The narrator and protagonist in Gunter Grass’ novel The Tin Drum is unique in not only his stature, but by his mental progress as well. He chooses to stop growing at the age of three and does not speak, except through the beating of his drum, until the age of fifteen. This lack of development and willingness to be viewed as a child presents both a problem to the protagonist and to the reader when Oskar is presented with sexual encounters. Susan M. Johnson states in her article, “Sexual Metaphors and Sex as a Metaphor in Grass’ Blechtrommel”, that Grass uses these sexual metaphors aa representations of “personal to political themes” (79). She goes on to say that the sexual encounters represented in the three books parallel the political forces at work in the war, relating “the rise and fall of Hitler’s Empire parallel Oskar’s rise and fall as a sexual being” (Johnson 87). While Johnson makes valid and sophisticated arguments in her article, I disagree with the interpretation of the sexual encounters and what they mean for the characters. In particular, I will focus on three scenes that are located in books one and two: the horse’s head, the Niobe, and the encounter with Mrs. Greff.
In the chapter “Good Friday Fare”, Oskar describes a memory of walking along the beach with Jan, Matzerath, Agnes, and happening upon a fisherman using a horse’s head to catch eels. Johnson would have one believe that this scene is sexual in nature because the black horse head is a symbol of masculine virility, and that this symbol is being grotesquely destroyed by nasty, slimy eels. However I disagree that this horse head represents the death of male virility, but rather the dissolution of family. This scene is the turning point in Oskar’s family, at which everything begins to crumble. Agnes, who after witnessing the eels at work, states, “I’m never eating another fish, least of all eel” (Grass 139). This proves to be false as Agnes commits suicide by fish, ingesting so much that she dies while pregnant with, presumably Jan’s child. The scene involving the horse head did not strike me as a sexual metaphor. Johnson argues that this scene shows not only the death of male virility but also the “traditional images of procreation” (82). A horse head filled with eels, does not exactly evoke a sense of procreation, but to follow in this thought process and refute the claim, one can surmise that the phallic symbol of an eel, expressed by Grass when he explains that “a married woman…tried to satisfy herself with a live eel” (138), is evidence that this scene is sexual in some way. That being said, the sexual connotations can be related to the audience of this spectacle and their reactions, namely Matzerath and Bronski. The true nature of their character is represented by their reaction to Agnes’s sickness and shows the conflict between the two men, and the conflict in Agnes surrounding them. Bronski comforts Agnes in her time of need, feeling sympathy for her, while Matzerath cares for himself and his gains. This furthers the dilemma Agnes faces and expedites her eventual suicide. It is not a situation showing the death of male virility, nor the sexual troubles Oskar faces, but simply a representation of the different character traits of the two men Agnes loves and the decline of her desire to be implicated any longer.
The next scene in which Johnson relates a sexual experience of Oskar to a political context is when Herbert Truczinski dies attached to the statue of Niobe, “the mythic queen of death and destruction” ( 82). This cursed maidenhead is responsible for the death of multiple men, all committing suicide in her gaze with any object at their disposal, including a pocketknife and compass needle. Herbert is shown to describe and demean this statue in relation to his personal views on women stating, “Not my type anyway…take a look at those rolls of fat and double chin” (Grass 175). Although he does not acknowledge the attraction this maidenhead has, he still impales himself to it in an attempt to obtain sexual gratification from it. Unlike Johnson’s argument that this is an incident of reverse rape, that he was violated by the maidenhead and that it represents an implementation of German national history (83), this shows the importance of statuesque figures in Oskar’s life. The reverential attitude and mocking gestures Herbert takes toward this statue do not represent political aspects during this time period, but rather mimics Oskar’s disregard to the Jesus statue at the church. Therefore, the sexual nature of this episode in Oskar’s life is not a metaphor into political structures, but can be seen as a instigating moment in Oskar’s disrespect of idols.
Johnson briefly mentions Oskar’s affair with Frau Greff in her article, mentioning that he relates his affair “to Hitler’s military campaign in Russia” (84). This relation can easily be seen as a political metaphor, thus synchronizing with Johnson’s argument, however, the implications of Oskar’s actions with Frau Greff have a deeper meaning than that of political affairs when thinking of the development of the protagonist. It is at this point in the novel when Oskar decides to become more than the child he is viewed as, and it is also the point where he learns about his sexuality which plays an important role in the rest of the novel. Had Oskar not have had his experiences with Frau Greff, it is likely that he would not have had his strong relationship with Roswitha Raguna. He learned much about the fairer sex with Frau Greff as she welcomed him into her bed despite his physical appearance. Had he not been able to explore the female sex in this fashion, most likely, he would not have had the relationship with Raguna. Johnson states that Oskar’s relationship with Greff has become “an escape from pain” (84); however, I feel that he is not only escaping the pain of losing Marie, but is finding his place among the adults of the novel. It took him twelve years to decide to speak and even then, he tried to hide himself as a child amongst men. This affair with Frau Greff made Oskar realize that he could no longer go through life portraying a child’s persona, and that he must accept the benefits and drawback of adulthood.
The complications of Oskar’s affair also play a key role in his development. He states that, “It was Oskar who abandoned the bedridden woman the moment he considered his studies complete” (Grass 288). Oskar has shown previously his penchant for looking out for himself in multiple instances. For example, when he was at the Polish Post Office he blamed his presumed father for abducting him as a child shield to preserve his life. He also decided to halt his growth by jumping down the stairs in order to halt his growth and be a child forever. These instances further the argument that Oskar’s affair with Frau Greff was not for any other purpose than for making himself feel better. The connotation that this instance shows the political metaphor of sexual representation in the novel is not only a stretch, but grossly misrepresents the point of the chapter. This chapter was not meant to show the political ramifications of Hitler’s choice to invade Russia, or even the choice of Oskar to invade Frau Greff’s bedroom. This simply shows a development of Oskar’s character as he chose to use the Frau as a sexual learning tool for the advancement of his sexual prowess.
Susan M. Johnson does not genuinely make a valid argument as to Oskar’s sexual endeavors representing the political and social connotations of the time period. Her stretches in interpreting the instances in the novel cannot only be refuted, but can lay claim to the protagonists development in a manner that shows that her argument is conjecture. I affirm that the “sexual” representations of interactions shown by Oskar show that it is developmental to the protagonist’s development, as well as essential to the story’s structure in terms of plot. The misinterpretation of these instances would not only change the meaning of the story, but would ask the reader to make assumptions that would hinder the deeper understandings of the novel.
Grass, Gunter. The Tin Drum. Trans. Breon Mitchell. Boston, New York: First Mariner, 2009. Print.
Johnson, Susan M. Sexual Metaphors and Sex as a Metaphor in Grass #39; “Blechtrommel”; JSTOR. JSTOR, Spring 1992. Web. 17 Dec. 2013.