The Tin Drum | Study Guide

Günther Grass

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The Tin Drum | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Günter Grass's The Tin Drum, published in 1959, is one of the most enigmatic and unique works of post-World War II literature. The novel tells of Oskar Matzerath, a strange figure who refuses to age, leaving him with the mental capacities of an adult trapped inside the body of a child. The titular tin drum is Oskar's favorite object—which he obsessively protects and constantly uses to make noise.

Oskar is distinctive in many ways, and Grass uses him to relate important historical events, such as the invasion of Normandy by Allied troops. However, Grass presents the reader with an extremely unreliable narrator of this history, as Oskar is shown to be writing from within an insane asylum and often approaches situations from a seemingly amoral standpoint. The Tin Drum reveals Grass's fears that Germany would view the events that unfolded during World War II in unrealistic terms, washing over terrible yet important aspects of the historical record. The author spent years advocating for Germans to accept and reflect upon the fact that they were on the wrong side of history and to learn a lesson from this ill-favored position.

1. Grass admitted publicly he had fought for the Nazis.

Despite the strong anti-Nazi sentiment of The Tin Drum, the author admitted in 2006, at age 78, he fought for the Waffen SS during World War II. The SS was a branch of the German military that perpetrated many of the Holocaust's atrocities and ran concentration camps. Grass explained his decision to come clean about his past by saying, simply, "It weighed on me." Critics have since argued Grass's late-in-life confession adds a level of hypocrisy to his political activism, such as encouraging Germans to confront the heinous mistakes of their collective past.

2. An early review called The Tin Drum "blasphemous."

The Tin Drum was met with mixed reviews, including one from the New York Times that described it as "deliberately and offensively blasphemous." The reviewer was offended by the amoral attitude of Grass's protagonist, Oskar, particularly by his adulterous private life and his inability to feel remorse about the Nazi's atrocities during World War II. The review continues to label The Tin Drum as "excessively nasty" and notes, "If Oskar is a symbolic figure, a German Everyman, then Günter Grass is disillusioned to the point of despair." The review praised Grass's writing style, however, noting the novel's "prose prances and cavorts," finally lamenting, "How much more effective The Tin Drum would have been if written with a modicum of restraint, selectivity and taste!"

3. The Tin Drum features elements of Germanic mythology.

Grass included a number of allusions to Germanic and Northern European folklore and mythology in The Tin Drum. These references help ground the depictions of Nazism and 20th-century German society against the background of the mystical, otherworldly Germanic legends. Grass mentions figures from the Grimm fairytales, as well as the Pied Piper—a folktale about a mysterious man who leads German children off to an unknown fate. Grass uses the Pied Piper as an analogy to the Nazi tendency of militarizing German youth and essentially brainwashing them to fight for their cause.

4. One American city tried to label the film adaptation of The Tin Drum as child pornography.

A 1979 film adaptation of The Tin Drum came under fire in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, for its depiction of what authorities considered child pornography. The film was challenged in 1997, nearly 20 years after its release, and the presiding judge quickly ruled the film was not pornographic in nature. Although Oskar is presented as a child physically, he is mentally an adult, thus making the brief scenes in which he engages in sexual activity an ambiguous, gray area. However, the judge noted the film was considered a work of art—and therefore protected under both state and federal law. Upon hearing the ruling, the director of the local library system stated, "We will be ordering many additional copies [of The Tin Drum]—with great delight."

5. The Tin Drum has been called a summary of the 20th century.

Despite the criticism The Tin Drum attracted and the subsequent challenges to the novel on moral grounds, contemporary reflections on Grass's work have been much kinder. In 2009 The Guardian explained that three words from The Tin Drum could be considered a full summary of the 20th century: barbaric, mystical, and bored. Scholars have taken note of how the character Oskar encompasses these three adjectives, and how the words themselves denote the brutal violence, technological achievement, and increased materialism that defined the 1900s.

6. Grass originally intended for Oskar to have a sister.

In an interview Grass explained his realization the character of Oskar was completely incompatible with a sibling, and quickly nixed the idea. The author explained Oskar, in his mind, was an extremely stubborn character, and therefore Grass simply couldn't bring himself to write him as anything other than an only child. Grass noted:

I had the totally misguided idea of giving Oskar Matzerath a sister ... He protested and it went no further in the manuscript. I have to bow to the will of the fictitious characters and, I find, that this is wonderful for the writer and invigorates the writing experience.

7. Grass was banned from entering Israel because of a poem.

Grass came under fire from Israeli officials in 2012 with the publication of his poem "What Must Be Said." The poem explored the threat that Israel posed to Iran due to Israel's nuclear capabilities. Although The Tin Drum aimed to expose and lament Nazi atrocities during the Holocaust, Grass clearly opposed any continuation of militarism or nuclear warfare. Grass's poem led to him being officially banned from entering Israel.

8. Oskar's drumming inspired a 1980s pop music trio.

The British synthpop trio Bronski Beat was inspired by Oskar Matzerath's constant high-tempo drumming and loud, piercing voice. The group's name derives from one of Oskar's two possible fathers, Jan Bronski. Bronski Beat achieved popularity after the release of their 1984 hit song, "Smalltown Boy."

9. Grass didn't understand why people find the scene of eels emerging from a horse head in The Tin Drum disturbing.

One particular passage of The Tin Drum often considered horrific by readers involves the vision of eels wriggling out of the head of a horse. In an interview with The Paris Review, Grass was asked specifically about this scene's effect on readers, to which he responded:

I have never understood why this passage, which is six pages long, is so disturbing. It is a piece of fantastical reality, which I wrote just the same way I go about writing any other detail. But the death and sexuality that are evoked by that image have generated an enormous disgust in people.

10. The Tin Drum is part of a trilogy, but the other two books do not feature Oskar as a protagonist.

The Tin Drum is the first part of Grass's "Danzig Trilogy," which also includes Cat and Mouse, published in 1961, and Dog Years, published in 1963. The works did not originally compose a "trilogy" in the traditional sense, but they were later grouped together due to common themes and recurring characters. Oskar does not appear as the protagonist of the two later novels, but he does appear as a minor character. Grass even included Tulla—originally intended to be Oskar's sister in The Tin Drum—as a character in both Cat and Mouse and Dog Years.

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