Study Guide

The Tin Drum Isolation

By Günter Grass

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My white enameled metal hospital bed thus sets a standard. To me it is more; my bed is a goal I've reached, it is my consolation, and could easily become my faith if the administration would allow me to make a few changes: I'd like to have the bed rails raised even higher to keep anyone from coming too close (1.4).

Right away, Oskar lets us know what he's after in the hospital: isolation and protection from others.

[H]e behind his peephole, I in front of it; and that when he opens the door, the two of us, for all our friendship and loneliness, are still far from being some nameless mass devoid of heroes (1.12).

Early in the book, Oskar meditates on his relationship with his caretaker Bruno. He admits that both he and Bruno are friends in a way, but also lonely. Grass represents this sense of isolation by the way that Bruno usually looks at Oskar through a peephole instead of coming into the room. This is how Oskar relates to people his whole life—more of an observer than a participant.

Lonely and misunderstood, Oskar lay beneath the light bulbs, concluded that things would go on that way for sixty or seventy years […] and so lost his enthusiasm before this life beneath light bulbs even began; and only the prospect of a tin drum back then kept me from expressing more forcefully my desire to return to my embryonic head-first position.

Besides, the midwife had already cut my umbilical cord; there was nothing more to be done (2.38-9).

This is just the beginning of Oskar's lifelong wish to return to the womb, i.e. a safe and protected place. It's why he likes the asylum—no demands, all your needs met, not having to deal with other people's expectations of you. Good thing he can afford a private room.

In addition to all this speculation about my future, I realized the following: Mama and this father Matzerath had no ear at all for my protests and decisions, and would neither understand nor in the end respect them (3.40).

Here's Oskar's realization of the great emotional distance between him and his parents. Just as he can be self-absorbed, they're too wrapped up in their own problems.

Fraulein Dr. Hornstetter […] steadfastly maintains that I was too isolated as a child, that I didn't play enough with other children.

Now, as far as other children are concerned, she may not be entirely wrong. […] But every time I shunned books, as scholars sometime do, […] and tried to make contact with the common folk, I ran up against the kids in our building and felt fortunate, after a few brushes with those little cannibals, to return to my reading in one piece (8.1-2).

Two possible stories here. Pick one. A: Oskar's too smart and too busy to stoop to the level of the common bratty kids in his building. B: Oskar fears and avoids other kids because they tease him and beat the crap out of him.

The gap left in the center of the wardrobe was not large, but it was big enough to accommodate an incoming and crouching Oskar. I even managed with some effort to pull the mirrored doors inward and, using the overlapping slat, to jam them with the help of a shawl (12.36).

Hiding in his parents' wardrobe—perfectly safe and cozy, right? It also gives him a place to secretly observe the behavior of his family, kind of like the peephole in his room at the asylum. He does the same thing later in the novel in Dorothea's room.

What could these people in the living room have to offer me? (12.40)

In this instance, Oskar asks us one of his many rhetorical questions, since his answer seems to be, "Nothing." Oskar's obsessed with proving to us that he doesn't need anybody, justifying his efforts to distance himself from others.

Once upon a time there was a tin-drummer named Oskar. When they took away his toy merchant and destroyed the merchant's shop, he sensed that bad times were ahead for midget tin-drummers like him (16.24).

On the night of Kristallnacht, Oskar realizes he's living in a world that isn't going to be very kind to "different" people like him. You can imagine that the poor guy feels pretty alone and vulnerable. And he's right. The Nazis try to convince Alfred to put him into an institution, where "defective" people are eliminated.

Oskar was alone, betrayed and sold out. How could he preserve his three-year-old face over time when he lacked the most basic necessity, his drum? (17.16)

Oskar's drum is his way of avoiding emotional connection—he can pretend to be a child. Without his drum, he truly feels alone and exposed. But rather than trying to engage with people, he decides that his best option moving forward is just to find a new drum.

The moment Oskar saw [his grandmother] he wished, in eager emulation of his grandfather Koljaiczek, to dive beneath her and, if possible, never draw another breath outside her sheltered lee (17.22).

Oskar's desire to isolate himself from the outside world seems to express itself most clearly when he talks about wanting to dive beneath his grandmother's skirts and never come back out. After all, these are the same skirts that once hid a grown man from the police, and Oskar associates them with safety and peace.

When I tried to tell the stories to Bruno at breakfast, I couldn't rid myself of them because I had forgotten them all; Oskar has no talent for dreaming (33.1).

Even in this instance, when he decides to try opening up to his caretaker, Oskar finds it impossible to communicate his deepest feelings to another person.

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