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Oskar describes his mother as like her father—she needed to hide, and as a child was always sensitive, fearful and seeking security under her mother's skirts. After her father's (presumed) death, Agnes's mother marries her father's brother and they live a life of poverty. Agnes proves to be a big help in the small basement shop her mother runs and shows an early flair for business.
My mama, a plump fifteen-year-old girl back then, made herself useful, helped in the shop, pasted in food stamps, delivered groceries on Saturday, and wrote clumsy but imaginative reminders meant to bring in cash from customers who bought on credit. (2.15)
At seventeen, she falls in love with her cousin, Jan Bronski, who shares their small apartment.
Despite her love for Jan, she decides to marry Alfred Matzerath for what seem to be practical reasons. The two of them don't always get along, and Agnes continues her affair with Jan. Jan is really the more soulful and emo of her two lovers, and in this sense he gives Agnes what Alfred doesn't.
When her son Oskar is born, her husband's first thought is that Oskar will grow up to take over the store. Agnes's first thought, on the other hand, is:
"When little Oskar is three years old, we'll give him a tin drum." (3.35)
Agnes is a loving and protective mother. She coddles Oskar and never stops blaming Alfred for the fall down the stairs that she believes made Oskar stop growing. Oskar's not an easy child with all his drumming and screaming, but she's devoted to him and keeps him well-supplied with drums. She realizes early on that Oskar can't be controlled.
Neither Matzerath nor Mama worried about my education over the next few months. That one attempt to enroll me, so stressful and embarrassing for Mama, had been enough for them. (7.6)
Despite being a level-headed person, according to Oskar, Agnes is a very sensual person. She's a charmer:
Mama, who had inherited her full, firm, stately figure from Grandmother Koljaiczek, as well as a charming vanity coupled with good nature, submitted to the attentions of Sigismund Markus all the more willingly because of the dirt-cheap assortment of sewing silk and ladies' stockings, purchased in bulk but nonetheless flawless, that he practically gave to her. (8.15)
Agnes is torn between her husband and her sensitive soul-mate lover Jan. This triangulated love affair is obvious to Oskar (and others) and is a strain on his mother. She meets Jan every week for a quick sexual encounter, leaving Oskar at the toy store with Mr. Markus. One day, Agnes has a traumatic experience at the beach that brings the conflict to a head. While she, Jan, Alfred, and Oskar are walking along, they see a man fishing for eels using a dead horse's head for bait. The scene makes Agnes violently ill. That night, Alfred makes eels for dinner, but Jan's the one to comfort Agnes. Soon after, she develops an obsession with eating fish, which eventually poisons her.
We find out that she's three months pregnant when she dies—we don't know if the father is Alfred or Jan. The whole eel-as-phallic-symbol thing makes us think that Agnes slowly killed herself because she couldn't handle the love triangle. Oskar says at one point that his drumming drove her to her grave, but he doesn't really believe it.