Study Guide

The Tin Drum Mortality

By Günter Grass

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It is said that he found a chink between the logs under the raft, just big enough to keep his respiratory organs above water (2.40).

There are several versions of what happened to Oskar's grandfather after he dove under a raft while running from police. This happens to be one of the versions where Joe gets away. When you don't have a body to bury, it invites all kind of speculation about whether or not a person has died. You can see how this might be a confusing story to a child who's trying to understand death.

[A] passion that I found, both then and now, quite understandable, but could not name, because the small word red says nothing, and nosebleeds do nothing, and banners fade, and if in spite of all I still say red, red won't have me, turns its coat: back to black, the Cook is coming, scares me yellow (12.38).

In a rare moment, Oskar admits to feeling very afraid. And the thing that makes him so afraid is none other than the Black Cook herself, whom we've learned to recognize by this point as an omen of death.

[…] a face devastated by pain and nausea […] Even though she tried to please her visitors, just as I take pains to seem happy when my friends arrive on Visitors Day, she still couldn't prevent the occasional bouts of retching that repeatedly racked her slowly succumbing body, though it could come up with nothing more by the fourth day of that difficult death than the last gasp we all must expel to gain our death certificate (13.8-9).

Oskar's mother died a terrible death, and you can imagine what it must have been like for him to have to watch it up close. He says he was relieved when she stopped retching and died, because she looked beautiful and peaceful. He also believed that this was a suicide, because his mother was pregnant and couldn't deal with the consequences of her love triangle.

During the interminable ceremony I couldn't shake the feeling: her head is going to bob up, she'll have to vomit again, something inside her still wants out (13.14).

Even though Oskar's describing his reaction in an articulate way, you can still read this as a child's fear—that a dead person's suddenly going to sit up. In this case, it's a horrible and sickening thought. It reminds us of Oskar's grandfather's situation—dead or not?

To this very day I have not cured myself of the habit of keeping a lookout on streets and squares for a skinny teenage girl […] who devours men like a shark. Even in my bed at the mental institution I'm frightened whenever Bruno announces an unknown visitor. My fear is this: Luzie Rennwand has come back as a scary Black Cook to urge you to jump one last time (31.21).

Luzie, like the Black Cook, comes to symbolize fear and death, since she's the one who told the police about the Dusters vandalizing the church, which resulted in their probably being hanged. Oskar fooled the judges at his trial and was acquitted, but he knows that there are still threats everywhere in life.

From the trees—lindens, if I remember rightly—dangled Volkssturm men and soldiers. Cardboard signs on their uniform jackets were fairly legible and indicated that the men hanging from the trees, or lindens, were traitors. I stared into the faces of several hanged men, made a few general comparisons, then specific ones with the hanged greengrocer Greff (31.32).

Here's a truly horrible scene that Oskar seems completely unaffected by except in an intellectual way. Has he already seen so much death that he's unmoved by seeing people hanging from trees in the streets? Do you believe he's so unaffected by the sight? BTW, this was an absolutely true scenario in Danzig.

When Herr Fajngold saw the corpse […] he called his whole family, not just his wife Ljuba, into the cellar, and it was clear he saw them all coming, for he called each by name […] then explained to us that everyone he'd called lay like that before they were put into the ovens at Treblinka […] (32.9).

All the deaths of the Holocaust are captured in the small figure of Fajngold, his family's only survivor of Treblinka. He still hallucinates that his wife and children are alive. Again, Oskar describes this scene with no emotion, but it still packs a punch for the reader.

I have always been attracted to cemeteries. They are well-kept, straightforward, logical, manly, full of life. You can summon up courage and reach decisions in cemeteries, life takes on clear contours—and I'm not referring to burial plots—in cemeteries, and, if you will, a meaning (35.24).

Kind of reminds us of Boswell's famous comment: "Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." Though honestly, we don't think most people would think about cemeteries like Oskar does.

Those few thousand marks aside, I was hit hard by Bebra's death and was slow to recover. I locked my tin drum away and refused to stir from my room (44.36).

Of all the deaths that happen in this novel, none seems to affect Oskar as visibly as Bebra's. Bebra was the closest thing Oskar ever had to a role model, and Oskar's overcome with grief after the guy dies. The fact that Oskar locks his tin drum away shows that he doesn't know how to express his grief, since Oskar saves his deepest emotions for his drum.

Today I am thirty, my trial will be reopened, the expected acquittal will force me back on my feet, riding trains, trams, exposed to those words: Better start running, the Black Cook's coming! Ha! Ha! Ha! (46.15)

In some ways, it's like time stops in the asylum. It makes Oskar feel just like he did when he used to hang out beneath his grandmother's skirts—safe and protected. If he gets out and back into the everyday world, he's much more at risk.

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