The Flounder is a 4,000-year-long history of the sexes, based loosely on the Grimms’ fairy tale “The Fisherman and His Wife.” The narrator of this novel by Germany’s highly revered writer Günter Grass (1927–2015) is a present-day man, Edek, who, along with his female companion, Ilsebill, has seen nine or more reincarnations since the Stone Age period. To entertain his present-day partner, who is pregnant, the narrator tells her the stories of their previous incarnations, introducing one story for each month of her pregnancy. By portraying the various epochs in which this couple lived, Grass explores the sexual roles of men and women down through the ages. In particular, he looks at the denouement of primeval matriarchy as patriarchy came to the fore and the subsequent emergence of feminism as a counteraction to and emancipation from the aggressive male-dominated world.
Having been caught (or allowed itself to be caught) by the prehistoric fisherman Edek, the Flounder bargains for its life by promising to mentor the man and show him how to overthrow the matriarchal society in which he lives. One of the results of man gaining the upper hand is that woman is now transfigured from a three-breasted being into a two-breasted one, in order to accommodate man’s desires. More important than man’s opportunity, under patriarchy, to reconstruct woman is his chance to reconstruct history, as men now take over the business of writing. With this newly won opportunity to become the scribes of history, men portray their own gender in a more flattering light as they simultaneously erase all positive contributions made by women. Grass undermines this male propaganda, however, by depicting the female as the nurturer and promoter of humankind. The male, by contrast, he portrays as possessing a bloodthirsty, destructive nature that inclines him ever toward war, be it in the form of Neolithic rocks and spears or in the modern deployment of intercontinental missiles.
In the 20th century, the Flounder allows himself to be caught by three fisherwomen who turn out to be members of a highly organized group of feminists. With the Flounder now their captive, they put him into a tank and proceed to put him and Edek, as his cohort, on trial for the overthrow of the matriarch. Grass uses this trial as a means to go back over history, recounting mythology, fairy tales, and actual historical events, as he chronicles not only the development of patriarchy but man’s uses and abuses of women as well. As Edek recapitulates to the female tribunal all that he has done over the centuries, the Flounder has reconfirmed what he has known for a long time—that men are stupid, incapable of learning anything, especially when it comes to women. For this reason, the Flounder now offers to ally himself with the women. In his new role as their mentor, he warns these women that while their time has come, they must beware lest they make the same mistakes as the men.
Durrani, Osman. Fiction of Germany: Images of the German Nation in the Modern Novel. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. 1994.
Pickar, Gertrud Bauer, ed. Adventures of a Flounder: Critical Essays on Günter Grass’ Der Butt. Munich: Wilhelm Fink. 1982.
Preece, Julian. The Life and Work of Günter Grass: Literature, History, Politics. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001.