Study Guide

The Tin Drum Manipulation

By Günter Grass

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Let me say at once: I was one of those clairaudient infants whose mental development is complete at birth and thereafter simply confirmed (3.32).

It's obvious from the beginning that Oskar is a bit of a liar. After all, does he really expect us to believe that he can accurately remember the moment of his birth? This claim suggests that Oskar is very uncomfortable with the idea of not feeling in control of a situation. Instead, he claims to have total knowledge of everything, and sometimes speaks of himself in the third person to reinforce this sense of being in control.

And those who were not yet dancing on the Maiwese grabbed the last available ladies before it was too late. But Lobsack had to dance with his hump, because anything wearing a skirt nearby was already occupied (9.52).

Early in the book, Oskar tells the story of how he used his drumming to make a Nazi marching band start playing dance music. He's quick to remind us that he didn't have political motives. He just liked the feeling of controlling the band. In other words, he was in it for himself; it wasn't a political protest.

For a long time, till November of thirty-eight to be exact, crouching under grandstands with my drum, with greater or lesser success I broke up rallies, reduced speakers to stutters, and turned marches and hymns into waltzes and foxtrots (10.1).

Here again, Oskar brags about the things he was able to achieve with his drum when he was a younger man. To be fair, he risked a lot by doing this. Still, Oskar reminds us again that he didn't drum out of anti-Nazi sentiment, but because he liked the feeling of being in charge.

"We have to be on the stage, in the arena. We have to perform and direct the action, otherwise our kind will be manipulated by those who do. And they'll all too happily pull a fast one on us." (9.24)

In his first meeting with the little clown named Bebra, Oskar first learns the valuable lesson that he must manipulate other people before they have a chance to do the same thing to him. For Bebra, this is a matter of pure survival, and one of the best ways to manipulate people is to be a performer. This conversation is what inspires Oskar to hide under grandstands and manipulate the Nazi marching bands.

[…] toward theft: for with my most silent of screams I cut a circular section from the shop window at the lowest level of the display opposite the desired object, and with a last lift of my voice pushed the glass disk into the interior of the display case, so that a quickly muffled tinkle, which was not however the tinkle of breaking glass, was heard (10.16).

Oskar's love for manipulating people doesn't end with marching bands. He gets a much more demonic enjoyment from tempting people to commit theft. In his own words, he likes to teach people not to be hypocritical, since many of the people who end up stealing from shop windows are the very same people who would talk about the immorality of stealing in their daily lives. His plan usually succeeds.

I saw Jan Bronski cross higher up the street on the right from where I was posted, pass the jewelry store without glancing up, then hesitate, or better yet pull up, as if in response to a challenge; he turned, or was turned—and there Jan stood, before the shop window, among the hushed maples laden in white (10.30).

Of all the people Oskar tempts with his glass cutting, the most important one is his uncle Jan because he tempts Jan with stealing a necklace that Jan could give to Oskar's mother, Agnes. Jan is a shy, careful person, and he would probably never steal something for himself. In this scenario, Oskar uses what he knows about Jan to nudge him towards stealing.

I didn't even try to pull the drum down from the rack on my own. Oskar was well aware of his limited reach, and in cases where his gnome-like stature resulted in helplessness, took the liberty of soliciting favors from grownups (18.30).

Oskar is destined to always rely on other people to help him get new drums. This is one of the things that keeps him in the limited relationships he does have. People are only valuable to him in terms of how he can use them for his own purposes.

[…] Oskar […] put on a show of pathetic weeping, and pointed at Jan, his father, with accusatory gestures, transforming the poor man into a villain who had dragged an innocent child to the Polish Post Office in typically barbaric Polish fashion to use as a human shield. […] Oskar hoped his Judas performance would produce certain benefits vis-à-vis his intact drum and his damaged one, and he was right […] (20.2-3).

Can it get any clearer than this? The lengths Oskar will go to in order to get what he wants are terrifying—he betrays his own father to certain death just to get his drums. Sounds very much like an addict's behavior.

Nevertheless she assumed it was the devil's giggle, but that little word devil was not to my liking, and when she asked again, but now quite timorously, "Who are you?" Oskar replied, "I am Satan, come to call on Sister Dorothea." And she: "Oh God, but why?" (41.21)

All through this book, Oskar likes to refer to himself as both Satan and as Jesus. The simplest explanation for this is that both satisfy his sense of self-importance. He seems to enjoy terrifying Sister Dorothea.

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