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The Tin Drum ( ) is a 1959 novel by Günter Grass. The novel is the first book of Grass's (Danzig Trilogy).

Plot summary

The story revolves around the life of Oskar Matzerath, as narrated by himself when confined in a mental hospital during the years 1952-1954. Born in 1924 in the Free City of Danzigmarker (now Gdanskmarker, Polandmarker), with an adult's capacity for thought and perception, he decides never to grow up when he hears his father declare that he would become a grocer. Gifted with a piercing shriek that can shatter glass or be used as a weapon, Oskar declares himself to be one of those "auditory clairvoyant babies", whose "spiritual development is complete at birth and only needs to affirm itself". He retains the stature of a child while living through the beginning of World War II, several love affairs, and the world of postwar Europe. Through all this a tin drum that he receives as a present on his third birthday remains his treasured possession, and he is willing to kill to retain it.

Oskar considers himself to have two "presumptive fathers" - his mother's husband Alfred, a member of the Nazi Party, and her secret lover Jan, a Polish citizen of Danzig who is executed for defending the Polish Post Office in Danzigmarker during the Nazi invasion of Poland. Oskar's mother having died, Alfred marries Maria, a woman who is secretly Oskar's first mistress. After marrying Alfred, Maria gives birth to Oskar's possible son, Kurt. But Oskar is disappointed to find that the baby persists in growing up, and will not join him in ceasing to grow at the age of three.

During the war, Oskar joins a troupe of performing dwarf who entertain the German troops at the front line. But when his second love, the diminutive Roswitha, is killed by Allied troops in the invasion of Normandymarker, Oskar returns to his family in Danzig where he becomes the leader of a criminal youth gang. The Russian army soon captures Danzig, and Alfred is shot by invading troops after he goes into seizures while swallowing his party pin to avoid being revealed as a Nazi.

Oskar moves with his widowed stepmother and their son to Düsseldorfmarker, where he models in the nude with Ulla and works engraving tombstones. He falls in love with the saintly Sister Dorothea, a neighbor, but fails to seduce her. Still devoted to his little tin drum, Oskar becomes a virtuoso jazz drummer and achieves fame and riches. One day while walking through a field he finds a severed finger: the ring finger of Sister Dorothea, who has been murdered. He then meets and befriends Vittlar. Oskar allows himself to be falsely convicted of the murder and is confined to an insane asylum, where he writes his memoirs.

Main characters

The novel is divided into three 'books'. The main characters in each book are:

Book One:
  • Oskar Matzerath - Writes his memoirs from 1952 to 1954, age 28 to 30.
  • Bruno Mnsterberg - Oskar's keeper, who watches him through a peep hole.
  • Anna Koljaiczek Bronski - Oskar's grandmother, conceives Oscar's mother in 1899, which is when his memoir begins.
  • Joseph Koljaiczek - Oskar's grandfather.
  • Agnes Koljaiczek - Oskar's mother.
  • Jan Bronski - Agnes' cousin and lover. Possibly Oskar's father. Politically sides with the Poles.
  • Alfred Matzerath - Agnes' husband. Possibly Oskar's father. Politically sides with the Nazi Party.
  • Sigismund Markus - A Jewish toy store owner who dies the night of Kristallnacht.

Book Two:
  • Maria Truczinski - Girl hired by Alfred to help run his store after Agnes dies, whom Oskar has his first sexual experience with. She becomes pregnant and marries Alfred, but both Alfred and Oskar believe that they are Maria's child's father.
  • Bebra - Runs the theatrical troupe of dwarfs which Oskar joins to escape Danzig.
  • Roswitha Raguna - Bebra's mistress, then Oskar's.
  • "The Dusters" - Danzig street children gang, which Oskar joins, then leads, after Roswitha's death.

Book Three:
  • Dorothea - A nurse from Düsseldorfmarker and Oskar's love after Maria rejects him.


Oskar Matzerath is an unreliable narrator, as his sanity, or insanity, never becomes clear. He tells the tale in first person, though he occasionally diverts to third person, sometimes within the same sentence. He is known to contradict himself within his autobiography, as with his varying accounts of the Defense of the Polish Post Office.

The novel is strongly political in nature, although it goes beyond a political novel in its style. There are elements of allegory, myth and legend.

The Tin Drum has religious overtones, both Jewish and Christian. Oskar holds conversations with both Jesus and Satan throughout the book. His gang members call him 'Jesus', then he refers to himself and his penis as 'Satan' later in the book.

Major themes

Art vs. war

World War II is compared with Oskar's art and music. The implied statement is that art has the ability to defeat war and hatred. Oskar escapes fighting through his musical talent. In chapter nine: The Rostrum, Oskar manages to disrupt the Nazi rally by playing his drums. Oskar plays a rhythm which is more complex and sensual than the march step of the rally. Despite his disruption of the activities of the Nazi party, the power of his music remains ambiguous. It seems that the music of the drum is disruptive and not a moral force aligned against the Nazis. This is especially evident in another component of Oskar's music, his voice. As a substitution for singing, Oskar's voice is a terrible scream which exerts incredible power. Oskar's voice has the power to break glass, which he uses as the leader of a gang of criminals to rob stores by breaking their front windows. Grass's magical poetic imagery subtly aligns with political/ cultural events and the reader realizes that Oskar is somehow an embodiment of Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass which signaled the unmasked aggression of the Nazi Party. Ultimately Oskar remains a complex, magically symbolic character, embodying the wish to dismantle the emergent Nazi party as well as the violence of the party. Grass beautifully elucidates the paradoxes of post war German consciousness.

Horrors of the Nazi regime

The Tin Drum covers the period from the 1920s through the 1950s and ranges from Danzigmarker to Cologne, Parismarker and Normandy. Grass describes the actions of the Nazi regime from Kristallnacht to the execution of the survivors of the Polish Post Officemarker.

Critical reception

Initial reaction to the Tin Drum was mixed. It was called blasphemous and pornographic by some and legal action was taken against it and Grass. However, by 1965 sentiment had cemented into public acceptance and it soon became recognized as a classic of post-World War II literature both in Germany and around the world.


A translation into English by Ralph Manheim was published in 1961.A new 50th anniversary translation into English by Breon Mitchell was published in 2009.A translation into Arabic by Mwafaq Al-Mashnoq ,(موفق المشنوق) was published in 1999.



In 1978 a film adaptation was made by Volker Schlöndorff. It shared the 1979 Cannes Film Festivalmarker Palme d'Or with Apocalypse Now. It also won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film of 1979 at the 1980 Academy Awards.


In 1996 a radio dramatisation starring Phil Daniels was broadcast by BBC Radio 4. Adapted by Mike Walker, it won the British Writers Guild award for best dramatisation.

See also


  1. Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Christopher Giroux and Brigham Narins. Vol. 88. Detroit: Gale Research, 1995. p19-40. From Literature Resource Center.

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