Study Guide

The Tin Drum The Tin Drum

By Günter Grass

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The Tin Drum

Wherever little Oskar Matzerath goes, you can bet his tin drum's going with him. Oskar even seems to make his tin drum into a part of his body, wearing it underneath his clothing at many points in the novel. Oskar's promised the drum on his third birthday and when he gets it, drums obsessively for the next seventeen years. His drumming has a hypnotic quality that can transport him and other people into other states of mind. He's definitely what you'd call a "different drummer." (Thanks, Thoreau.)

As the central motif in the novel, Oskar's drum has huge symbolic value. The problem is that it can represent so many different things:

  • Memory
  • Forgetting
  • Protest
  • Protection
  • Regression to childhood
  • The Past
  • The Future
  • Control
  • War
  • Art
  • Money

Quite a lot for one toy drum to carry, right? And here's the kicker: Günter Grass has said that he didn't intend the drum to be symbolic at all. (Source) It was just a drum, he said, a toy, something that happened to be important to Oskar to be defended at all costs. It was his means of protest; kids like to bang on things and make noise, etc, etc. Grass said he thought of drums because they were a constant background of his childhood; the Nazis were forever having marches and parades and beating their drums. Sorry, Mr. Grass, but that sounds a bit disingenuous. The drum sounds symbolic to us. You're just the author.

Symbol or no, Oskar first uses his drum as a protest against growing up and becoming part of the corrupt and ridiculous world inhabited by the adults in his life. He "drums out" the sights and sounds of this world; it's his protection against what's going on around him. He also uses it as an artist might paint what he sees—each place or event has its own rhythm for Oskar. And it's pretty powerful. He manages to disrupt a Nazi rally by hiding underneath the grandstand, playing his drum, and making the parade drummers change their rhythm from a march to a dance.

After his father dies, Oskar decides he has to grow up, and throws his drum into his father's grave since he associates it with childhood. Later in life, when he wants to recall the events of his childhood, he uses it again to "drum up" his memories of all those places and times. When he joins the jazz band, he finds that he can even use the drum to make other people remember their childhood memories.

Oskar's drum has magical powers as well. In addition to turning adults into crying, pants-wetting children, it can conjure things up. He can use it to project what might happen in the future. The drum brings a statue of Jesus to life. (He's not a bad drummer, BTW.) Towards the end of the book, the magic and military symbolism combine when Oskar drums up an entire Polish cavalry to save a man about to be executed by former Nazi soldiers.

It's hard not to think about the "drumbeats" of the approaching War throughout the book. Oskar watches with interest as the drummers in the Nazi parade pass by, but he's able to drum a different song and completely disrupt the parade by magically making the band play dance music instead of marches. With his little drum, Oskar's in control.

If Oskar's drum starts out as a childish protest, it later becomes an expression of his art. And eventually it becomes a way to make money.

So to sum up, we could say that the drum's a symbol of childhood revolt against a corrupt adult world. The world of childhood is filled with magical thinking and daydreams. Very small children always believe they control the world and are the center of the universe. Psychologists call this "infantile omnipotence." And unfortunately, some people never outgrow it. (You probably know a few of them.) Ultimately, growing up means realizing you're not the center of the universe, and some people take the news better than others. For Oskar to grow up, he needs to ditch the drum. To relive the past, he needs to get it back.

The Tin Drum The Tin Drum Study Group

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