Der Butt; The Flounder

Der Butt; The Flounder (1977)

This epic novel takes ‘Von dem Fischer un syner Fru’ (‘The Fisherman and his Wife’), a fairy tale by the brothers Grimm, as its starting point. The fisherman catches a flounder, and his wife Ilsebill insists that he ask the flounder to grant her wishes, but she is never satisfied: http://gutenberg.spiegel.de/buch/754/117

In this novel a feminist group seeks to put the flounder on trial for having helped to assure male domination throughout history. The novel offers Grass’s satirical take on the wave of feminism which was sweeping West Germany in the 1970s. It explores the whole of history in terms of the battle of the sexes, through a series of eleven female characters and their relationships with the (apparently immortal) male narrator. Human prehistory is seen as a time of matriarchy, which is gradually superseded by patriarchy in the iron age. This theory of history derives from from the Swiss anthropologist Johann Jakob Bachofen. However, the novel does not take feminism very seriously. All of the female characters are dutiful and talented cooks: not once do we encounter a woman who refuses to do the cooking. Furthermore, the section entitled ‘Father’s Day’ shows women taking on male personae and participating in a gang-rape. This seems to suggest that all power, whether matriarchal or patriarchal, is inevitably violent.

The eleven cooks are certainly memorable characters. Each one is representative of a historical period. Each one of them has a counterpart in the group of 1970s feminists:

If you can tolerate the sexism, this is a very enjoyable romp through human (and German) history, with plenty of comic and culinary delights along the way.

Further Reading

Philip Brady, Timothy McFarland, John J. White (eds.), Günter Grass’ Der Butt: Sexual Politics and the Male Myth of History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990)

Siegfried Mews (ed.), “The Fisherman and his Wife”: Günter Grass’s The Flounder in Critical Perspective (New York: AMS Press, 1983)

Gertrud Bauer Pickar (ed.), Adventures of a Flounder: Critical Essays on Günter Grass’ ‘Der Butt’ (Munich: Fink, 1982)

Julian Preece, ‘Sexual-Textual Politics: The Transparency of the Male Narrative in “Der Butt” by Günter Grass’, Modern Language Review 90 (1995), 955-66

1930-1962

1945-

Sibylle Miehlau

Maria Kuczorra

Elisabeth Güllen

Beate Hagedorn