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The Tin Drum | Themes

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Grass was a social critic and activist throughout his literary career, often dealing with themes related to Germany's role in World War II and the Holocaust. He believed that Germany had not learned its lesson and that German citizens were apathetic about their responsibility for the rise of Nazism and the horrors of the Holocaust. These themes play out in his novel, as does his belief that words are a form of healing.

Nazism and German Guilt

Throughout The Tin Drum, Grass shows how the Nazis were able to infiltrate German society and become powerful enough to make German citizens commit atrocities. The bullies that make Oskar drink "brick soup" with body fluids in it later become members of the Hitler Youth and the SS because their need to vilify and torture the vulnerable was appreciated and lauded. A mentality without empathy was also encouraged, so German citizens turned a blind eye to the deaths of millions of Poles and Jews. Oskar himself stands by and watches as the Nazis smash Markus's store window, and his reaction to seeing Markus dead and the store destroyed is to grab two drums and run.

Grass also uses Oskar's guilt over causing the death of both his "presumptive fathers," Jan and Matzerath, to criticize the guilt he saw in Germans during and after the war. Oskar uses Jan to get to the janitor in the Polish Post Office who can repair his drum, and when the Home Guard breaks through the post office defense, Oskar points at Jan as if he is the reason Oskar is there. Jan is subsequently rounded up with the other post office employees and shot. Oskar refers to this as his "Judas moment"; he is a traitor for having used Jan to save his own life.

When Oskar tosses his drum into Matzerath's grave, he does so because he feels guilty about having caused Matzerath's death. He admits that he opened the Party pin when he handed it back to Matzerath, causing Matzerath to violently choke on it and the SS to shoot him. He decides that on the occasion of Matzerath's burial, he should grow—and grow up. He ends up growing in a stunted, abnormal way, like the postwar Germans, fueled by guilt mixed with acquisitive materialism.

Language

The Tin Drum is a reflection not merely on the German state of mind but also on the possibility for art after national trauma. Responding in part to Theodor Adorno, who in 1949 published an essay suggesting that after Auschwitz poetry could not be written, Grass attempted to answer the great German critic with an analysis of his own. The drummer Oskar, part allegorical figure and part ironic, is Grass's artist.

From the beginning of the novel, Grass raises the question of how to purify and reclaim language after the Holocaust. Oskar opens his narrative by wondering how to begin: In the middle? "Boldly backward"? Forward? He says a writer can "start by declaring that novels can no longer be written" ... or "by asserting that novels no longer have heroes." In fact, the story is told both backward and forward as if only an unconventional structure can contain it. Whether Oskar is describing his photo album or Santa in words associated with the Holocaust or creating new words, the concept of language is constantly before the reader. Bad puns, unappealing jokes, and fantastical images are all grist for Grass's attempt to get as close to the truth through his novel as he is able.

Family Life and Home

In Book 1 of The Tin Drum, Oskar's family life is as normal as it is ever going to get. Oskar, who is born with the brain of an adult, considers crawling back into the womb, but when he hears his mother promise to get him a tin drum, he decides to stay in the world. At age three, however, he decides he doesn't want to enter the adult world, and throws himself down the stairs.

For the next several years, Oskar watches his mother have an obvious and indiscreet affair with Jan, his uncle. His father, Matzerath, knows about the affair but mostly ignores it. Oskar, who is close to his mother, is convinced that Jan might actually be his father, but he isn't completely sure, so he refers to each of the men as his "presumptive father." The unspoken affair and Jan and Agnes's tendency to have sex in front of Oskar makes for an uncomfortable home life. Oskar never quite develops a deep attachment to either of his presumptive fathers, judging them only on their ability to provide him with a tin drum and other comforts.

Nor does Oskar have healthy relationships with any of the female authority figures in his life, with the exception of his grandmother. His mother essentially commits suicide in Book 1. She can never be satisfied and so decides she will no longer live. He spends so much time being cared for by nurses that he develops a lifelong obsession with them.

In Book 2, Maria lets Oskar have sex with her, but she then has sex with Matzerath and marries him. She gives birth to Kurt, and it's not certain who Kurt's father is, repeating the pattern of uncertain paternity. Oskar also contributes to the death of both his presumptive fathers in Book 2. He does, however, bury his beloved drum with Matzerath in a realization that he needs to grow physically and spiritually.

Part of his growth in Book 3 is an attempt to reconstitute a family, which is perfected as he lies in bed in the mental institution. He has a brother-like bond with his two faithful visitors, Vittlar and Klepp. His keeper, Bruno, takes care of him, while Maria visits with new drums and birthday cakes. It is small wonder he fears life after his release from the institution. He does consider marriage as one of the possibilities for a man of 30, although whether he could ever create a family of his own is left to the reader's imagination.

Manipulation versus Growth

Almost from the day of his birth, Oskar uses manipulation as a survival strategy. When he is three, he discovers his talent for shattering glass, and he uses the technique to ensure no one takes his drum from him, punishes him, or sends him to school. He also throws himself down the stairs to break his bones as a way to avoid adulthood.

Oskar manipulates Jan into going back to the Polish Post Office to get his drum repaired, indirectly causing the man's death, and manipulates the Dusters into making him the head of their gang. Oskar contributes to the death of his other presumptive father as well. He opens the Nazi Party pin before he hands it to Matzerath, ensuring that Matzerath will choke on it.

Oskar makes the decision to grow physically in Chapter 32, but he cannot truly grow emotionally until he can help others. The scene in Chapter 42 in which he helps the audience regress to an infantile state is a significant turning point for this reason. Unlike Scholle, who in the following chapter callously shoots sparrows, Oskar learns to care about the "fall of the sparrow," a biblical metaphor for human worth.

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