Spring 1985, Volume 2
Tulla Pokriefke: A Characterization of Evil in Cat and Mouse and Dog Years from The Danzig Trilogy by Gunter Grass
Inge Adams is Associate Professor of German in the Department of Foreign Languages. She has recently completed a Doctorate in modern German literature.
Gunter Grass, German novelist, playwright, poet, has been acclaimed as one of the two or three most gifted and provocative contemporary German authors. His subject matter is life in Germany under the Nazis, during the years of postwar reconstruction and the present mood of recovered self-confidence. He has elaborated this scene and its problems with a remarkable sense of universal implications. He illuminates the state of mind of a nation in which aspirations of power and self-assertion were overtaken by the bitter anguish of defeat and the challenged conscience distracted by the dulling demands of the experiences of daily life.
Grass was born in 1917 in Danzig. Sculptor, draftsman, playwright and poet, he lives at present in West Germany. His first novel The Tin Drum, 1959, was translated into every major language and won international critical acclaim. The movie version of the novel won the best Foreign Film award at the film festival in Cannes.
The Tin Drum and the two works that followed, Cat and Mouse, a novella that was published in 1961, and Dog years, a novel which came out in 1963, form the Danzig Trilogy. The theme of the Trilogy is Grass' participation in the burden of guilt inherited from the past. Leonard Forster states, "Grass identifies with his generation, the generation which was seventeen in 1945, and it is from this point of view that the Trilogy is written."' It is a constant asking and attempting to answer the questions: How did things come to be the way they are?'
Thus the issue of the experience of the German world during and after the war are examined in these three novels. Tulla Pokriefke, who is the subject of this paper, appears in the latter two works of the Trilogy.
The Tin Drum is a novel in which the history of modern Germany is seen through the eyes of a dwarf who is an inmate in an asylum. Donald L. Mull describes the work as a "surreal-picaresque, a mock-epic chronical of Western Europe's (and by extension the world's) twentieth century madness3.
In the second work, the novella Cat and Mouse, Grass continues to perceptively probe into what has happened and why. Basically, it is the story of a Danzig schoolboy, narrated in 1961, by an adult named Pilenze The story is set in the years of World War II, when Pilenz was a teenager. He experiences a great spiritual emptiness in his world (he is a Catholic who lost his belief in God), and feels compelled to tell the story of his boyhood friend, Joachim Mahlke. Mahkle disappared, after deserting the army, by diving into a sunken minesweeper where they played as boys and Mahlke had a secret retreat. "Though fifteen years have elapsed since then and the time of writing, Pilenz has anxiously sought out Mahlke on every occasion and in every place where he could possibly appear."4 Pilenz holds firm to his belief that some day, somewhere his friend will "resurface."
The novella is an exploration of the world of adolescence in which Tulla Pokriefke, a cipher of her time, first emerges as the serpentine temptress. In Mahlke's tragedy Grass shows the tragedy of all German youth, urged by statute and persuasive arguments to submit to social an political conditioning in the name of the Third Reich. According to Keith Miles, Mahlke stands for all those who dedicated their futures to purposes which were corrupt and therefore currupting. He considers Mahlke's moral regression, his confusion, his gullibility, and his self-deception emblematic. Ultimately, Mahlke's life and death are proof of "the appalling and unnecessary wastage of promise and talent during the Third Reich and World War ll."5
"The novel Dog Years is an attempt to give a panoramic view of German mentality before, during and after World War 11, but becomes in effect a fable of the national mystique in a time of violence, confusion and change."6 It consists of three parts, each written by a different narrator and each covering a 12-year-span of life in Danzig. The narrators are major participants in the novel's story and present the author's views and perspectives. At the heart of the novel is the fable of the shepherd dog who was presented to Hitler by the party leadership of the Danzig district.
The first book introduces the land and people around the Vistula, with a multitude of historical and folkloric flashbacks. It presents the major participants such as Eudard Arnsler, the son of a Jewish merchant, who constructs scarecrows, and Walter Matern, the Miller's son. Their growing-up period coincides with the growth of the Nazi Party. The high school professor, Oswald Brunie, is the only available signpost of the "other" Germany during the rising time of Nazism. Arnsler is the narrator of the first book.'
The novel's second book, chronicled by Harry Liebenau, is a "love story" between Harry and Tulla Pokriefke, who represent Grass and the city of Danzig, respectively. The portrayal of Tulla is negative, even evil, just as the city of Danzig becomes an object of eventual disgust. The beautiful German shepherd dog Harras, whose offspring becomes the favorite dog of Adolf Hitler, also appears here. Liebenau witnesses an assault on Arnsler, the scarecrow maker, because the Nazi Party has become popular in Danzig and the Jews are being persecuted. Jenny Brunie, the professor's adopted daughter, who becomes Tulla's rival is also introduced here. Harry is torn between his sex-crazed cousin Tulla, who is "ugly, with a pale, pimply face and is moreover promiscuous" and his idealized love for Jenny. Matern joins the army at the outbreak of the war, and is decorated for bravery, but soon becomes disgusted with everything the Third Reich stands for. Liebenau is drafted as an Air Force helper, and concludes his chronicle with the description of the downfall of Hitler's military machinery. Prinz escapes from the Fuhrer's headquarters, and all military operations center around the recovery of the lost dog.
Walter Matern narrates the third book of the novel. He meets the escaped dog at the prisoner of war camp and the dog refuses to leave him. Matern plans to revenge himself on all those who have contributed to his suffering as anti-Nazi, but only succeeds in seducing their wives and daughters. He contracts venereal disease, then makes every effort to infect as many women of his enemies as possible. He again meets Amsler, whose scarecrows are now gigantic monstrosities clothed in old S.S. uniforms and discarded judicial robes of the Hitler regime. These scarecrows are housed in mine shafts and are mechanically manipulated. After Amsler takes Matern on a tour of these mine shafts, the men leave and the dog Prinz stays behind as the guardian of the scarecrows (the underworld).
The main thesis of the book is that Germany has not yet digested its past and the guilt problem of World War 11 has been forced underground.8 By using three different narrators and perspectives Grass ensures that the reality which the reader is invited to examine is fractured and contradictory. No one mind can assimilate and describe the force, the horror and the complexity the material under review describes.9
Using the dog to symbolize the totalitarianism of National Socialism and its gratuitous violence, and the scarecrow "like the doll or the homuncule, as an image of the soul,"10 Grass tackles here a whole turbulent era of German history, and includes a study of the nature of the German himself."
Among the symbols of evil employed by Grass in this Trilogy, Tulla Pokriefke, one of the above mentioned female characters of the second and third work, emerges most clearly as a representation of evil and degenerated humanity in her roles as the serpentine temptress in Cat and Mouse, as a mechanical human negation in the same book, and as the human canine in the second book of Dog Years.
If the author has tried to show the moral, spiritual and physical deterioration of man in general, and that of the Germans prior to and during the Third Reich specifically, he has strikingly succeeded as well in the subtle animal-like portrayal of Tulla Pokriefke, as in the characterizations of Oskar Mazerath, Mahlke and Walter Matern, the negative male heroes of The Tin Drum, Cat and Mouse and Dog Years.
Grass describes and refers to Tulla mostly in animalistic terms, which keep her on a sub-human level in both books. For what description of a young girl could be less human than Pilenz' characterization of her in the third chapter of Cat and Mouse:. . . she might have had webs between her toes."12 or. . . make little rat's eyes and look and look."13 or "Tulla . . . gave a bleating laugh with her mouth closed . . "14 The three references to animals give her chracteristics of primitive, webfooted creatures, of subterranean rodents, and of mindless sheep. It is interesting to note that the rat is often known as a symbol of evil.
Earlier in the same chapter her appearance is described as "a spindly little thing with legs like toothpicks.16 and "You can draw a good likeness of Tulla's face with the most familiar punctuation marks,"" which paints a portrait devoid of human features and qualities.
Not only does the author deny Tulla human features and characteristics, but continues the animal imagery by giving her the role of the serpentine temptress who incites a group of boys to pass the time on a barge by engaging in masturbation. With the unemotional curiosity that typifies young animals, she becomes the catalytic element that literally goads the boys into activity. Even Mahlke, who at first is immovable, finally submits to Tulla's relentless pleading with her chant-like: "Won't you? Aw, do it just once. Or can't you? Don't you want to? Or aren't you allowed to?"18 The temptress who . . . arches her india-rubber frame effortlessly into a bridge,"19 persuades the standoffish Mahlke to participate. The reptilian image, called forth by the rubbery limbs that coil before him, only heightens the serpent metaphor.
Tulla's animal image is perpetuated by further reference to her, when, in chapter VIII Hotten Sonntag is described as -riding a lady's bicycle and carrying the little Pokriefke girl astraddle on the baggage rack. The spindly little thing's thighs were still as smooth as frog's legs."20 The use of the frog to describe her legs may not be unintentional here, since the frog is often interpreted as a symbol that -conveys the repulsive aspect of sin (in paintings); and those who snatch life's fleeting pleasures."
tier lack of discrimination in sexual partners is another attempt by the author to liken her conduct to that of animals. Toward the end of chapter IX Pilenz says of her: "Tulla Pokriefke, who was sixteen or over and very accessible . . . . ... 22 This is later echoed by MahIke's account of his supposed night with her, in two different places of chapter X111.23
The reptilian portrayal of Tulla symbolizing the temptress reminiscent of Eve and the serpent in the garden of Eden, her characteristics and appearance likened unto primitive and subterranean creatures, some of which are known symbols of sin and evil, is only surpassed by Tulla's role as the human canine and the reference to her as an automaton in the second book of Dog Years.
Here, the description of the child Tulla, who, in shock over the drowning death of her brother, not only insists on living in the doghouse with the family dog Harras, but takes on canine ways that make her seem more dog-like than Harras himself. Moreover, the dog ironically seems to be teaching her the ways of his lifestyle: -tlarras left the kennel unasked, tugged a little, then harder at Tulla's dress, until she dragged herself out into the daylight and crouched down beside the kennel. As she crouched, her eyes quite sightless, rolled back so that only the whites shimmered; with 'bashed-in windows,' she passed water."24 The author makes it a point to mention that on the second day she had already learned something from Harras: "On the second dog-kennel day, a Tuesday, Harras no longer had to tug when August Pokriefke, wanted to renew the shavings.""
This ironic turnabout of roles, where the dog has become the teacher of man's offspring is the author's attempt to put Tulla a step below the level of a dog: "Tulla began to take food, that is she ate with Harras out of his dish, after Harras had dragged a boneless chunk of dog meat into the kennel and whetted her appetite by nuzzling the meat with his cold nose."26 (It is interesting to note that Wahrig's German Dictionary gives the word Tulle which bears a similarity to Tulla, as meaning Schnauze or snout.)
Tulla finally succeeds in totally imitating Harras' canine movements: "Tulla crawled out of the kennel. Even when Tulla had the threshold of the kennel behind her, she stayed on all fours, shook herself limply, shed wood shavings, crawled sluggish and wobbly toward the semicircle described by the dog's chain, reached ditch and earthworks right next to the door to plywood shed, hove to with a sharp twist of the hips, shook off more shavings . . . ."27
However, the most gross animal analogy is in the description of Tulla's mastery of the dog's eating habits in the nauseating passage:
"She spreads the fingers of her left, overstrained hand five times sideways, folds them over three joints and then back over the same joints. Cupping the bowl in her right hand, which rests on the ground, she slowly guides her mouth and the edge of the bowl together. She laps, sips, wastes nothing. In one breath, without removing the bowl from her lips, Tulla drinks the fatless spleenheart- kidney- liver broth with all its granular delicacies and surprises, with the tiny bits of cartilage at the bottom, with Koshnavian marjoram and coagulated urea. Tulla drinks to the dregs: her chin raises the bowl. The bowl raises the hand beneath the bowl into the beam of the oblique sun. A neck is exposed and grows steadily longer. A head with hair and shavings leans back and beds itself on shoulders. Two narrow-set eyes remain closed. Skinny, sinewy, and pale, Tulla's childlike neck labors until the bowl lies on top of her face and she is able to lift her hand from the bowl and move it away between the bottom of the bowl and the side-slipping sun. The overturned bowl conceals the screwed-up eyes, the crusty nostrils, the mouth that has had enough."28
Thus Harras, who is black and who is also referred to as Pluto29 has taught Tulla well. She is now even more canine than Harras himself, and embodies the dark and evil characteristics that are generally symbolized by Pluto.30
A further substantiation of Tulla's lack of human features and qualities is brought out when the children watch Eddi Amsel build his mechanical scarecrows in the image of the SA men: " . . . only Tulla and I knew he was making SA men who could march and salute, because they had a mechanism in their tummies. Sometimes we thought we could hear the mechanism. We felt our own bellies, looking for the mechanism inside us: Tulla had one."31
Reduced to an automaton, the author denies her here any life-like characteristics; her degeneration has progressed from the reptilian temptress, the rat-eyed, frog-legged girl in Cat and Mouse to the human canine and finally the lifeless automaton in book two of Dog Years.
Thus Tulla Pokriefke represents a sub-human microcosm which emanates evil, reflecting the darker side of mankind, and stands as a cipher for the deteriorating city of Danzig.
1 Leonard Forster, "Gunter Grass," in Contemporary Literary Criticism, eds. Sharon R. Gunton, Laurie Lanzen Harris. Vol. 15 (Detroit, Michigan, Gale Research Co., 1980), p. 263.
3 Donald L. Mull, "The Tin Drum," in Survey of Contemporary Literature, ed. Frank N. Magill. Vol. 2 (New York, N.Y., Salem Press, Inc., 1971), p. 4681.
4 Williarn R. Robinson, "Cat and Mouse," in Survey of Contemporary Literature, ed. Frank N. Magill. Vol. 7 (New York, N.Y., Salem Press, Inc., 1971), p. 842.
5 Keith Miles, Gunter Grass (New York: Barnes and Noble Critical Studies, 1975), p. 104, 105.
6 'Alfred Hanel, "Dog Years," in Masterplots, ed. Frank N. Magill, Vol, 2 (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1976), p. 1202.
9 Miles, p. 117.
10 W. Gordon Cunliffe, Gunter Grass (New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1969), p. 122.
11 ''Miles, p. 139.
12 "Gunter Grass, Cat and Mouse (New York: The American Library of World Literature, Inc., 1964), p. 30.
14 1bid., p. 31.
15 George Ferguson, Signs and Symbols in Christian Art (New York: Oxford University Press, 1961), p. 24.
16 Grass, p. 29.
17 "Ibid., P. 30.
18 "Ibid., P. 31.
20 1bid., p. 70.
21 'Ferguson, p. 19.
22 Grass, p. 93.
23 1bid., P. 115.
24 Grass, Dog Years (New York; Fawcett Crest Books, 1965), p. 149.
25 lbid., p. 150.
27 lbid., p. 152.
28 1bid., p. 154.
29 "Ibid., P. 203.
30 Gertrude Jobes, Dictionary of Mythology Folklore and Symbols (New York: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1962), pp. 1280, 1111.
31 Grass, Dog Years, p. 213.