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While on its surface Maus is the story of Vladek Spiegelman's experiences in the Holocaust, it is also much more. In many ways, the relationship between Vladek and his son is the central narrative in the book, and this narrative deals extensively with feelings of guilt. Of particular relevance in Maus is the guilt that is associated with the members of one's family. The primary types of familial guilt can be divided into three separate categories: 1) Art's feelings of guilt over not being a good son; 2) Art's feelings of guilt over the death of his mother; and 3) Art's feelings of guilt regarding the publication of Maus.
The simplest form of guilt in Maus is Art's guilt over the fact that he thinks he has not been a good son to his father. Right from the first panel of Book I, we are told that the two of them do not get along particularly well, and that they do not see each other often, though they live fairly close by. Art is always on edge around his father, and when they speak it feels as if an argument could break out at any moment. Indeed, arguments often do break out over, for example, Art's dropping cigarette ash on the carpet, or Vladek's revelation that he has burned Anja's diaries from the war. Vladek often asks his son for help with errands around the house, and Art is always loath to comply. One of the most prominent examples of this situation occurs at the beginning of Chapter 5 of Book I, in which Vladek awakens his son early in the morning to ask for help fixing a drain on his roof. Art refuses, later telling his wife that he would rather feel guilty than travel to Queens to help his father. A few weeks later, during Art's next visit to his father, this guilt is painfully obvious, as he immediately asks his father if he needs help with any chores.
Art's feelings of guilt over the death of his mother are also relatively straightforward. As told in the brief "Prisoner on the Hell Planet" interlude in Chapter 5 of Book I, Art feels responsible for his mother's suicide, believing it to be a product of his own neglect. His last memory of his mother - in which she asks him if he still loves her, and he responds with a cold and dismissive "sure" - is a painful reminder of this disregard. Though this particular form of guilt does not play a major role in the story, it is noteworthy in that Art feels somewhat similar feelings of guilt towards his father, who is still alive.
After the first volume of Maus is published in 1986, four years after his father's death in 1982, Art is still consumed with guilt. The publication of Maus has not alleviated these feelings, and in some ways it has made them worse. "My father's ghost still hangs over me," Art says before walking to his appointment with Pavel. Pavel suggests that Art may be feeling remorse for portraying Vladek unfavorably. Pavel also suggests, in an interesting reversal, that perhaps Vladek himself felt guilty for having survived the Holocaust. This form of guilt, "survivor's guilt," is detailed in the next section.
The second form of guilt found in the pages of Maus is more thematically complex. This guilt, called "survivor's guilt," is the product of both Vladek and Art's relationships with the Holocaust. Much of Maus revolves around this relationship between past and present, and the effects of past events on the lives of those who did not experience them (see below). In the cases of both men, this relationship often manifests itself as guilt.
Though Art was born in Sweden after the end of World War II, both of his parents were survivors of the Holocaust, and the event has affected him deeply. In Chapter One of Book II, as Art and Francoise are driving to the Catskills, Art reflects on this in detail, and Art's relationship with the past is revealed to predominantly take the form of guilt: "Somehow, I wish I had been in Auschwitz with my parents so I could really know what they lived through! I guess it's some form of guilt about having had an easier life than they did."
Vladek, too, appears to feel a deep sense of guilt about having survived the Holocaust. As Art's guilt persists through the late 1980s, five years after the death of his father, he visits his psychiatrist, Pavel, and the two discuss the nature of guilt and what it means to be a Holocaust "survivor." Vladek's survival in the Holocaust was not the consequence of any particular skill, but the result of luck, both good and bad. Pavel turns the idea of guilt on its head by suggesting that Vladek himself actually felt a strong sense of guilt for having survived the Holocaust while so many of his friends and family did not. And perhaps in response, Vladek took this guilt out on Art, the "real survivor," as Pavel calls him. In essence, Vladek's guilt may have been passed down to his son, establishing the foundation for the volumes of guilt that Art now feels towards his family and its history.
Past and Present
Maus consists of two primary narratives: one that takes place in World War II Poland, and the other that takes place in late 1970s/early 1980s New York. The relationship between these two narratives - and more generally between the past and present - is a central theme of the story. The events of the Holocaust continue to influence the life of Vladek, a Holocaust survivor, and reverberate through future generations, ultimately affecting his son, Art.
Many of Vladek's peculiar personality traits can be linked to his experiences in the Holocaust. In 1978, Vladek is stubborn, irritable, and almost comically stingy with his money. His relationship with his second wife, Mala, is strained and seemingly devoid of love. Prior to World War II, however, he exhibits none of these characteristics. He is kind, wealthy, and uncommonly resourceful, and his marriage to Anja is filled with compassion and intimacy. His experiences in the Holocaust undoubtedly played a role in these dramatic personality changes.
Once relatively wealthy, Vladek's survival in German-occupied Poland depended on his ability to hoard and save even the smallest of items, such as the paper wrapper from a piece of cheese, or the cigarettes from his weekly rations. These small items took on enormous importance to Vladek, and even many years later, he feels unable to throw anything away. His stubbornness in 1978 can be explained by the fact that he survived the Holocaust largely because he possessed a remarkable intelligence and resourcefulness that enabled him to acquire the necessary food, supplies, shelter, and protection. Now he is much older, but he still thinks of himself as the same young man who could do everything on his own. He still wants to act accordingly, going to such extremes as climbing onto the roof to fix a leaky drain. Still, as Art notes on a few separate occasions, the Holocaust cannot explain everything about his father: "I used to think the war made him this way," Art reflects to Mala, in Chapter Six of Book I, to which she responds that "all our friends went through the camps; nobody is like him!" Vladek has clearly never fully recovered from the horrors of the Holocaust. This fact is poignantly illustrated by his final words of the story, when he mistakenly calls Art by the name of his first child, who died during the war.
Though Art was born in Sweden after the war and did not experience the Holocaust firsthand, his life has also been deeply affected by these unspeakable events. To begin with, Art is directly affected by secondary "aftershocks" of the Holocaust, in that Vladek's personality and parenting style were clearly influenced by these events, and Art's personality and lifestyle choices were in turn clearly guided by his father's personality and parenting style. Art describes a specific instance of this transmission to his wife:
[Vladek] loved showing off how handy he was... and proving that anything I did was all wrong. He made me completely neurotic about fixing stuff...One reason I became an artist was...it was an area where I wouldn't have to compete with him.
Art is also affected by the past in less direct ways. To begin with, he feels almost completely consumed by the horrible specter of the Holocaust. As a child, he sometimes fantasized that the showers in his house would spew gas instead of water, and he would often ask himself which parent he would save if he could have only saved one from Auschwitz (he usually picked his mother). In many ways, he feels guilty about the fact that his parents were forced to live through Auschwitz, whereas he was born after it ended, into a far more comfortable and easy life.
The relationships between past and present are often illustrated graphically within the context of the story. The most vivid representation of this concept occurs at the beginning of Chapter Two of Book II, in which Art is sitting at his drawing board above a sprawling pile of dead and emaciated Jewish mice.
The primary motivation amongst Jews in the Holocaust is survival. Vladek sums up the process succinctly while consoling his wife after the death of his first son, Richieu: "to die, it's easy...but you have to struggle for life." Vladek's experiences in the Holocaust represent a constant struggle to survive, first as his factory and income are taken away, then as the Jews are sent into the ghettos, and ultimately in the nightmare of Auschwitz. And as the struggle intensifies, the will to survive begins to break the strong bonds of family, friendship, and a common Jewish identity.
In the initial stages of German occupation, these measures are relatively small - buying food on the black market, for example - and strengthened by strong family ties, a unified Jewish identity, and even altruism. When Vladek arrives home from the prisoner of war camp, for example, an old business acquaintance, Mr. Ilzecki, helps him earn money and acquire the proper work papers that will allow him to walk the streets in relative safety. As the situation continues to deteriorate, however, Vladek, his family, and his friends are forced to resort to increasingly extreme measures in order to survive. Here, the bonds of Jewish identity begin to break under the pressing instinct to survive. The first sign of this comes in the form of Jews serving on a Jewish Police force, like the ones who came to Vladek's apartment to escort his wife's grandparents to the concentration camps. According to Vladek, these Jews thought that by helping the Nazis in taking some of the Jews, perhaps they could help save others - and of course they could also save themselves. Soon after, the bonds of family also begin to break, as illustrated by Vladek's cousin Haskel's refusal to save them from transport to Auschwitz without some form of payment. Though Haskel eventually does help Vladek and Anja escape, he ultimately decides not to help Anja's parents, and they are sent off to their deaths.
The bond between Vladek and Anja remains solid throughout most of the story, as they first hide together in the barns and back rooms of Sosnowiec and are ultimately sent to neighboring concentration camps. In the camps, Vladek and Anja are both preoccupied with their own survival, but Vladek is also able to help his wife by giving her extra food and emotional support. Soon, though, the Russians advance upon Auschwitz and Birkenau, and the couple is unavoidably separated. Vladek is hurried on a long, forced march through snow-covered woods to packed railway cars where there is no food or water for days. In telling this story to his son, Vladek does not mention Anja again until right before their eventual reunification in Sosnowiec. Unable to help those around him, and unable to help his wife, he is left only with his own stubborn will to survive.
The importance of luck is closely related to discussions of survival and guilt (see above). Vladek is blessed with many skills and qualities - including the ability to speak multiple languages - that provide him with opportunities to survive within the confines of Auschwitz. Ultimately, however, Vladek's survival and the survival of all other Holocaust survivors hinges upon luck. On countless occasions throughout Vladek's Holocaust ordeals, his life is spared only by the narrowest of margins: the near-miss bullet at the prisoner-of-war camp in Lublin; the run-in with the Gestapo while carrying ten kilograms of illegal sugar; the night Mrs. Motonowa forces him and Anja out of her house; the case of typhus at Dachau; and many, many other incidents. No matter how resourceful Vladek is, no matter how many languages he knows or jobs he can perform, he cannot ultimately save himself from the horrors of the Holocaust. Rather, the matter of his life and death ultimately depends upon a long line of chance outcomes, most of which happen to fall his way. The rest of his family, including his parents and five siblings, are not so lucky. Pavel, Art's psychiatrist, suggests that this idea may have contributed to a strong sense of guilt in Vladek for having survived the Holocaust while so many of his friends and family did not.
Race and Class
Unsurprisingly, given the subject matter, issues of race and class figure heavily in the plot, themes, and structure of Maus. At the most basic level, issues of race play themselves out on the grand scale of the Holocaust, a terrible culmination of senseless racism that is drawn and described in all its brutality and efficiency. But Maus also deals with these issues in other, more subtle ways, through the use of different animal faces to portray different races.
In Maus, Jews are portrayed as mice, while Germans are portrayed as cats. The metaphor of Jews as mice is taken directly from Nazi propaganda, which portrayed the Jews as a kind of vermin to be exterminated. The cat/mouse relationship is also an apt metaphor for the relationship between the Nazis and Jews: the Nazis toyed with the Jews before ultimately killing them.
The decision to portray different races as different kinds of animals has been criticized as over-simplistic and for promoting ethnic stereotypes. Beneath the simple metaphor, however, is an earnest attempt to illustrate the unyielding stratification by class and race that was very much a part of life in World War II-era Poland. Within the pages of Vladek's story, the Jews are rarely seen socializing with the non-Jewish Poles, except in cases where the Poles serve as janitors, governesses, or other household assistants. The idea of stratification and classification is best illustrated by the man in the concentration camp who claims that he is German, not Jewish, and who is ultimately taken aside and killed. When Art asks his father whether the man was really a German, Vladek replies, "who knows...it was German prisoners in there also...But for the Germans this guy was Jewish." There were no shades of gray within the German system of racial classification. Indeed, this middle ground is so rare within the pages of Maus that the only instance of mixed marriage (Shivek's brother, who married a German woman) comes as quite a shock, especially when we see their children, who are drawn as cat/mouse hybrids.
This, however, is not the only form of racism that exists within the pages of Maus. One of the most interesting aspects of the story is the fact that Vladek, who survived the horrors of the Holocaust, is himself a racist. When Francoise picks up an African-American hitchhiker on their way back from the grocery store, Vladek can hardly contain his anger that she has let a "shvartser" into the car and spends the whole ride home watching his groceries to make sure they aren't stolen. This episode serves as a reminder that the racism of the Holocaust survives in other forms to this day.
Just as the animal metaphor is an attempt to explain an existing social stratification, other aspects of the story seem to suggest that this stratification is a manufactured illusion. This is most clearly illustrated in opening pages of Chapter Two of Book II, which take place after the publication of the first book of Maus. In this narrative, Art Spiegelman is clearly having doubts about the animal metaphors that form the backbone of the story. Here, people are still characterized by animals based on race, but these characterizations are now clearly only masks that have been tied to their heads with a bit of string. Thus the idea of race is only an artifice, Spiegelman suggests, and underneath the masks we are all essentially the same.