Introduction to Maus

Maus is a graphic novel written by a cartoonist, Art Spiegelman. It was first published in 1980 as episodes. Later, it was published as a book in 1991. Its publication reignited a few Jewish arguments about the Holocaust and Nazi barbarism. The novel presents the story of Art’s father, a Holocaust survivor, and his struggles to escape the Nazis. Using different postmodern techniques and depicting the Jews as mice, the Nazis as cats, the Polish as pigs, and the Americans as dogs. Art Spiegelman uses his art to present life in the concentration camps. His troubled relationship with his father becomes the central idea of this graphic story. Maus is a must-read for many reasons.

Summary of Maus

The story of the novel starts with the author who returns home after a long pause. Wavering between his present and past life, his father, Vladek, with whom he has had a fight, is now in a deep depression. Despite having a tense relationship, Art continues to juggle with the idea of writing a book on his father, a Polish immigrant and Holocaust survivor. The book outlines his childhood, life with his beloved wife, Anja, his family, and life in the concentration camps during the Holocaust as drawn from different interviews he conducts with his father. The novel depicts the estranged relationship between the father and son, the Holocaust experiences of the former, and not being able to relate to them yet being part of it due to his father’s depression over it.

Vladek informs Artie, a presentation of himself, or Art ‘Spiegelman’, as the ‘author’ is called, that he marries Anja in Poland before WWII. Living in Sosnowiec, the couple is quite happy until WWII breaks out and Vladek joins the Polish forces. However, the Germans capture him during a scuffle and throw him in a labor camp to work. When he returns home after winning freedom, he meets his young son Richieu, though, in a stifling environment where German soldiers are ruling the roost. Artie, throughout the novel, dislikes Richieu even though he had never met him, his photograph was always hung in his parent’s bedroom and unable to make his parents proud because of the ‘sibling rivalry’ with his ‘ghost brother’. Vladek finds himself encircled as a Jew.

However, he secures paperwork that can avoid Nazis and have Jewish authorities cooperate with them. Therefore, they escape the mass inspection from the Nazis but they take the father and sister of Anja. Before this to uphold the safety of their son they send him to live with her sister. Soon leave their homes to ghettos where they are surveilled and subjected to violence. More Jews join them to be transported to Auschwitz and other camps where they are forced to work and gassed if they are unable to do hard labor.  Richieu, who is sent with his aunt Tosha, poisons all the children including her own daughter to save them from the Nazi gas chambers and kills herself too.

When the Germans decide to liquidate the Srodula region, Vladek and Anja flee for their lives. However, some stranger finds and hands them over to the Germans. His father and mother-in-law are dispatched to Auschwitz, while Lolek, his main supporter, their nephew is also transported to another camp who later on survives and becomes an Engineer and a college professor. Once again, the couple hides in bunkers and take shelter from local Christians in Srodula but the Germans again find them. Even the smugglers to whom Vladek bribes to win assistance in being smuggled out of the country hand them over to the Germans after which they also reach Auschwitz where they are separated from each other.

Vladek uses his fluent tongue to win the job of a tutor to a Polish supervisor followed by his work as a cobbler. He, thus, saves himself from the forced manual labor during which time the Russians attack the German positions. The Germans hurriedly escape from Auschwitz, while the Jewish prisoners are sent to Gross-Rosen on foot. Vladek and other prisoners were discovered by Americans while they are waiting for death on an abandoned farm. Vladek, meanwhile, believes that Anja is dead, though, she survives. They are overjoyed when they meet in Sosnowiec.

During the narration of the father’s narrative, Art Spiegelman narrates his own story of how he collects the pieces of the story of his father and jots them down to create a coherent picture of the past of his father. Although he states, his interviews end in squabbles and bitterness, he again reverts to his father to know him more. Once Artie becomes furious for burning Anja’s diaries. Anja, who had committed suicide, suffered from mental illness for twenty years.

Vladek marries his second wife Mala who eventually leaves him and moves to Florida because of his frugal personality and accusing her of stealing money. Later, they reunite at the end of the story. Both father and son reconcile when they go through these interviews which prove therapeutic for Vladek, who calls Artie accidentally by his dead son’s name Richieu depicting that the horrific past of the Holocaust still latched onto him.

Major Themes in Maus

  1. The Holocaust: Holocaust and its barbarism is the primary thematic strand that emerges throughout this graphic novel. Vladek is a mouse and the Nazis are cats, chasing after the mice, the Jews, like in the cat and a mouse game. The narrator is Art’s father, Vladek, from whom he hears the tales of his life in Poland, his arrests and escapes, and finally his release from the camps during the Russian invasion, and his ultimate psychological state of mind that makes father-son relationships estranged and bitter. This estrangement forced Art to write his father’s memories and fictionalize the Holocaust.
  2. Father-Son Relationships: The novel also highlights the father-son relationships through the character of Art and Vladek. The son is aware of his father’s occasional bouts of depression, having something to do with the Holocaust, and his estrangement with Mala and Art has something to do with his memories of Anja. That is why Art decided to conduct his father’s interviews to narrate his story of the Holocaust and his struggle against his depressive personality.
  3. Identity: The novel sheds light on the Jewish identity of the writer as well as his father. The main intention of the novelists seems to reach out to the public to highlight the horrors of the Holocaust committed by the Nazis against the Jewish community to exterminate all the Jews. Still, the survival instinct of his father leads him to survive to have his progeny in the United States despite his psychological devastation and estranged relationships with his son and second wife, Mala, who ultimately leaves him.
  4. Grief and Memory: Grief and memory is another thematic strand that runs through the novel in the shapes of the stories and memories of Vladek, the author’s father. The main objective of Art in depicting the mental state of mind of Vladek in the postmodern fictional technique is to present his situation about his memory of the Holocaust and the grief that he has to go through. Not only does he lose his wife and his childhood, but also his other near and dear ones which have led him to experience bouts of depression and estranged relationships with his relatives, including Art.
  5. Guilt: The novel shows guilt in that Art does his best to understand his father and even leaves the fractured relationship, but returns and expresses sympathy with his father to understand his tragedy. He makes his father go through different parts of his life to express his side of the story to come out of the trauma and depression of the Holocaust. In one way, it is his sense of guilt and attempts to redeem himself for leaving his father in the critical stage of his life that forces him to write the story of his father.
  6. Death: The novel shows the theme of death pervading in different episodes. Wherever Vladek goes, death is after him and lurks everywhere but surprisingly he evades and avoids death everywhere. However, the scars of this struggle against death and efforts of survival continue to resonate in him as well as his son’s life, who returns to his father to hear the tales of his survival.
  7. Past and Present: Double narrative presentation technique used in Maus by Art Spiegelman takes the readers back and forth; to Poland to show Vladek struggling to save his family from the likely elimination and his struggle in the United States to evade the odds in the materialistic society amid traumatic past. Both narratives move side by side to show the impacts of the past Vladek on the presence of his son as well as himself. He is not only going through the rough patch of his life but also facing estrangement from his wife, Mala, and his son, Art.
  8. Survival: Survival is also a major theme of the narratives presented in the novel. Father, Vladek, is struggling to survive capitalism as he has struggled to survive the Holocaust. Although he has used the money to win his freedom at Auschwitz and Birkenau and has earned enough in the United States, he is unable to use the same in the United States to win love from Anja and the love of his siblings.
  9. Luck: The theme of luck is significant in the novel in that Vladek saves himself not only from the likely death but also from forced manual labor and by the end, he also succeeds in saving his wife, Anja, from gassing. This is sheer luck that he is successfully living in the United States even though he has lost his wife.

Major Characters in Maus

  1. Art Spiegelman: Art Spiegelman is the narrator and protagonist of Maus. A surviving child of Vladek and Anja, he has estranged relations with his father and decides to help his father recall his memories through interviews to redeem his guilt of leaving his father at odd times. Thus, his narrative is not only redemptive but also a tribute to his father’s survival during the Holocaust. Although he lives away from his father, this new connection of interviewing his father makes him visit and take care of him. It also helps him understand the complex traumatic experiences that his father has gone through during his arrests and escape from Auschwitz and Birkenau. He also understands the stingy behavior of his father as the resultant feature of the sufferings during those trying times. Finally, his publication of the novel proves a redeeming act.
  2. Vladek Spiegelman: A central character of Maus, Vladek shows his unique resilience and surviving spirit that works for him during his stay in Poland and then in the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau. He escapes several times but again faces arrests due to the perfidy of his protectors. He finally sees his wife after the Russians uproot the Nazis during the invasion of Poland, and he migrates to Sweden to have a second child, Art Spiegelman while Anja commits suicide. However, the most important parts of his life comprise his memories of the Holocaust that he could not shed off from his personality, the reason that he could not make up with Mala, who runs away. Even his son, Art, does not reconcile with his traumatic behavior.
  3. Anja Spiegelman: The character of Anja appears throughout the novel as the dominating character on account of being the beloved of Vladek, father of Art. Although they marry before WWII, they had had to go through the rigors of the Holocaust, and yet they survived it. Despite having blue blood, she stayed loyal to Vladek until her suicide in Sweden after giving birth to Art.
  4. Richieu Spiegelman: The first child born in Poland, Richieu dies during the Holocaust as the couple sends him to live with his uncle Persis. However, when they are traveling with other relatives to run away from the Nazis, he perishes with all the relatives. The couple keeps memories of the child until they have Art in their life when living in Sweden years after the Holocaust. His presence constantly echoes in the novel as Art considers him a ghost brother.
  5. Mala Spiegelman: When Vladek reaches the United States, he remarries Mala. Unfortunately, she could not go along with her husband, neither she try to understand his traumatic past that has bearings on his present. Instead, she chooses to leave him after Vladek alleges that she is after his money though she tries her best to go along with him. Though she is a survivor of the Holocaust and joins him, they finally part ways.
  6. Mr. Zylberberg: Mr. Zylberberg is Anja’s father and also the benefactor of the couple, who provides Vladek a base with a gift of a factory to launch his career as an entrepreneur. His entrepreneur skills could be gauged from the merchandising business he owns in the pre-war period. Both he and his wife die at Auschwitz despite the best efforts of Vladek who joins with Haskel, his cousin, to arrange their release without success.
  7. Vladek’s Father: Despite having no name, Vladek’s father often peeps through some crevices in his narrative in that he goes with him as being a tough and religious person who lost his beloved wife in the Holocaust. His starvation of his son is for the good purpose that is to saving his son from the likely conscription. He seals his end by joining his family though his cousin, Mordecai, saved him from being sent to Auschwitz.
  8. Tosha: The significance of Tosha in the novel lies in her relationship with Anja as her elder sister and daughter of Mr. Zylberberg. Having enjoyed good family life in her father’s house in pre-war Poland, she leaves with her husband, Wolfe, and her daughter, Bibi, at the assurance of Uncle Presis to the region where he is a Jewish council elder, but she commits suicide seeing Germans exterminating Jewish settlements.
  9. Francoise: Francoise is Art’s wife, who embraces Judaism to make Vladek, father of Art, happy. Her intelligence and kindness bubble through her during the relationships with her father-in-law and her husband, the writer, despite having a minor role in the narrative.
  10. Orbach: Orbach is significant in the course of the novel as a friend of the family of Vladek when they are in Poland. His courage lies in his claim of announcing Vladek as his cousin to win his release and bring him home.
  11. Uncle Herman: The significance of Uncle Herman lies in his role of staying patient during the war and the Holocaust which he has luckily escaped due to his New York visit. He loses his son and a daughter during the Holocaust. 

Writing Style of Maus

The writing style of Maus has combined graphics, irony, and simple sentence structure to create a masterpiece. The purpose of Art Spiegelman is to touch the raw nerves of humanity without causing numbness as a huge body of the Holocaust literature has done. Art Spiegelman beautifully combined his writing and cartooning skills with irony, depicting the Jews as mice and the Germans as cats, playing the deadly game in which the Jews are the victims of the highhandedness of the Germans. The diction, as well as the phrases, suit the graphics given in the novel. For the effectiveness of the thematic idea, Maus relies heavily on the use of figurative language, using metaphors, similes, and irony.

Analysis of the Literary Devices in Maus

  1. Action: The main action of the novel comprises the whole life of Vladek from his early childhood to marriage and his survival during the Holocaust up to his life in the United States. The falling action occurs when Vladek is arrested several times during his escapes during WWII. The rising action occurs when he finds Anja alive and kicking after the Holocaust and restarts his conjugal life.
  2. Allusion: The novel shows good use of different allusions as given in the below examples,
    i. But I took private lessons…I always dreamed of going to America. (15)
    ii. And new some Vodka to toast to the young couple. (22)
    iii. It has nothing to do with Hitler, with Holocaust!. (23)
    iv. See, here are the black market Jews they hanged in Sosnowiec…. (133)
    v. Ya Walt Disney! (133)
    vi. No. Far for a longer time, it is was better. There in Hungary for the Jews. But then, near the very finish of the war, they all got put also to Auschwitz.
    These examples allude to something or someplace, such as the first alludes to America, the second to Vodka, a type of Russian wine, the third to Hitler and an event, the Holocaust, the third to a place, the fourth to a play in the United States and the last to Auschwitz and Hungary, both important places in the Jewish history.
  3. Antagonist: The antagonist of this graphic tale is the Nazis as represented by the cats in the storyline, for they create obstacles and make the life of the Jews hell including that of Vladek.
  4. Conflict: The novel shows both external and internal conflicts. The external conflict is going on between Art and Vladek as well as Vladek and the Nazis and the Jews and the Germans. However, the internal conflict is going on in the minds of Vladek about his conflictual past and Art about his relationship with his father.
  5. Characters: The novel shows both static as well as dynamic characters. The young man, Art Spiegelman, and his father Vladek are dynamic characters as they show considerable transformation in their behavior and conduct by the end of the novel. However, all other characters are static as they do not show or witness any transformation such as Anja, Mala, Mandelbaum, and several others.
  6. Comics: The novel shows the use of comics through the graphics as Art Spiegelman has himself created this graphic novel in pictures with dialogues or narration written in bubbles.
  7. Climax: The climax in the novel occurs when Vladek finally finds Anja alive in Auschwitz and both start life anew.
  8. Foreshadowing: The novel shows many instances of foreshadows as given in the examples below,
    i. I went out to see my Father in Rego Park. I hadn’t seen him in a long time – we weren’t that close. (11)
    ii. Yes. You see how you mix me up? In 1939 we were on the frontier pigged into trenches by a river. (47)
    iii. Has the family been talking good care of my Bielsko textile factory. (76)
    The mention of a long time, 1939 and Bielsko show the shadows of the coming events.
  9. Imagery: Imagery is used to make readers perceive things involving their five senses. For example,
    i. I could avoid the truth no longer. The doctor’s words clattered inside me…I left confused. I felt angry, I felt numb. I did not exactly feel like crying. But figured I should! (94)
    ii. No, it’s only wood. But chewing it feels a little like eating food. (123)
    These two examples show images of feeling and sound clearly.
  10. Metaphor: Maus shows good use of various metaphors as given in the below examples,
    i. The extended metaphor used in the novel is of cat and mouse. The Germans are shown as cats while the Jews are shown as mice.
    ii. We joked and called you “Heil Hitler.” (30)
    iii. I must be seeing things. How can a tree run? (48).
    iv. Often we played chess to keep our minds busy and make the time go. (54)
    These examples show that several things have been compared directly as the last one compares their son to Hitler. However, the third one shows the person compared to a tree and the time as if it is some person.
  11. Mood: The novel, Maus, shows various moods; it starts with a jolly mood but suddenly turns to tragic, somber, and macabre and moves to ironic and sarcastic until it reaches the end where it is satisfying and calm.
  12. Motif: Most important motifs of the novel are cats as Nazis, mice as the Jews, stamps, camps, and dogs.
  13. Narrator: The novel is narrated from the first-person point of view, the author, who narrates his father, Vladek’s, story in his own words. He also becomes a third-person narrator at times.
  14. Parallelism: The novel shows the use of parallelism in the following examples,
    i. Follow Jews: On Wednesday, August 12th, every one of you, youth and old, male and female, healthy and sick, must register at the Dienst Stadium…(88)
    ii. It was so crowded that some of them actually suffocated…no food, no toilets. It was terrible. (92)
    iii. I felt angry, I felt numb. I did not exactly feel like crying. But figured I should! (94)
    iv. So we worked day after day. We survived week after week. The same. (58)
    The sentences show the examples of parallelism such as parallel nouns in the first, the same in the second, and then verbs in the third. The last, however, shows parallel sentences.
  15. Protagonist: Vladek is the protagonist of the novel. The novel starts with his entry into the world and moves forward as he narrates his story of growing up, marrying, going through the terrible situations of the Holocaust, and teaching in the United States.
  16. Repetition: The novel shows the use of repetitions as given in the below example,
    i. And so we lived for more than a year. But always things came a little worse, a little worse…(79)
    ii, What! Put everything back exactly like it was, or I’ll never hear the end of it! Okay…Okay…Relax. (93)
    iii. And she was so laughing and so happy so happy, that she approached each time and kissed me, so happy she was. (35)
    These examples show the use of repetitions such as “little worse” in the first and “Okay” in the second and “happy” in the third.
  17. Setting: The setting of the novel is Poland, some German towns, Auschwitz, and then the United States.
  18. Simile: The novel shows excellent use of various similes as given in the below examples,
    i. You want it (home) should be like a stable. (52)
    ii. And it seems like years since I have felt warm or been in a bed. (55)
    iii. You are a Pole like man. (64)
    These are similes as the use of the word “like” shows the comparison between different things.