knowledge of Joseph's whereabouts even as she calls out the names of the saints. Joseph is said to follow her skirts from then on and is married to Anna because he gets her pregnant.

As a small child, Oskar also uses Anna's skirts to hide from responsibility. Oskar never wanted to be in the world, and Anna's skirts help him block everyone out. Eventually, however, Anna won't let him use her skirts to hide.

He later recognizes that the first lessons in his role of seducer emerged from his pleasure under his grandmother's skirts. What he sought there was not carnal knowledge of his grandmother, however, but understanding of the relationship between the human drive for fulfillment of desire and the moral compass that circumscribes lustful behavior. He had been a selfish child, but he later seeks to explore the moral foundations of basic human nature, questions he comes to in his own sexual awakening.

Broken Glass

Broken glass symbolizes rage, whether it is Oskar's infantile anger or the Nazi rage on Kristallnacht. Oskar is able to "sing-shatter" and scream to break glass, an ability he discovers when Matzerath tries to take his first drum from him in Chapter 5. From that moment on, Oskar uses his ability to break glass to force people to do what he wants. In Chapter 6 he shatters his teacher's glasses in order to escape from school; he sings holes into store windows to tempt people into stealing; and he breaks windows in buildings when he is dissatisfied with the way events are unfolding.

Kristallnacht, the anti-Jewish pogroms of November 9–10, 1938, is often called the "Night of Broken Glass" because of the glass shattered after Jewish synagogues, businesses, and homes were targeted and destroyed. The Nazi rage is like Oskar's: terrible, absolute, and infantile. And like Oskar, the German population ignored it, making them complicit in the Holocaust.

Nurses

Oskar spends a great deal of time in hospitals, beginning with his purposeful fall down the cellar stairs when he is three. As a result, he develops a fascination for any woman in a nurse's uniform. Nurses symbolize safety and comfort for Oskar. He associates nurses with sex as well. Later in the book, Oskar becomes obsessed with Sister Dorothea, a nurse who lives in his building. In Chapter 38 Oskar intercepts her mail, and in Chapter 39 he enters her room and rifles through her lingerie while masturbating. Later, he tries to seduce her, which results in her moving out of the building. When Sister Dorothea is murdered and a severed finger with a ring on it is found by a dog, Oskar is sure it is Sister Dorothea's finger. In Chapter 45, readers learn that he keeps it in a jar and prays to it. His ticket into an insane asylum is to admit to her murder, which he did not commit. Not coincidentally, nurses wear a white uniform with a red cross pinned to their collar—the same color scheme as Oskar's tin drum.

The Black Cook

The Black Cook, a witchlike figure from a German children's rhyme, is a symbol of death. Just as the novel began with an earthy female figure, Oskar's grandmother, it closes with what, in Chapter 46, he considers her opposite: human mortality. "She was always there," he thinks in the last chapter, casting her shadow as Markus's toys shatter, and later borrowing "Luzie Rennwand's triangular fox face" as Luzie forced the Dusters to implicate themselves. Susi Kater and the other bullies also acknowledged she was there as they made their brick soup: "Better start running, the Black Cook's coming! You're to blame."

In finally and fully embracing his humanity, Oskar must also face the prospect of his death: she is "now and forever coming toward [him]." Yet, since it is death that gives meaning to life, readers don't despair for Oskar. He is only 30, and he has his drum.

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