Study Guide

Oskar Matzerath in The Tin Drum

By Günter Grass

Oskar Matzerath

Where to begin with this complicated character? Well, let's begin with his creator. Günter Grass wanted to write a novel that would confront postwar German society with the memories of the Nazi era. He wondered about what perspective to use in telling this story, and decided on the perspective of a child, who would not have been involved in the events of the time but would have seen them from a distance. But since a child couldn't really tell the story, he needed this child to be an adult on the inside. So, voila—Oskar Matzerath.

Newborn Oskar has the mind of an adult. He takes one look at the world and immediately decides he doesn't like it. He'd like to go back to the womb, but his umbilical cord's been cut, so that's not an option. But he hears his mother promise her baby a toy tin drum on his third birthday and he decides to stick around to get it. Once he gets the drum, he decides to stop growing to avoid getting caught up in the crazy world of adults. He stays the size of a three-year-old for the next seventeen years.

Throughout it all, he plays obsessively on this tin drum as some of the most horrific events of the 20th century swirl around him. He lies, cheats, steals, and betrays his way through life, not paying much attention to the suffering all around him. He's a master manipulator and sex fanatic. He loses his family, survives the war, flees to Germany and becomes rich and famous. But he's lonely and tired of life—it's all too complicated. So he confesses to a murder and claims to be Jesus, to insure he'll be sent to a mental hospital. From the hospital bed, he writes his life story. It's quite a ride.

Oh, Baby

Oskar's birth was miraculous, and he never ceases to remind us how this set him on a life course different from anyone else's.

Let me say at once that I was one of those clairaudient infants whose mental development is complete at birth and thereafter simply confirmed. As impervious to influence as I had been as an embryo, listening only to myself […] Still more: what my ear took in, my tiniest of brains immediately evaluated, so I decided, after devoting sufficient thought to all I had heard, to do certain things and most certainly not to do others. (2.32)

You know, one of those clairaudient infants. We've all met one.

Oscar hears his father predicting his future as a shopkeeper in the family store, but his mother promises him a tin drum when he turns three:

Outwardly screaming and impersonating a reddish blue baby, I reached a decision: I would reject my father's suggestion […] point blank, but when the proper time came, […] I would give favorable consideration to my mother's wish. (2.38)

Oskar warns us that nobody is going to make him do anything he doesn't want to do, and he keeps that promise.

I Won't Grow Up

Remember that song from Peter Pan:

I won't grow up.
I don't wanna go to school,
Just to learn to be a parrot
And obey a silly rule.

Well, that's Oskar's personal anthem. He gets his drum, and at that moment decides that:

so as not to have to rattle a cash register, I stuck to my drum and didn't grow a hair's breadth from my third birthday on, remained the three-year-old, who, three times as smart, was towered over by grownups, yet stood head and shoulders above them all. (4.36)

He doesn't let on, though. He looks like a child, a mentally challenged child, at that. Pretending to be a child is a pretty sweet deal: no responsibility, no expectations, plus he gets to eavesdrop on his family and friends' sexual frolics. He spends a lot of time under the table listening, listening. Just a little boy playing his drum. Right. He even manages to get quite a bit of sex as a teenager, all the while women think he's an innocent little boy who doesn't really know what he's doing.

He sees his drum as crucial to fooling people about who he really is:

How could he preserve his three-year-old face over time when he lacked the most basic necessity, his drum? All the deceptions I'd attempted over the years—my occasional bed-wetting, the babbling of childish prayers each evening, my fear of Santa Claus […] all the rubbish grownups expected of me, I now had to handle without my drum […]. (17.16)

Once Oskar's second father dies, he decides at that moment—he's almost twenty-one—that it's time to start growing again. Immediately his bones start growing. And talk about growing pains: he gets very, very sick and never really stops aching. Growing up hurts, literally. Not only that, he doesn't just get taller, he grows outward and develops a serious hump; he looks stranger than ever. It's tempting to conclude that all the terrible things he did as a younger person permanently warped his development.

The Drummer

Oskar drums constantly, which, as you know if you've ever had a sibling take drum lessons, can drive the non-drummer crazy. Natch, his parents try to take the drum away, which only makes Oskar realize another unusual ability—his screams can shatter glass.

I was able to singshatter glass; my scream slew flower vases; my song caused widows to crumple to their knees and let drafts rule; my vice sliced open display cases like a chaste and therefore merciless diamond […]. (5.11)

In other words, shut up and let the boy have his drum.

Once Oskar becomes aware of his singshattering talent, he's impossible to control. Anyone who tries to separate him from his drum pays the price. When his doctor makes that mistake, he destroys the specimen jars in his doctor's office (ewww). He's already got a rep by the time he's tested for kindergarten.

Through the series of examinations, through all the tests I knew so well, I remained calm, indifferent or even positive, as long as no one tried to take away my drum. The destruction of Hollatz's snakes, toads, and embryos was still present in the minds of all who examined and tested me, inspiring respect and fear. (6.15)

After those episodes, no one messes with him. Unfortunately, his new teacher doesn't know him, so when she suggests he give his drum a rest, he "looked right through her" and inflicted a small scratch on her glasses. Still clueless, she comes after him and ends up with her eyeglasses pulverized. You can see how Oskar usually has the upper hand.

Oskar plays so hard and so long that he can go through a drum in a week. His mother makes sure he has a steady supply of drums from a toy store in town. When the store's destroyed during Kristallnacht and its Jewish owner kills himself, Oskar is desperate. From that moment, getting drums becomes an obsession, because without them, he's completely defenseless. He'll stop at nothing to get his drums, even betraying his father Jan to the Nazis.

The Genius

Oskar never lets us forget that he's more gifted and intelligent than almost everyone else, certainly more than his friends and family. 

Even on the first day of kindergarten:

I had already begun to imagine that my drum was teaching my fellow pupils, educating them, turning them into my pupils […]. (3.31)

He eventually refuses be kept in school without his drum, so he teaches himself how to read by reading books about Goethe and Rasputin that he steals from a neighbor. Yeah, not Dick and Jane, but Goethe and Rasputin. We didn't get to them until at least third grade…

As he gets older, this superiority becomes grandiosity and he develops a condescending attitude towards everyone, along with some borderline delusional ideas about himself and his good pal Jesus. At one point, he climbs onto a statue of the Virgin Mary after replacing the Baby Jesus in a church, and has his gang, the Dusters, worship him.

I was particularly pleased with my performance during the Hallelujah. During the Credo I could see that the boys believed in me […]. (30.40)

We have to admit that Oskar's a pretty smart guy. His descriptions of people are insightful and hilarious. He's so ridiculously well-read in history, literature, and philosophy that he could work for Shmoop.

If you've ever wondered what Oskar would be like with his supernatural genius but minus the evil, wonder no more. John Irving used Oskar as an inspiration for Owen Meany (O.M., get it?) in his novel A Prayer for Owen Meany, which Irving has described as a tribute to his friend Günter Grass. Owen also has seriously stunted growth, questionable paternity, a dead mother figure, a screechy voice, a talent for stonecutting, and supernatural gifts. They both play Baby Jesus in a Christmas play. He's Oskar's angelic twin—he saves people rather than kills them. Anyway, we recommend you read this novel the second you're finished with your Tin Drum essay. And after that, check out Oskar Schell, the precocious, slightly weird nine-year-old protagonist of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, another novel about trauma and memory. Our Oskar does get the disciples he wants.

The Artist

Oskar uses both his talents—drumming and singshattering—throughout his life. He develops more subtle skills as he gets older; he can modulate his drumming to fit the mood of the moment, and he can shatter glass from long distances at an inaudible pitch. Eventually, he gets some high-paying gigs because of these abilities, first as a circus performer (singshattering) and later as a world-renowned jazz drummer who hypnotizes audiences with his playing. That's a kind of growing up for Oskar. First he bangs on a toy drum; then he uses it to make music; then it becomes a career. Oskar kind of sees his entire life as a work of art, and all his manipulation is just his artistic mastery.

Here's how he describes his shattering the windows of the theater in Danzig:

Like a modern painter who, having at last found the style he's been seeking for years, […] I proceeded to put on a show. (8.32)

From this point on, Oskar refers to his glass-shattering as an aesthetic choice. (We doubt if the people around him would agree.) He can appreciate the artistic efforts of his caretaker, Bruno, who turns Oskar's stories into plaster sculptures:

Whether he's an artist remains to be seen. But an exhibition of his works would be well received by the press, and would entice a few buyers, too. (1.2)

After losing his stonecutter's job because of the bad economy, Oskar's approached about becoming a model for a college art class.

Why did Oskar say yes? Was it the lure of art? Was it the lure of cash? Art and cash both lured me, made Oskar say yes. (37.6)

But he seems to ridicule the pretentious art professor.

Yet another brief lecture from the charcoal-dust-snorting professor: he asked for expression, seemed in love with the word, demanded expression, pitch-black and desperate, saw in Oskar the shattered image of humanity, an accusation, a challenge, a timeless expression of the madness of our century […]. (37.9)

After the war, he revisits Normandy with Corporal Lankes, who as a German soldier ornamented the ugly concrete bunkers that hid the German guns used to attack the allied forces. Later, Lankes paints pictures of the nuns he gunned down on the beach. Oskar sees how Lankes tries to transform articles of war into works of art. This gives Oskar inspiration.

[…] for Lankes' art was not alone in crying out for bread, my art did too: the time had come, by means of my drum, to transmute the prewar and wartime experience of Oskar, the three-year-old drummer, into the pure ringing gold of the postwar period. (43.117)

And he succeeds. With the help of Bebra, who's now a famous concert promoter, Oskar tours and makes records, becoming pretty wealthy in the process. At some level, though, he feels he's selling out, and withdraws from his career. Is Grass making a statement hear about how commercialism destroys art?

The Sociopath

Okay, so Oskar gets people to leave him alone using his personal WMD. He's already got a pretty contemptuous attitude towards the rest of the world, and his singshattering only makes that worse. Morality never seems to enter the picture. He embarks on a life of petty crime, blasting shop windows and having his friends steal what they like. He even has a little experiment going, where he sings a small hole in a window, and sees if the passers-by take the opportunity to steal. He manipulates his gang of hoodlums and manages to let them take the fall for all their vandalism.

As a child and young teenager, we hardly ever see Oskar show emotion. Granted, he does have some regrets after the deaths of his mother and father, but usually he's more concerned about his own needs and safety to bother thinking about anyone else. Remember, his major motivation in life is to keep his supply of drums coming, and that takes precedence over everyone and everything else. Turn his own father over to the German army? Sure, if it means they won't take his drum away. And when Sigismund Markus kills himself rather than face certain destruction by the Germans? Oskar grabs all the drums in the toy store and runs off.

Oskar even tries to kill the unborn son that he believes is his. He's so jealous that Alfred will be assumed to be the father that he tries to get the pregnant Maria to abort the baby by knocking her off a ladder. When that fails, he tries to stab her in the belly.

When he gets older, he expresses regret for some of the things he's done, but it's hard to tell whether he feels it or just knows that he should feel it. He's smart enough to know what normal people should feel. He misses his mother and Jan, and even Alfred, but that doesn't mean he would have done anything differently. Once his father Alfred dies, Oskar decides it's time to start growing again. Does this mean he'll grow up emotionally? Learn some empathy?

Not really. He's not as cruel as he was as a youngster, but he's still looking out for himself and taking what he can. And once this all stops working for him, he checks out of life and into a mental hospital where he can once again put the burden on everyone else to take care of him.

Who's Your Daddy?

No one ever asked Oskar about his parentage, but Oskar's given it a lot of thought. It's a tossup between his mother's husband Alfred, and his Uncle Jan Bronski, his mother's true love and secret lover. He's not really attached to either of them (he's closer to his doting mother) but he tends to think it's Jan because Jan has a more poetic soul and the same blazing blue eyes as Oskar. He never refers to either of them as "Papa."

There's a major Oedipal thing playing out here. Oskar's got two rivals for his mother's attention. In one way of another, Oskar leads to the deaths of both his "presumptive" fathers. After his toy store's destroyed, he asks Jan to take him to the Polish Post Office, where there's a guy who knows how to repair drums. Jan knows the Nazis are about to launch an attack on the place but he goes anyway.

When the Post Office is destroyed and Jan's captured, Oskar saves himself by turning on Jan, pretending to just be a scared little toddler and "transforming the poor [Jan] into a villain who had dragged an innocent child to the Polish Post Office […] to use as a human shield" (20.2). He later calls this his "Judas performance" (20.3). Jan's executed along with his co-workers. Oskar shows little emotion, but we know that he feels a little guilt:

I can never silence that inner voice, be it ever so plaintive: It was my drum, no, it was myself, Oskar the drummer, who sent first my poor mama, then Jan Bronski, my uncle and father, to the grave. (20.7)

Then there's Oskar's other father, Alfred Matzerath. Oskar's never felt close to him, and he's surprised at how warmly Alfred welcomes him when he gets back from his year with Bebra's troupe.

[…] for Matzerath opened the door and welcomed me like a father, and not just a presumptive one. Yes, he showed such joy at Oskar's homecoming, shedding genuine, wordless tears, that from that day forth I no longer called myself exclusively Oskar Bronski but Oskar Matzerath. (28.4)

But this momentary sentimental affection evidently doesn't last. When Russian forces overtake the city of Danzig, Alfred tries to get rid of a Nazi party pin that'll surely get him shot if the Russians find it. Oskar holds the pin behind his back, but while the Russians are searching the house, he presses it into his father's hand, basically signing the guy's death warrant. Alfred tries to swallow the pin, but it gets stuck in his windpipe and he starts choking. The Russian soldiers, not impressed with the performance, decide to put the guy out of his misery with their tommy guns. In this case, Oskar's tone seems colder than ever, as he claims:

Now you might say I shouldn't have [handed him the pin]. But you might also say that Matzerath didn't have to reach out for it. (31.4)

Oskar symbolically tosses his beloved tin drum into his father's grave at Alfred's funeral and decides it's time to grow. He can never again be burdened with Alfred's expectations for him and he feels freed up. Instead of growing normally, though, Oskar grows a twisted hump, which might represent the moral ugliness of what he's done to kill off both his fathers.

Oskar's not the only one with a confused paternity. When Maria gets pregnant, Oskar's sure he's the father, but the boy, Kurt, is raised as Alfred's son. You know that expression, "What goes around comes around?" Well, Oskar meets his match in little Kurt. Oskar imagines the close relationship he and Kurt will have:

What a life lay before us! Drumming away beside each other […]. (28.14)

But when he presents Kurt with a tin drum on his third birthday, hoping to stop his growth, Kurt destroys it in two minutes and beats up Oskar with the drumsticks. So there goes the dream. There's a role reversal when, after arriving in Germany, Oskar has to depend on his son financially. He's mortified.

So the father was reduced to shamefaced silence, and with a decent allowance provided by little Kurt's childish benevolence, absented himself from the apartment in Bilk as often as possible, so as not to confront his disgrace. (45.12)

Oskar's relieved when he finds work engraving gravestones and can support Maria and little Kurt. Kurt turns out not to have inherited Oskar's artistic inclinations—he becomes a shopkeeper like Maria and Alfred, a darn good one, too.

The Lover

Oskar's first real love seems to be for a nurse at his family doctor's office named Alice. The thing he loves most about her is her professionalism and her clean white outfit. Oskar develops a kind of fetish about nurses in uniforms after spending so much time in hospitals. This eventually proves to be his undoing.

Even though Oskar looks three years old, his libido develops normally. All the sex he was exposed to in his family home gets him pretty interested in the whole subject. And his first experience comes with his babysitter Maria. Maria seems to keep forgetting that Oskar is right around the same age as her. But because he's only three-feet tall, she treats him like an infant, stripping his clothes off, washing him regularly, and undressing herself in front of him without any concern. Oskar eventually takes advantage of this situation to have sex with Maria and (in his mind) impregnate her. Oskar's very fuzzy on how consensual their sex is, though, making the insane claim that Maria was "asleep above and awake below" during sex.

His next conquest is with his neighbor, Lina Scheff, whose husband is probably homosexual and isn't interested in Frau Greff. Oskar crawls under the covers with her almost every day and learns all the sexual techniques he can. There's a real creepiness in most of Oskar's exploits. As a young teenager he's preoccupied with sex. Even when he develops his hump, he continues to have success with women, some of whom are turned on by it.

Oskar has a lot of very casual sex after he begins to grow and stops pretending to be a child. He knows a lot more about sex than about love:

[…] I gave up Wedig's Lowenburg dance hall and broke off all connections with the girls from the telephone exchange, whose primary merit had been the quick and satisfying connections they offered. (36.42)

Even though Oskar gets tons of sex throughout his life, he's left with no lasting relationships.

Lonely at The Top

One downside to being better than everyone else is that you don't have any peers. Oskar feels his specialness sets him apart from the "rabble," and as a kid, he has no close friends. Even when he becomes the leader of a gang, he more or less stays in the background and directs their actions from a distance. His philosophical and artistic temperament seems to make him observe, rather than relate to, other people.

He loses his closest family and his lover Roswitha by the time he's twenty-one. Maria refuses to marry him. He wanders through his adult life socializing but never really connecting. His son doesn't acknowledge him as a father. In the end, he's a patient in a mental hospital, living as a dependent child and barely tolerating his visitors. He just wants to be left alone. We're left to wonder if Oskar longs for deeper connections but just can't handle them.

The Madman

So yes, Oskar's a pretty complex guy. But is he crazy? Let's add up the evidence for and against:

Yes:

  • He thinks he's a three-year-old.
  • He has religious delusions. 
  • He thinks he has superpowers.
  • He hallucinates.

Not so much:

  • His thinking isn't disorganized—he's hyper-rational, in fact.
  • He's good at getting people to so what he wants.
  • You can't believe anything he says about himself, anyway.

Since Oskar's in control of his own narrative, it's hard to make an objective evaluation of his mental state. He may just be spinning a fantastical story. But whether he's officially mad or not, he's definitely got serious emotional problems. You can't really blame him—he's lived through some pretty horrific stuff.