The Concept of Guilt and Its Representation in Maus
There is an enigmatic quality to Art Spiegelman’s survival guilt, a guilt which presents itself subtly in Book I and much more palpably in Book II. This ambiguity, so to speak, stems from a perplexing notion. That is, how could one of the only characters in Maus not to have been in the Holocaust have survival guilt? How, out of all those portrayed throughout the work who watched their friends and families slaughtered, could Art Spiegelman be the one who is guilty for surviving? It is, ironically enough, the fact that Spiegelman was not in the Holocaust that violently facilitates his survival guilt. His assumed inability to grasp the genocide, combined with the daunting task of representing the millions of unheard victims, creates guilt within him for not being there, which is only augmented by Vladek’s burning of Anja’s diary. Of course, this guilt is also manifested prominently in the ghost of his brother. In the end, he could never be Richieu, benevolently set in stone, and he would always represent that which the father could not have back—his family.
While this discourse will deal mostly within the confines of Book II, it is important to note the catalyst in Book I that not only magnifies the guilt felt by Spiegelman, but also increases the very nature of his guilt, a nature which moves undecidedly between self-pity and outward aggression towards others. This catalyst, of course, is the revelation at the end of the first part of the series—that of the diary burning.
To understand the importance of the diary burning, one must first address the author’s uncertainty about approaching his topic. How can he grasp, in any way, the most tortuous and debauched display of humanity in history? This is, as one frequently sees, a predicament faced by many who have written of the Holocaust, Primo Levi perhaps being the best example. For Spiegelman, though, this uncertainty is exacerbated by his distance from the Holocaust. That is, he never experienced the camps, the stealing, the bitter cold, the smell of burning flesh. In this way, only two things can connect Spiegelman to Auschwitz—his father and his mother’s journal. The former of these sources is the more subjective, especially given the relationship Spiegelman has with Vladek. The latter, however, is an objective piece of empirical footage he can use to effectively portray his parents’ ordeal. Thus, when Vladek reveals he burned the journal, Spiegelman bellows, “You Murderer!” not only because the father murdered Anja’s memory, but because he massacred the last chance the author had to completely understand what so many say no one ever could (Maus I 159).
Within the first few pages of Book II, and therefore directly after the burning of the diary is divulged, the reader is given the first clear portrayal of Spiegelman’s survival guilt. The uncertainty that is alluded to through tone within the first book is now made apparent with Spiegelman’s questioning, “How am I supposed to make any sense out of Auschwitz?” (Maus II 14). His tortuous conversation with his wife—covering anything from which parent he would have saved to how diligent, even somewhat psychotic, his parents were in their search for Richieu—is a testament to his now overwhelming guilt. The guilt, though, is now moving from one of passive self-consciousness to one of violence and blame. His father “drives [him] crazy,” and it is this strained relationship which causes him to think so aggressively. Naturally, this strain is stretched to a precarious length by his father’s burning of the diary. His reaction, thus, is certainly one controlled more by emotion than by true culpability (the culpability of his father that is), and he could have, or rather should have taken the burning as a sign of his father’s own pain, rather than selfishly seeing how it affected his own guilt and even writing.
Moving on, Spiegelman’s guilt in relation to his brother is perhaps the most telling and yet ambiguous feelings the reader sees in the writer. Spiegelman is, in the end, Richieu’s doppelganger, and yet he is also his foil, at least in the father’s eyes. Vladeck sees Spiegelman as the physical representation of his first born, but never the emotional or familial representation. In fact, regarding the latter, Spiegelman is the antithesis of Richieu. If the implementation of smoking throughout the books shows anything, it is that Vladeck, whether intentionally or not, tells his son he would never have survived the camps. Constantly cigarettes save Vladeck’s life as bartering tools, which apparently implies, given Spiegelman’s habitual smoking, that the writer would not have lasted if put in the position of his father. Spiegelman’s prodigality, too, is something Vladeck comments constantly about, most notably in his son’s poor purchase of a tape recorder (Maus I 73).
All of these shortcomings, shortcomings that make Spiegelman human, never existed within Richieu. For this, the writer feels Vladeck is more Richieu’s father than his own. This unsettling feeling culminates in Spiegelman’s most clear and literal admission of survival guilt. As his wife relates and stresses that “[Vladeck]’s your father,” the author is brought to a climactic release, yelling “Stop! I feel guilty enough already!” (Maus II 120).
Spiegelman’s guilt is, in the end, ineffable and undefinable. Throughout his story he is constantly faced with the unquantifiable pressure of telling humanity’s most regrettable story. All the while, he is tormented by his dead mother, neurotic father, and ghost of a brother. These coalesce on a psychological level to effect a daunting and alarming survival guilt, a guilt that the writer, one could assume, will never truly be free from.
Spiegelman, Art. Maus I My Father Bleeds History. New York: Pantheon, 1986.
Spiegelman, Art. Maus II And Here My Troubles Began. New York: Pantheon, 1986.
The Use Of Visual Narrative And Formal Structure In Maus: A Survivors Tale By Art Spiegelman
Art Spiegelman (1986), a creator, author, illustrator, interviewer, and narrator uses the medium of comics to narrate the experiences of his parents, Vladek and Anja Spiegelman, Jews who’d survived the Holocaust.
Jumping back and forth between the past and the present, Maus: A Survivor’s Tale tells two different stories; Vladek’s testimony as a Polish Jew during World War II, and Spiegelman’s (1986) interactions with his father during the interview process. Hillary Chute (2016), in her article, “The Shadow of a Past Time: History and Graphic Representation in Maus, ” justifies comics’ ability to represent history, through an analyzes of Spiegelmans (1986) graphic narrative. Chute (2016) emphasizes how the form of Maus, using language, ideas, and concepts can narrate the past through the comics page. How a story is told, from a visual perspective, has a significant impact on how the audience understands the content. Comics defined by Scott McCloud (1993) in Understanding Comics are “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer”. The message behind a comic isn’t just in the content but in the design of the page.
Art Spiegelman (1986) successfully intertwines the past and present in Maus through the visual narrative and formal features using the comics medium. Nothing is simply inked on paper; every style of literature attempts to make invisible the visible. The medium of comics is able to do this remarkably well. Authors are able to juxtapose images from various time narratives; presenting different moments in time across the space of a page. Time is separated by individual frames; dividing panel by panel. The explanation of what is happening between the panels is described by McCloud (1993) as closure. Spiegelman (1986) uses closure on every single page of Maus, the majority of transitions happening scene-to-scene (different characters and different scenes). A clear example of closure in subject-to-subject transition can be found on page twelve of Maus: Vladek brings Artie into his old room so he can pedal, Artie asks his father about his time in Poland and the war, Vladek begins telling his story. Initially just static images, unified into a continued reality. In her article, Chute (2016) analyzes this same page, noting the mid-horizontal, elongated panel, the eliminated gutter (space between panels), and its implication of stillness. Furthermore, noticing the relationship between this panel, where Vladek first mentions his story, and the literal overlap it has to the iris diaphragm panel below that first presents the past.
Spiegelman (1986) is deliberate in his use of panel shapes and page layout, attempting to influence our interpretation of the progression of time. I personally notice the lettering on this page as significant in Maus’ visual narrative; the top of the first panel contrasts black from the room and white, and a bordered text of Artie’s narrator commentary is presenting in lower case lettering. Spiegelman (1986) could’ve bordered the text at the top of the panel, wrote it in the gutter or in the consistent uppercase lettering. I think he chooses to illustrate his narration as concurrent with the story, wanting to be in time, a part of that moment, moving along-side with the story; the small letters as symbolism not only to a different time but to the theme of smallness. Maus was written for people like me. People who hadn’t faced the actuality of the Holocaust in their own home, but are curious about how this event affected survivors, and their families.
Through Spiegelman’s (1968) Maus: A Survivors Tale, I understand how deep the scars from the Holocaust flow, and how children to survivors’ struggle with guilt and trauma. I’d learned about World War II in school, and my understanding came from my experience; Canadian history class, dates and facts, no emotion. Not only has my knowledge of events, such as the Polish response in World War II expanded, but as has my emotional comprehension to what the war psychological did to everyone involved. Chute (2016) discusses in her article, the first volumes subtitle, My Father Bleeds History, “Vladek’s bleeding is in Artie’s textual, visual and emotional rebuilding”, his son’s ability to not only get closure but perspective from Vladek’s narration. Similarly, as we the audience grow in awareness through Spiegelmans (1968) narration. The greatest feature of Maus to me is its ability to time travel, and take its readers along; comics as a medium have not only surpassed my expectation but have earned my respect and appreciation. Neither an essay, picture, book or film could tell Spiegelmans (1968) story so completely.
Maus: A Survivors Tale illustrates a horrible, national, historic genocide simply, with cats and mice. To consider the terror Jews faced during World War II takes courage, it’s not a light topic. Maus isn’t the whole story, it’s one story of the suffering of a survivor and his son. There’s a reason why Maus by Art Spiegelman (1986) is studied so intensely. Why academics like Hillary Chute (2016) have published articles such as, “The Shadow of a Past Time: History and Graphic Representation in Maus” analyzing Spiegelmans (1986) work. The medium of comics is powerful in its ability to narrate stories; to visually and textually present information. Spiegelmans (1986) visual narrative and formal structure takes his readers on a journey through time using panels and the space of a page; mingling Vladek’s past, and the present interview process. Maus is an important piece of history.
The Holocaust as Part of Artie’s Family History
In “Maus II” by Art Spiegelman a series of three panels helps to encapsulate a continuous theme throughout the two part story. In these panels Artie and Francoise are in the car driving to assist Artie’s father who has just been left by his second wife. In the car Artie claims that “I never felt guilty about Richieu. But I did have nightmares about S.S. Men coming into my class…I wish I had been in Auschwitz with my parents so I could really know what they lived through” (16). Artie struggles with his relationship with his father, the death of his mother, his ghost-brother, and his attempt to recreate the Holocaust in a comic strip. All of these struggles connect back to his lack of common experience. He knows that due to the difference in their pasts, the difference in their upbringing, in many ways he is distanced from his family, people he cannot seem to fully understand. The series of panel mentioned before, along with the highlighted dialogue, capture Artie’s inability to connect with his family and their story due to a significant difference in their lack of shared history.
The Holocaust, to Artie, was something horrible and unfathomable that his parents experienced and lived through. This part of his family history is not an element of life that makes him connected to his parents through lineage, but creates a gap in their relationship. He often worries that he does not understand fully their experiences, as he did in the car with his wife. Artie in asking his father for his story is attempting to understand, he wants to be able to capture the survival of his father, the survival of his family, and subsequently himself, in his art. However, many times throughout the graphic novel Artie reveals his despair in failing at his task. Even after the publication of his first graphic novel on his father’s story Artie worries that he has inappropriately captured his father and that the work can never do the experience justice.
Additionally, Artie blames his father’s personality on the Holocaust. His father is stingy with money, willing to live on next to nothing. He is demanding, coarse, and judgmental. As a reason behind his personality Artie claims that his father’s past has shaped this character in him. That the Holocaust is the reason he will throw away nothing, and do nothing with money but save it. He believes that the Holocaust is the reason that his father is so surly, that surely his attitude is a product of his rough life. His father lived through a death trap, Artie can never measure up to that, and can never be as accomplished as his father. This is what Artie believes, what he thinks, what keeps him at arm’s length from his father. His lack of shared history, his inability to experience the Holocausts drives him into creating a world where his father and he cannot coexist in mutual understanding.
In the car with his wife, Artie speaks of his ghost-brother and the impact that has had on his life. Richieu was the first son, the boy that knew the Holocaust, the boy that did not survive the Holocaust. His parents cherish the picture of this son. They recall the memory their son as the perfect boy he was. This perfection plagues Arties. He feels that he is constantly competing with a ghost to gain the approval of his parents. His brother was a mere five or six when he died, allowing him to be the picture of perfection to his parents. Richieu would not have chosen the life Artie had chosen, he would have “married a rich Jew,” and known the suffering that his parents knew. Richieu is the missing generational link from Artie to his parents. He, as a son, would be able to relate to Artie and his existence before the Holocaust creates a shared history. However, his death pushes Artie further from his parents, because now Artie must face a brother he never met in order to prove himself a worthy son in the eyes of his parents. As he sees it, he can never measure up to the perfection of his ghost brother – a person who symbolizes the happiness his parents knew before the war even began.
The Holocaust is a part of Artie’s family history. That fact will always remain, but it is a part of their history that Artie cannot truly relate to. His interpretations, as he views them, are inadequate renderings of horror he will never know. Due to this view on the Holocaust, and his parents’ life experience Artie continually feels inept and disconnected from his family. His is plagued by inadequacy in his work, compared to his ghost-brother, and in his comparative life accomplishments in relation to the survival of his parents. Artie attempts to understand the event, the history, that has shaped his life, but this understanding may be something out of his reach.
An Analysis of Maus, a Graphical Story by Art Spiegelman
Maus is a graphical story derived from the visits Art Spiegelman made to New York to visit his father Vladek. Vladek was a Polish Jew and a survivor of the world war 11 holocaust. This survival and the visits Art made brought to life Maus which is a reflection of what exactly happened. In the comic all the characters are given animal names where there are frogs, mice, cats and so on. The cats prey on the mice which explains why Art chose to illustrate how the Jews, who were the mice were massacred by the cats. (Miller,2011)
Arts style of writing Maus involves going back and forth to the past and present which was one way for him to bring out the originality of his work and for the reader to understand the growth of the story. Moreover, Vladek way of narrating the story of his life to his son does not follow any pattern and he is also limited by his poor English language. And this is part of how a reader is able to differentiate between the past and present that is the past Vladeks English is very broken and the present it is improved. (Boin,1997)
The way the author chose to tell this story is also a clear strategy he has employed throughout the comic which follows a pattern relating to the same things he did to tell the story. He visited his father in order to get content for his story then they would have lunch and take a walk which portrayed a daily thing, there was also no spontaneousness when Art hang out with vladek there was order like he had his own seat. lastly the last part was linking the sequence with this estranged father son relationship. And following such routine Art was able to follow a sequence which gave the story some life.
Vladek reveals some traumatic characteristics due to the holocaust which in turn reflects in his relationships. He started from the bottom once and ended up marrying from a wealthy family to his first wife Anja. Then, he was compassionate and he was filled with attention for his family up until the German invasion. He lost everything after that including his first son Richiue when he was poisoned by his aunt to protect him from the massacre. All these affected his behavior hence him withdrawing from his son Art and the lack of affection with Mala his second wife.to some extent vladek is depicted as stingy with everything he had after the second world war.
Art tries to draw a clear picture of his rather an unattached relationship with his father.at one point he wished he was born at an earlier time. Vladek criticized everything Art did and he would constantly pick on him over small issues. He was a handy man and his son chose something his father couldn’t which was been an artist. Contrary to this, Art loved his mother he mentions that if the rain that poured on the roof was gas and he was to choose between which parent he had to save then he would save his mom. (Miller2011).
These two relationships clearly show that Art’s childhood was a troubled one and as such, for a reader to be able to understand this, the past and present had to be interconnected as one.
Part of why Art chose to engage the past and present in this narrative was to try and comprehend how the genocide and the holocaust through his father’s experience and to in turn paint a clearer picture of these events to the reader. Combining the events before the holocaust and after it which was the genocide is part of philosophy known as postmodernism. This form of philosophy and the structure of Maus basically explains the relationship between how the time in the narrative is processed and remembered. [Steingold 2015]. with this in mind therefore one can comprehend the use of post memory to intertwine Arts style of writing and his father’s story of survival. (Shoomp,2008)
Vladeks survival at the Auschwitz camp and the horrors he went through after losing everything took a turn on Art later directly and indirectly as a result of the trauma. His parenthood skills were totally drawn from his survival tactics during and after the war. [Steingold 2015]. representing such as a story minding the difficulties that come with it such as distortion of memory and or biasness, Art kept in mind that Maus was a mere representation of history. The holocaust cannot truly be represented in all aspects and he knew this. (Powell,1998) Spielgman use of telling a story within a story in writing on the Holocaust is him telling of his version of the event. This was him self-consciously representing the holocaust from how he captured it from what he heard. He really wanted his readers to empathize with him; he talks to his wife about how inadequate he felt about recounting the events of the holocaust. (powell,1998)
The use of juxtaposition and framing contradictory thoughts together for the truth to be sensible was attained by putting together Arts present conversations with Vladek’s past thus opposing two time ranges put together side by side. Initially this juxtaposition was formed from Vladek’s disorderly manner of telling his story and in order for Art to create his comic narrative it had to follow a certain order. The use of this style helped the author maintain the originality of the narrative.
Lastly, the visual style of Maus serves to distance Spiegelman from his own past. Additionally, the visual style is used to add humor in the work while simultaneously employing some metaphor. The illustration of Jews as mice and the Nazis as cats is self-explanatory, and Spiegelman is skillfully using the comic format to convey a grave issue. Spiegelman uses postmodern style of adult comics to add a historical recorded racism and anti-Semitism in the form of metaphor.
The metaphor descriptions are meant to arouse this type of response. As per the author description, “It’s crazy to divide things down to nationalistic or racial or religious lines, and that’s the whole point” (Spielgman, The Complete Maus). This quotation, and the cartoon metaphor in general, is an allusion to Nazi’s belief that “Jews are undoubtedly a race, but they are not human.” Spiegelman is thus coining the twisted concept of racial theory. The use of the metaphor is stated yet again when Art visits his therapist. In the beginning of Maus, when Art is prompted by a journalist asking if how he would depict Israeli Jews as animals, he responds by saying, “I have no idea…porcupines?” (Spielgman). In this scene and the subsequent one, all of the characters are in masks, one of the only occasions where this occurs in the novel. (Steingold,2015)
Analysis of the Topic of Family as Illustrated in the Essay: Life is Beautiful, Maus: a Survivor’s Tale, and Barefoot Gen
Family During Tragedy
People thrive on relationships. The relationships that people make define who they are and family and friends are who we depend on for love and support. However, when obstacles are put in the way of relationships, it can result in the unification or separation of families and friends. When those situations are as tragic as the Holocaust and the bombing of Hiroshima, where hundreds of thousands of people are killed, the damage seems irreparable. In sources such as Life is Beautiful, Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, and Barefoot Gen, we see how different families react to difficult situations, and because of the theme of family is very relatable, those sources are able to resonate with readers very well. Sources that depict the dynamics of families and friends after the Holocaust and the bombing of Hiroshima are more persuasive because they showcase the breakdown or strength in tragic situations that the audience, on a smaller scale, can relate to or fear.
In in the Italian film, Life Is Beautiful, one of the most attractive aspects of the movie that resonates with the audience is it’s theme of family and protection. From the beginning of the movie, the audience falls in love with Guido Orefice. His antics make him get in trouble with the high-class people and earn him the women of his dreams. When they have a kid, the audience can feel the protection and love for Guido’s son, Giosue. The play takes an unexpected turn when Guido and his family are sent to a concentration camp. However, despite the tragic subject, the movie is able to keep it’s humor, without romanticizing the Holocaust. We can see this in many parts of the movie, one being when Guido goes to the loudspeaker to shout “Buongiorno Principessa”, the one thing he would always say to his wife when he would see her. This symbolizes that despite the situation that Guido is put in, his humor and his spirit stays with him until he dies. When Guido is executed, and he is being taken to where he will be killed, he spots his son and does the “funny walk” that has been many times before in the movie as a way to tell his son and the audience that keeping yourself and your own sanity is most important in hard situations and his protection of his son’s childhood innocence and romancing the world for the sake of your children resonates with many parents as well. This act by Guido also serves as a way to remember the legacy and the humorous, fatherly nature that Guido showcases throughout the film.
In the anime film, Barefoot Gen, the movie follows a family of two boys, an older girl, a father and pregnant women. Despite a lack of food and the mother being malnourished, the family overcomes obstacles of hunger. This dynamic, however, is devastated by the bombing of Hiroshima, where the youngest brother, the eldest daughter and the father are all crushed by their house. Gen, the young boy and his mother Kimie are the only survivors in their family. Despite how humorous and unified the Orefice family stays in Life is Beautiful, the bombing of Hiroshima creates a breakdown of the mother. We see this immediately after Gen and Kimie’s family dies when Kimie starts to laugh hysterically when her family is crushed. Another place where we see the loss of family being is prevalent is when Gen’s infant sister, Tomoko dies and is cremated. When watching, the audience can see paralleling factors between this scene and the scene after the bombing of Hiroshima. There is similar music playing and an obvious parallel through the imagery. This symbolizes how although the bombing of Hiroshima was a devastation to hundreds of thousands all over Japan, the moment when Gen’s younger sister died was when he was truly devastated and that was when Gen felt as though the world was truly collapsing around him.
The final source that showcases family during calamity is Maus: A Survivor’s Tale. The graphic novel displays The Holocaust more raw than any of the others sources, despite it being showcased through pictures. In the graphic novel, one of the most interesting things to observe is the relationship between Art and his father Vladek. In the book, Art is bluntly honest about his relationship with his father. He cannot understand his father nor in many areas even likes his father. However, through the duration of the book, Art begins at last to understand his father’s stinginess with money, his emotional isolation with all the losses he has absorbed, and his complicated relationship with his son. Art desperately wants to know exactly what happened to his father, mother and brother while Vladek is torn between allowing Artie to see the horror while having to relive the terrible memories, and as a result, his father often shuts him down and represses memories of the Holocaust. By the end of the novel, neither Art nor his father feel as though their relationship is resolved, most likely due to the fact that Art still resents the fact that his mother committed suicide and his belief that his father may have contributed to her depression.
The family dynamic from each of these sources differs and resonates with its audience because of it’s of it’s worldwide ideology. The most persuasive source for me was Life Is Beautiful. This is because it incorporates humor and is able to funny without romanticizing the Holocaust. I think it is also very powerful because it was able to make me think about losing a family member and it gave me a good outlook on life and how I should act with family members.
Analyzing Allegories in “Maus” and “Terrible Things”
Today, most Americans can only imagine what the horrors of the Holocaust must have been like – and, to be frank, they are probably very glad that they have no personal experiences to draw on. However, the Holocaust, and other catastrophic events in history, must be remembered. Even as Americans who live nowhere near the places that were ravaged by destruction and genocide, we must attempt to understand the Holocaust, because even events as horrific as the genocide of Jews in Europe are a part of history – and history tends to repeat itself. Many authors of Holocaust literature seem to believe that awareness equals prevention. Both words and images are a vital component of remembrance, as exemplified by allegorical Holocaust literature such as that created by authors Art Spiegelman and Eve Bunting. Art Spiegelman, in his Maus books, and Eve Bunting, author of the children’s book Terrible Things: An Allegory of the Holocaust, show us that words and images are both essential in representations of the Holocaust. The use of an allegory in which animals symbolize people, when paired with careful style and pattern choices for illustrations, is highly effective in conveying the message that racism and division can lead, quite simply, to “terrible things”.
Maus is an unusual account of the Holocaust – it is strikingly different from most Holocaust literature targeted at adults, yet Spiegelman’s work has attracted an amazing number of readers of all ages. In fact, Maus won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992, and has proven to be a staple in many college classrooms. In writing and illustrating Maus, Art Spielgelman took on the difficult task of accurately representing his father’s story, as well as depicting the things that Vladek told him in a way that the public could understand and appreciate. Interestingly, he chose to represent people in Maus as animals, with each race portrayed as a different animal. In this allegory, the Jews are depicted as mice, the Germans are cats, the Poles are pigs, and when Americans are introduced in Maus II, they are dogs. Besides creating an obvious division between some of the key groups in the Holocaust, readers can read more deeply into Spiegelman’s choice of animal for each race. The cat and mouse idea behind the portrayal of the Germans and the Jews is a fairly obvious one. Speigelman’s choice to draw the Poles as pigs, however, could be taken in several ways: perhaps they are depicted as pigs because they stand by and do nothing while the Jews are taken away, or perhaps the pig symbolizes the Poles’ greed and selfishness when they took over Jewish homes and businesses after the Jews were evacuated from Polish towns. Either way, Speigelman’s depiction of these four races pushes readers to recognize the racial differences, hatred, and segregation that occurred during the Holocaust, and his allegory proves to be a poignant one.
Throughout Maus and Maus II, Speigelman uses metaphors to spotlight the division between races in Europe at the time of the Holocaust. His two volumes follow Vladek’s story from a time when he was a normal citizen of Poland, to a time when Jews, Poles, and Germans each had their distinctive places in society, and finally to a time when Jews were slaughtered simply for the fact that they were Jewish. Speigelman’s depiction of Jews as mice helps readers who may know little about such extreme racism to understand that the differences in appearance, dialect, and the like were the primary signs that the Nazis used to direct their hatred. In the Holocaust all of the European races were human; similarly, in Maus all of the characters are animals, yet it is the subtle differences between them that cause the death of millions.
When Vladek must take his wife Anja to the sanitarium, Speigelman illustrates a perfect world in which all animals can live in harmony. Though it is ironic that everyone is only at peace when they are in a sanitarium, this is the only time in his two volumes that Speigelman brings all the different kinds of animals together. Here, there are mice, pigs, cats, and dogs, as well as rabbits, horses, giraffes, goats, and frogs. Once they leave the sanitarium and enter the “real” world again, however, racism rears its head and they separate once again. It is interesting that Speigelman chooses to send the message that only in a completely contrived, unnatural situation such as a “health resort” can different races be truly at peace, but nonetheless, this adds to the strength of his allegory.
Bunting’s Terrible Things also uses animals to symbolize groups that were persecuted during the Holocaust. She and illustrator Stephen Gammell create a forest filled with rabbits, squirrels, fish, birds, frogs, and porcupines. All of the animals live together peacefully until the Terrible Things come to the forest and wreak havoc on nature’s harmony. The Terrible Things are not represented as animals, as the Nazis are in Maus, but rather as ethereal, haunting shadows that blot out the sun. The first time the Terrible Things come to visit, they say, “We have come for every creature with feathers on its back.” All of the animals of the forest say, “We don’t have feathers” – except, of course, for the birds, who are then taken away. Upon each return, the Terrible Things take away another type of animal, while the ones who do not meet the criteria look the other way, glad that they are able to stay in the clearing. The Terrible Things continue to come back, however, until they have taken away all the animals except for the white rabbits. Little Rabbit is afraid and wants to move, but Big Rabbit counters, “Why should we move? This has always been our home. And the Terrible Things won’t come back. We are the White Rabbits. It couldn’t happen to us.” Then, of course, it does: the white rabbits are taken away, all except for Little Rabbit who is small enough to hide in the rocks. In the end, Little Rabbit realizes that, “If only we creatures had stuck together, it could have been different.”
Speigelman’s metaphor for racism is echoed in Terrible Things, and here it is especially effective in teaching young children that no matter how different people are, bad things can happen to anyone. The book’s message is that it is important to stick together and try to help each other rather than ignore each others’ suffering. Terrible Things differs from Maus, however, in that each race is not associated with a specific animal. Also, the Nazis, or the Terrible Things, are not represented as animals, but rather as ominous clouds lurking over the forest. Terrible Things is more abstract than Maus, in that the animals do not represent particular groups (most likely because such references would most likely be lost on children, the intended audience); here, the allegory here focuses on obvious differences that children can see (feathers, color, ability to swim, etc.). Each group of forest animals has distinct differences, and each time the Terrible Things come to take some of them away, the animals that remain are very glad that it is not their turn. Though this story may be disturbing to younger children, it is effective at alerting readers that differences between people should not cause such division that they allow terrible things to happen. As Bunting states as a sort of preface to Terrible Things, “In Europe, during World War II, many people looked the other way while terrible things happened. They pretended not to know that their neighbors were being taken away and locked in concentration camps. They pretended not to hear their cries for help. The Nazis killed millions of Jews and others in the Holocaust. If everyone had stood together at the first sign of evil, would this have happened?” Bunting invites children and adults alike to think about the consequences of their own actions and prejudices, and Gammell’s illustrations throughout Terrible Things inspire the same discomfort and sadness in children that Speigelman’s images of hatred and death in Maus inspire in adults. So, image paired with word, we see here, can make a big impact.
Images can communicate things that even words cannot, and are especially relevant in the context of Holocaust literature. In representing the Holocaust through images, it is important to consider factors such as style, color, and placement. As an illustrator one must consider the effect that the illustrations will have on the viewer, and both Spiegelman and Gammell made choices that enhance comprehension in the reader and convey a clear message. Both illustrators portray their subjects in simple black and white, and both make the pictures take over each page in such a way that they become the main focus of the books. The use of black and white is convincing for depictions of the Holocaust, even when animals are the subject, because any real photographs that readers may have seen from the era would have been black and white. Black and white is often used to convey the gravity of a situation, as well, and using these shades to illustrate Maus and Terrible Things allows Speigelman and Gammell to create serious, somber messages about the possible consequences of hatred. Also, images take center stage in these books presumably because the story behind Holocaust is really about the people, about the victims, and about what happened to them, rather than merely an account of the number of dead bodies or a history of how Hitler came to acquire such power.
With all their similarities, however, there are some marked differences between the two illustrators’ styles. While Spiegelman uses thick black lines and a comic book format, Gammell uses pencil drawings and a more realistic style. Both illustrators’ images are full of impact, though, because the pictures command such a power and presence on the page. The lack of color draws the reader to the image and begs them to analyze what they are seeing. For example, Gammell includes an image of a frightened squirrel who is about to be captured by the Terrible Things. Children reading this book will immediately notice the squirrel’s expression of fear because Gammell places the detailed creature so carefully on the page. In Maus II, likewise, Speigelman captures the expressions of burning bodies in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, and his use of bold lines captivates, horrifies, and consumes the reader. Also, in each book, the animal allegory adds to the impact of the pictures because for very young children who may not be able to handle images of real bodies, depictions of animals can serve as a gateway to understanding the true story of the Holocaust. Seeing these illustrations may be quite upsetting to children, and when they learn later that these things happened to humans, they will be able to assimilate the feelings they had when reading Terrible Things into what they are learning about real victims. Also, the allegory works to impact adult readers of Maus when they see Speigelman’s drawings because the characters do clearly represent actual humans.
In the end, Maus and Terrible Things leave readers feeling something powerful. Whether it is sadness, shock, or a determination to never again ignore the pain of others, Speigelman and Bunting have both created very poignant works. Using both words and images, these authors have done something that many Holocaust writers have not – they have connected the words that many have heard about the Holocaust with images that make sense to their intended audience.
Art Speigelman’s Depiction of the Association between a Son and His Dad as Illustrated in His Book, Maus
The graphic novel Maus by Art Speigelman displays an increasingly tense relationship between him and his father, Vladek. Although Vladek is initially portrayed as frivolous, contriving, self-pitying, detrimentally offensive to his loved ones, and compulsive, the reader eventually learns, through his recollection of the horrors of the Holocaust that Vladek is this way because of the hellish prison that Adolf Hitler placed him in. Throughout this essay I will analyze the father son relationship between Vladek and Art through close reading using themes such as time, guilt, and miscommunication that run rampant throughout their damaged relationship.I will discuss ways in which Maus themes such as racial issues, xenophobia, and historical traumapave the way for generational trauma in regards to Vladek and Art, and how this trauma negatively affects their relationship even more. I will also discuss the ways in which Art is a trauma survivor too, and back up my belief with examples from his very own tangible emotions laid out for readers like myself in Maus.
Throughout Maus, Vladek can be seen reprimanding Art for several petty infringements such as making a mess with cigarette ash while Vladek reluctantly recounts one of many belittling experiences in the concentration camp involving an officer rebuking him for making a mess of the camp. This correlation between past and present events causes Art to start feeling guilty for the standoffish way he has always treated his father, and instills a deep sense of guilt within his heart. From throwing out Art’s coat to burning Anja’s diaries, Vladek was constantly doing things that upset Art, and vice versa. Through close reading I realized that many of these transgressions were simply misunderstandings, and had Art and Vladek realized this, their relationship may have been quite different. Constantly grasping for a father figure, Art is blinded by Vladek’s angry and neurotic antics, and upset about the distance between him and his son, along with haunting memories of the Holocaust and the tragic suicide of his first wife, Vladek is not able to act as a proper father figure for Art. Eventually, Art becomes so deprived, confused, and lonely that he wishes he had been at Auschwitz with his parents just so he could truly know what they went through. This is an extreme sign of generational trauma that resulted from years and years of Vladek incorrectly attempting to deal with his own trauma. Emotion runs rampant through this graphic novel, and aids in explaining the complex father and son relationship that is portrayed.
Hidden behind Vladek’s recount of his traumatic past in the camps is Art coming to terms with the way history has affected his father. In the beginning and end of each chapter, the reader is hit with an emotional wave of Art’s feelings in the present after hearing what his father had to say that day about the Holocaust. At the beginning and end of each chapter, Art describes how frustrated and guilty he feels when it comes to his relationship with his father. In the beginning, Art describes his father as he is- a traumatized survivor just trying to cope with what once went on all around him, all the while being a finicky, self-pitying old man. As the plot thickens, so does Art’s understanding of his father through first hand stories of what his father went through. Aat first the reader may find themselves against Vladek due to the way he treats those around him in the present, but as the story progresses, it is easy to come to terms with why Vladek is the way he is. One example of Art’s progressively heightened understanding as the book goes on is when Vladek accidentally calls him, Art’s brother that was murdered in the ghettos. In the beginning of the story, if Vladek had slipped up and made this mistake, Art may have become irate with his due to the belief that his father loved Richieu more, but at the point in the story when Vladek actually does call him Richieu, it can be noted that Art actually feels content with his father’s mistake, and Art sees that it was out of love for both him and his brother.
I appreciate the graphic novel recount of this particular subject because I believe it is able to engage the reader in ways that common novels cannot. Throughout Maus, a reoccurring motif is a chimney, illustrating victims’ brutal fate without actually having to say it. This reoccurring chimney symbolizes the constant weight of fear on the shoulders of the Holocaust victims; fear that they might soon be exterminated. Another reason a graphic novel was a wonderful way for Art to recount his father’s story is because he can simultaneously show how he feels without interrupting his father’s narrative and vice versa. I don’t believe that this could be done in the form of a novel.
After analyzing Vladek and Art’s relationship, Vladek’s strange quirks cause Art to be annoyed by him in many ways. Although Art’s mission was to get his father’s story out there, his father’s mannerisms annoy him greatly along the way. The outbursts between father and son throughout this story soon become a source of guilt for Art, as he copes with trying to understand why his father acts the way he does. This major theme of guilt is shown throughout the graphic novel in many ways. Art feels guilty for not being a good son, Art feels guilty for the suicide of his mother, and Art feels guilty for becoming successful and capitalizing off of Maus. “Maybe your father needed to show that he was always right – that he could always survive – because he felt guilty about surviving. And he took his guilt out on you, where it was safe…on the real survivor”. This quote from Maus describes the tension between father and son and its cause, guilt. Vladek was constantly feeling survivor’s guilt, after the death of so many fellow Jews and the death of Anja, causing him to take it out on his son, “the real survivor”. But the question remains about whether or not Art believes his is a real survivor, due to the fact that he always feels extremely down about himself due to his relationship with his father and his guilt.
It is very important for the reader to see that Art is impacted by his father’s traumatic narrative so that the reader can fully grasp what second-generation trauma means when it comes to the relationship between father and son. Art even goes so far as to state, “I know this is insane, but I somehow wish I had been in Auschwitz with my parents so I could really know what they lived through! … I guess it’s some kind of guilt about having had an easier life than they did.” This truly displays the heartbreaking impact of Vladek’s recount; his story had affected his son to the point where in order to fully understand his father’s grief, he wanted to put himself in his father’s shoes…literally. The impact of his father’s grief and his mother’s suicide shaped Art as a person, and in order to be able to tell his story completely, Art had to put all of this out on the table for readers.
Vladek’s character had been greatly shaped by the Holocaust, and this shows throughout the graphic novel as he is unable to lead a normal life, as well as Mala and Art calling him out for his behavior. Vladek’s instinct is to ration money and food in case tragedy strikes again, and he has certainly taken up a particular xenophobia due to Hitler’s control over Jews during WWII. Vladek is also obsessive compulsive, which causes Mala and Art great annoyance, only straining their relationships even more. Vladek has also isolated himself from the public due to his extreme trauma. Art actually helps Vladek give meaning to his survival by having him tell stories from his treacherous past, but this does not happen without many obstacles between the two. The form of the graphic novel allows Art to candidly lay out his worries about depicting his father’s frugality. He worried that displaying the truth about how cheap his father is would perpetuate the stereotype of the “cheap Jew”, but the strain that this quality put on his family was too much not to share.
Art’s fascination with recording Vladek’s description of the Holocaust forces him to associate with his father much more often than usual, and Vladek’s grumpy resistance doesn’t help a bit. The beginning of Maus illustrates this, and shows that neither father nor son are able to understand each other and relate to what the other is going through. Art cannot get over the fact that his father is having a hard time recounting what happened to him during his horrific past, and Art is having trouble placing himself in his father’s shoes. This causes frustration to build within Art, and he tries to force information out of his father that his father no longer has due to trauma. Pretty soon, Art discovers that Vladek has destroyed Anja’s journals, the only tangible evidence of her life left over, and Art calls Vladek a murderer, only setting them farther apart than they were before. “Congratulations! … You’ve committed the perfect crime … You put me here … shorted all my circuits … cut my nerve endings … and crossed my wires! … You murdered me, Mommy, and you left me here to take the rap!!!” Art feels betrayed by both of his parents for their actions due to the Holocaust, and he is still unable to put himself in their shoes. He feels that they are very selfish, and he doesn’t think their actions were fair to him because he was just a kid.
Another aspect that separates Art from his father is his father’s estate. “Talking about your estate just makes me uncomfortable.” He’s also concerned with his father’s legacy “in a broader sense, in the sense of a cultural tradition, and also in the sense of psychological or emotional baggage” (Shmoop). Along with the looming memory of “the perfect child” Richieu, and the lack of input from Anja due to her suicide, Art feels overwhelmed by grief, guilt, loss, and misunderstanding. Art is forced to deal with looking at a large, blurry, framed photo of his late brother, and states, “it’s spooky, having sibling rivalry with a snapshot”. Art also feels skepticism towards his father’s ability to love, which he shows through the illustration of his father’s relationship with Mala. Art has to deal with his father’s obsessive-compulsive ways, while his father has to deal with what he endured in his past. “Pop just wanted to leavethe leftover food around until I ate it. Sometimes he’d evensave it to serve again and again until I’d eat it or starve”, states Art, in reference to his father’s ways. One of the reasons that I believe Art drew most of Maus in an almost childlike way, using mice as characters, is because he was unable to fully visualize his father’s reality. Prisoner on Hell Planet, on the other hand, is drawn very differently, and in great detail, because it was all about the ways Art felt during his mothers suicide, almost like a trip inside of his brain.
Art displays how much his father makes him feel incompetent, because, after all, nothing Art did would ever be as awesome as surviving the Holocaust. Vladek even thought him becoming an artist was a bad idea; he didn’t think it would make Art any money. Art feels as if his father thinks that if Richieu was still alive, that he would be the ideal child. “The photo never threw tantrums or got in any kind of trouble… it was an ideal kid. And I was a pain in the ass. I couldn’t compete”. Art believes, and Vladek validates, that every small mistake he makes causes Vladek to think of how perfect Richieu would have been in the same situations. In reference to his father’s abnormal behavior, ““in some ways he didn’t survive”, Artie says, and looking at the pathetic figure that Vladek cuts, whencompared to the pre war resourceful young Vladek, one cannot but help agree with Artie” (Ghosh).Art’s whole life, Vladek has been so distant that Art believes that while Vladek’s body survived the Holocaust, not all of his soul did.
All in all, Mausnot only demonstrates the atrocities that Vladek went through in the Holocaust, but also the strong sense of guilt and disconnect that his son feels as he goes through life everyday with a father who survived the Holocaust. Many second generation trauma victims feel this way about their family members who have endured horrific events in their past, and a plethora of other feelings come up, also. Art demonstrates his own feelings in Prisoner on Hell Planet, while simultaneously striving to display his father’s recount of the Holocaust.“Maus is part of second-generation literature that strives to both learn about the influence of the first generation’s past on their present, and to work through and comprehend their relationship and identity in the context of this traumatic and absent past” (Blanchard).
The Means of Stylistics Used and Their Influence on the Text in Maus
In any artistic work, aesthetic style is a crucial aid to the viewer’s understanding of the piece as a whole. Art Spiegelman’s remarkable publication Maus breaks the conventional barriers of the past between comics and what were then considered to be serious novels. As a graphic novel about a horrific atrocity, Maus is the first work of its kind. Through the style of his drawings, Spiegelman is able to use illustration to aid in the telling of a story. Each individually crafted panel is detailed enough to be significant alone; together, they create a rich tapestry of images which portray a powerful story without compromising the work’s literary integrity. Page 87 of Maus is an ideal example of Spiegelman’s combination of thoughtful detail and underlying meaning in his drawings.
In panels 2, 3, 6 and 7 of page 87, Vladek and Artie are only shown as silhouettes. This might be taken to represent a connection with Vladek’s past. As Adolf Hitler is quoted to have said, “The Jews are undoubtedly a race, but they are not human,” Jews were not viewed as worthwhile individuals. As the camps and gas chambers filled, each Jew became only a number, if even that. As the Jews were faceless then, Vladek is depicted as being faceless in the present.
Yet, it is noteworthy that Vladek’s glasses are still visible against his dark silhouette. Glasses stereotypically represent a person’s thought and intellect, and in these panels, spectacles imply a hint of Vladek’s human aptitude. The contrast between the glasses and the silhouette is an ironic detail beyond what the initial glance might discern. Thoughtful details like these that appear throughout Maus are significant in their ability to lend a sense of humanity to an inhumanly cruel tale. Almost six million Jews were massacred during the Holocaust; although many works have been written about and around the events of the Second World War, Spiegelman, through the use of image, attempts through new venues to help the reader relate. In Maus, the people – often victims of history – are revived, transformed and metamorphosed into hand-drawn characters. Although these comics, because they are inherently two-dimensional, cannot do complete justice to multi-dimensional human beings, they do not deviate far from the truth.
Perhaps for entertainment value, or to an extent, to alleviate the grim nature of his novel, Spiegelman adds a caricature-like quality to the depiction of his characters, particularly Vladek, who becomes the stereotypical Miserly Jew. This almost laughable quality is most obvious in the novel when Vladek, who – even in his advanced age – continues to carry home small knickknacks and bits he finds along the street, refuses to part with a piece of wire he discovers while strolling with his son. Vladek is additionally depicted as being petty and unforgiving, harsh in speech and uncouth in manner, and somewhat a bigot. However, it is ironically also these personality flaws that cause his rodent-faced character to appear more real, more “human.” As the reader comes to silently despise Vladek for his numerous shortcomings, he becomes increasingly attached to the character on an unconscious level. This unconscious concern for the character later translates into compassion and sympathy, and gradually the thoughtful development of Maus’s characters causes us to almost forget that even Vladek has a rodent tail. In the telling of the story, as Jews are mice, not inherently harmful but reputed pests requiring riddance, Nazis are given cat faces, somewhat menacing, but strangely more physically resembling humans than those of their rodent counterparts.
As the reader becomes drawn deeper into the tale and closer to the characters, drama within the plot takes on increased effect. By page 87, the reader has already witnessed the setting of the scene for the entrance of concentration camps into the story. On page 86, the suspense and shock build; the individual panels are larger in size than those of previous pages, particularly than the noticeably smaller frames of page 85. It is worthy to note that in most of the book’s pages, especially those preceding pages 86 and 87, the mice are not depicted to have visible eyebrows. However, on 86, the expressions of anxiety and fear created by the shape of the mice’s suddenly present eyebrows dominate the page. This evokes an air of anticipation in the reader, which carries over into the next page. Here, on page 87, as if finally reaching a crescendo, the panels in which Vladek recalls the past to Artie show the two figures as silhouettes only. Drama becomes heightened; it is comparable to the effect created when the face of a camp side storyteller is illuminated with the single beam of a flashlight. These silhouette panels could even be called negatives, similar to photo negatives, as the color of the subjects and backgrounds are reversed. In film, this type of inverse of light and dark lends a feeling of apprehension, foreshadowing doom of some kind. Despite the intense drama of the page, it is appropriate – this is the first time in Maus that Vladek and his family are directly affected by the events at Auschwitz.
Although the story of the Holocaust has been told countless times, and in the present day, the occurrences at concentration camps have all been exposed, it is with such subtle details that Spiegelman is able to persuade the reader into shock when Maus characters begin to be exterminated. The reader is forced to rely increasingly on the posture and gesticulations of the figures, Valdek’s in particular, and on the dialogue. Especially on page 87, many words are printed in bold lettering. This deviates from previous pages, which have few or no bolded words. Again, these small, easily dismissible coincidences can be proven to be in actuality not coincidences at all, but carefully planned components of the graphic novel.
Maus is a refreshing transgression from the norm. As art, it is impressive in its magnitude; as literature, it propels story telling to new venues. Art Spiegelman has proven that not only can two media of expression be combined successfully; they can be united without detriment to either artistic or literary integrity. He is most commendable, however, not for that which readers notice, but for that which they easily overlook – the subtle yet powerful details that permeate his work, leaving readers breathless without them realizing exactly why.
The Representative Means of Comics in Maus
While Art sits at his drawing board, a pile of emaciated Jewish bodies lies below him, seemingly unnoticed while reporters and businessmen climb over them (II.41). These bodies represent the grave nature of Art’s subject matter, the millions of dead Jews demanding that their story be told accurately, that their murderers’ atrocity not be trivialized. And at first glance, as we see roughly drawn, animal versions of soldiers fighting in one of the most terrible wars in history, it may appear as though Art’s book epitomizes this trivialization. But as we delve deeper into his world, we soon discover the rich depth that his medium provides in its opportunity for vivid metaphor and enlightening perspective.
Maus chronicles not only the harrowing story of Vladek’s survival, but also the story of Artie’s coming to terms with his father’s experiences. These two worlds and the cultural contexts associated with them are constantly juxtaposed as the narrative seamlessly alternates between them, the characters and background instantly providing the context for any given panel. For example, inserted into the myriad of examples of how Vladek was a victim of anti-Semitic Nazi treatment is a scene in which we learn that he himself is just as racist toward black people, or “shvartsers,” as he calls them, as the Nazis were toward him (II.98-100). Vladek doesn’t even believe it makes sense to compare blacks and Jews. This stark contrast between what we read and what we would at first expect exists because the two stories are so interwoven; we can’t help but compare Vladek and the Nazis, and the similarities we find are disturbing.
Art’s choice to include without modification his previous work, Prisoner on the Hell Planet, is an interesting one (I.100-103). The brief segment is chronologically halfway between the two main narratives, and it helps to tie them together. We gain an idea of how the Holocaust affected Art’s parents and how they in turn affected him, their emotional instability mixing up his emotions so that he ends up blaming them, the Holocaust, and everything else that enters his mind. By including the main autobiographical narrative, we can glimpse both Art’s difficulty in understanding his parent’s experiences as well as his father’s difficulty in understanding that his son is living in a new era, one far removed from the Holocaust. We can take the familiar place of Art and, like him, see his father’s story through his father’s eyes.
Some memories are so important to us, so fiercely horrifying or intensely pleasant, that the sight becomes burned into our mind, every minute detail of the scene unforgettably captured. No representation, be it words, a picture, or a movie, can do these moments the justice they deserve, but Art’s expressive drawings come close. We get a glimpse of what it might have been like for Vladek, looking down on the burning bodies, watching the gasoline and human fat being poured to accelerate the blaze (II.72). Art depicts these intense memories of Vladek’s experience with subtly different drawings, using heavy lines and dark, intense shading so that the emotion bleeds off the page. There are no speech bubbles to represent a passage of time; the memory is condensed to a single instant, frozen, captured on the page just as it was captured in Vladek’s memory. These evocative panels transport us directly into Vladek’s point of view, and they could never exist in any other medium.
The comic form also allows Spiegelman to utilize symbols to express mood and feeling. When Vladek and Anja leave the ghetto and begin walking to Sosnowiec, they feel lost, not knowing what will come next as they search for some place to stay and hide (I.125). Art encapsulates this feeling of nervous suspense with a casual inclusion of swastika-shaped crossroads, and this subtle symbolism immediately conveys a torrent of information. Even though they are near their home, they feel as though they are in a foreign world. They realize they have no choice but to walk the Nazi path, knowing they could run into trouble at any moment. And what looks to be a crematorium in the background suggests that, if they chose the wrong path, they will end up like their many relatives and friends, snuffed out by the Nazis. All this information and emotion is communicated through the powerful illustration of a single panel, a testament to the suitability of the comic medium for Art’s subject matter.
One of the most apparent instances of symbolism in Maus is the animal-headed characters. Anthropomorphic animals are, of course, nothing new to the world of comics; we don’t think twice about the absurdity of talking rodents and we easily accept the almost cliché relationship between cats and mice that we find in Maus. But unlike Tom and Jerry, whose roles as animals are portrayed only literally, Art’s animal heads are used to represent the stereotypes associated with the different groups in the social arena of the time. The Germans are represented by cats, instinctive hunters of Jewish mice, who in turn are seen as as vermin to be exterminated; this association of mice with Jews may be based on the German anti-Semitic propaganda film, The Eternal Jew, in which a pack of rats emerging from a sewer is juxtaposed with Jews in a crowded street of a Polish ghetto1. The mouse metaphor also captures the resourcefulness and scavenging nature of mice as well as their inability to ever be wiped out entirely. And just as cats don’t view mice as bitter enemies so much as instinctive food, many Germans were not fully conscious of their antagonism toward Jews, instead simply swallowing propaganda and obeying orders.
The separation of characters into distinct species may seem at first to be trivializing and unnecessary, but it does effectively capture the stark stratification that existed during the World War II era. Adolf Hitler’s quote, “the Jews are undoubtedly a race, but they are not human,” epitomizes the viewpoint held by many Nazis who truly viewed the Jews as a separate species. At one point, a mouse claims that he is in fact German and should be relieved from the harsh treatment given to the Jews. Spiegelman drew the character twice, once as a mouse and once as a cat; to the Germans, there was no middle ground, and their identification of the man as a Jew ensured his untimely death (II.50).
Yet individual characters are given the choice of living up to or breaking away from those stereotypes. We see Jewish police forcefully sending Vladek’s grandparents – fellow mice – to Auschwitz to be killed with millions of other Jews (II.87). We hear of a German officer’s girlfriend convincing him to spare hundreds of Jews (II.108). And we meet both a Pole who informs the Gestapo of hiding Jews (I.113) as well a Pole who accepts Jews into her household to hide them from Nazi patrols (I.141). What shines through is not how each character conforms to the stereotypes associated with their species, but how, fundamentally, there is no difference between mice, cats and pigs; how, truly, there are both cruel and compassionate, ruthless and merciful, malicious and benevolent members of every nationality, every ethnicity, every religion.
Characters in Maus are frequently shown to wear masks representing a confusion of identity, intentional or otherwise. In Maus I, these masks are visible when characters pretend to be of another species, such as when Vladek identifies himself as a Pole to a train man so that he might let him board in secret (I.64). The ease by which Vladek can assume the part of another race, represented by the donning of a simple mask, demonstrates how quickly the supposed differences between species melt away when the racial divide is eliminated.
In Maus II, these masks take on a more complicated role during the meta-narrative at the beginning of chapter two, where several characters, including Art himself, are seen as humans sporting only masks instead of actual animal heads. The temporary lapse of metaphor allows us to understand that the identity provided by our race and nationality – our species – is really just a mask that we wear. That underneath our masks, we’re all just people.
By assigning specific animals to broad groups of diverse people, Art highlights the absurdity of making such generalizations. Just as Art can’t decide what animal his wife should be drawn as – a mouse, a frog, or something else entirely? (II.11) – so too is it senseless to attempt, like Hitler, to assign simple categorizations to the deep, complex psyche that makes us human. It is the very artificiality of Art’s metaphor that allows him to so evocatively capture the reality of the Holocaust.
This personal touch, this intimacy, is what makes Maus so powerful. We can not only see but experience the toll Hitler took on Vladek, on his family, and on the world. We can experience, through Art’s brilliant metaphor, the social mindset of the war’s participants. And by the time we finish the last page, we have experienced more than just what Vladek survived. We have experienced what it was to have survived it.
Maus Through the Prism of Postmodernism
An element of tension runs through both volumes of Art Spiegelman’s Maus. The two narratives running parallel to each other throughout Maus, namely those of Art and his father Vladek, converge at the end of volume two in a shaky synthesis. The two narratives, do not, however, totally reconcile so well with each other so as to go from thesis to antithesis to synthesis. The last few panels of Maus reveal, instead, that biography and history are messy and full of conflict, and that no amount of “leaving the past behind” can erase some of the effects that the one narrative has on the other.
Art, while recounting the past of his father, also punctuates the story by revealing the interviewing process that took place with he and his father in Rego Park and Florida. In Vladek’s reminiscing, we get the image of a person who is resourceful, clever, loving and who possesses a strong survivalist streak. In the portion of the comic where “Art” the character is involved, we see a weakened, paranoid, miserly, stubborn and fairly racist old man: “It’s not even to compare the shvarsters to the Jews!” (Spiegelman, 99). Throughout the portion where Art speaks as a character, he notes the striking difference between the man he knows as his father and the man he’s writing about in his comic book: “I can’t make sense out of my relationship with my father…how am I supposed to make any sense out of Auschwitz?”(Spiegelman, 14). Art wants to believe that Vladek was made into what he is during the war, despite characters like Mala telling him that, in all likelihood, the war at best brought something out that was already in him: “All our friends went through the camps. Nobody is like him!” (Spiegelman, 131).
To this extent, the two narratives compliment elements of each other: the “past” narrative sheds light on some of the possible consequences of the “present” narrative. On the other hand, they also disagree with each other: why would Vladek generalize black people when his own people were treated in such a similar manner? As well, is his stinginess a trait acquired in the camps or was it a character flaw that served him well in that particular situation? The two narratives, therefore, stand not only as thesis and antithesis, but also generate a series of theses, antitheses and syntheses in an almost infinite regress.
Throughout the comic, the reader is reminded that the past always haunts the present. Vladek tries burning his late wife’s, Anja’s, journals about the camps, and reveals later that he tried to forget everything and live the remainder of his days in peace: “All such things of the war, I tried to put out of my mind once and for all…until you rebuild me all this from your questions.” (Spiegelman, 98). However, this was not to be, as the son he spawned post-WWII would come back with eager questions. This is an example of the present questioning the past, and inquiring into it in order to understand itself. The present is informed by its past, and relies on it in order to exist. The fallout of this is that the past can’t escape itself, and is forever enshrined in the things and people it ultimately produces.
The present then constantly seeks to identify itself through antecedents. Again, this is where the infinite loop of thesis, antithesis and synthesis come into play. The most glaring example of this resides in the last few panels of Maus, where Vladek, uttering his apparent last words, lies down to sleep, and calls his son Art by the name of his deceased son, Richiev: “I’m tired from talking Richiev, and it’s enough stories for now…” (Spiegelman, 136). The comic ends on that note, suggesting by an image of a tombstone that Vladek died not long thereafter. Vladek had lost his first son in the war, and afterward had another son: Art. The deceased son is a symbol of the thesis of Vladek’s old, dead life, and Art acts as a symbol for the antithesis which is his new one: “The photo [of Richiev] never threw tantrums or got into any kind of trouble…It was an ideal kid and I was pain in the ass. I couldn’t compete.” (Spiegelman, 15). In the end, Art and Richiev converge on each other in a synthesis which says that there was something never reconciled in Vladek’s biography before Art was conceived. Vladek’s dying leaves Art in an infinite loop of questioning and conflict. He is left to forever invoke the past with no one to guide him through it.
The more the two narratives bump into each other in this story, the messier the story becomes, as it leads Art Spiegelman to more and more questions without answers. Maus acts not only as another testimony of the horrors of the Holocaust, but as a commentary about what effect the past and its trauma have on everything that comes thereafter. The legacy of something and the thing itself are inextricably linked, and no amount of forgetting can undo that connection or provide a satisfying level of closure.
1. Maus: A Survivor’s Tale. Vol. 1. N.p.: Apex Novelties, 1972. 2 vols. Print.
2. Spiegelman, Art. Maus: A Survivor’s Tale. Vol. 2. N.p.: Pantheon Books, 1991. 2 vols. Print.