The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman | Analysis

2111 words (8 pages) Essay in Literature

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Wrought into the iron gates of a dormant hellscape, there exists a perpetual deception in a foreign language- a mother tongue in the times when the barren remains of genocide were an undying purgatory, and a diurnal reality for millions of people, save for the day their scourged bodies and minds expired, becoming a gruesome reminder: The dusted human remains littering the ground could be anyone at all. And, looking over everything, a cruel irony. “ARBEIT MACHT FREI.” Translated into English, the lie overlooking all of Auschwitz reads, “Work makes you free.” In a genocide, work makes no one free. In the Holocaust, it only killed faster. The war was won, but the price is being paid to this day. Countless stories and firsthand accounts have arisen throughout time. One story resonated with millions of readers across the globe- The story of Vladek Spiegelman, a jack of all trades, and a survivor. Vladek’s story is immortalized even after his death in a book written by his son, Art Spiegelman, to tell his father’s story to the world. The Complete Maus, by Art Spiegelman, follows Vladek’s account of WWII: his experience as a Polish Jew at the beginning of Adolf Hitler’s seizure of Europe, his time in the infamous death camp, Auschwitz, and his life in the wake of war. The author interpreted his father’s tale of survival in the form of a graphic novel, flawlessly communicating the agonizingly depressing themes of the Holocaust from the eyes of someone who lived through the massacre, from the uneasy peace beforehand to the fallout. The author uses literary elements such as imagery, tone, and symbolism to elucidate the recurring theme of tragedy throughout the story of how his parents survived the decimation of their people.

Fundamentally, Art Spiegelman used imagery to properly portray how the Holocaust affected his father’s extended family, thus verifying tragedy was in no short supply for the Spiegelman family. An excellent example of Spiegelman’s use of imagery is found in the segment of Vladek’s story in which he and his fellow prisoners were being led on a “death march” towards other concentration camps, Gross-Rosen, and an eventual final destination, Dachau. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, these death marches were implemented by SS chief Heinrich Himmler in 1944 after a crushing defeat on the Eastern front. Numerous concentration camps were evacuated, and prisoners were relocated to camps on the interior of the German Reich’s territory to prevent the advancing Soviet soldiers from discovering their crimes. On these marches, SS guards exercised extreme brutality, and prisoners were forced to march through extreme conditions. (“Death Marches” 1). “All night, I heard shooting. He who got tired, who can’t walk so fast, they shot. The more we walked, the more I heard shooting… When I was young, our neighbor had a dog that got mad and bit. The neighbor shot. The dog rolled around, kicking, before he lay dead. And now I thought: “How amazing it is, a person is the same like this neighbor’s dog,” ” (Spiegelman, 242). By describing animalistic and inhumane tactics in painfully realistic, human language, Spiegelman seamlessly uses imagery to paint a picture of the merciless murder taking place during the Auschwitz death march within the reader’s mind. Moreover, another horror experienced by Vladek and brought to light by the author was the outbreak of Typhus at Dachau, and Vladek’s brush with death at the hands of the plague. According to, Typhus spread throughout prisoners like a wildfire due to poor hygiene and an abundance of vermin. It took years to bring the epidemic under control due to initial ignorance, and the extreme speed at which the illness spread (“Typhus,” 1). “…I was too sick to move on my own… Typhus! I got a horrible fever and I went sleepless. Typhus! At night, I went to the lavatory. The corridor was always full with the corpses in piles… the skin was slippery… I thought, “It will be my time. I will be laying dead and someone will step on my head as well!” (Spiegelman, 255). Spiegelman’s gut-wrenching imagery invokes a sense of horror and disgust in the reader’s mind, thus causing a sense of empathy to Vladek’s experience during the time in which he fell ill. Art Spiegelman tells the story as though he experienced it himself, and causes his readers to sympathize.

Furthermore, Art Spiegelman exploits tone in his writing to accurately display the atrocities the Spiegelman family experienced before and for the duration of their imprisonment in Auschwitz, and their tragic story. For years before the Holocaust took place, anti-Semitism ran rampant in Europe, kindled into a wildfire of jingoism and hatred by none other than Adolf Hitler himself through the takeover of his Nazi regime. As stated by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, prejudice against Jewish people has been prevalent for nearly 2,000 years. This history of xenophobia was utilized by Hitler to engender a widespread hatred and intimidation for Jewish people, culminating in the Holocaust (“Antisemitism: The Oldest Hatred,” 1). The Spiegelman family and their community experienced this firsthand, as is stated in a quote in the text. “One comrade of ours told us of his cousin living in Germany… He sold his shop to a German and got run out from his home… Another friend told us of a relation in the city of Brandenberg- The Gestapo came, and none heard from him. There were many stories… each story worse than the other,” (Spiegelman, 35). The tone in which the author communicates these events sets a grim, foreboding air to the story, setting the scene for the atrocities to come. The use of a menacing tone is crucial to setting the mood of the remainder of the story. Even through moments of hope, the tone of cataclysm follows through, overshadowing every event, as it was for Vladek for the residuum of his life. Nevertheless, caution is not the only reappearing tone in the story. A tone of terror and slaughter trails the reader throughout the story, enkindling the same sense of vulnerability and uncertainty Vladek and his fellow prisoners felt every moment the Holocaust continued. This is seen in the story when Vladek spoke with a crematorium worker, discussing the sheer monstrosity that was Auschwitz’s infamous gas chambers. As stated by the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, those deemed unfit for work were marched to an antechamber, in which they were forced to undress and enter the gas chamber. Those fated to die were told they were about to enter the camp, but needed to bathe before entering. Once they entered, they were locked in, and murdered using Zyklon B gas (“The Extermination Procedure,” 1). Vladek Spiegelman’s account confirms the utter atrocity of these events. “It was between 3 and 30 minutes- it depended how much gas they put, but soon was nobody anymore alive… We pulled the bodies apart with hooks… Their bones had broken from trying to climb in desperation… and their arms were sometimes as long as their corpses, contorted… Those who did not die were made to jump in the grave pits… Prisoners what worked there poured gasoline over all of them, alive and dead. The fat and excretion from the burning ones they poured over them again so they all could burn better,” (Spiegelman, 232). The tone in this excerpt from the book brings the horror to live, revolting the reader and sustaining a structure of pure and unfettered terror in what could very well be the most horrifying part of the story. The Holocaust may be a depressing subject, but many neglect to recall its true nature as an abomination beyond measure. Art Spiegelman does the Holocaust justice in this sense, thoroughly terrifying his readers with the truth, and continuing to support a theme of tragedy.

Ultimately, out of all the literary elements within Spiegelman’s tale, symbolism is by far the most prevalent. A milder example occurs during an interlude by the author, in which he reflects upon his father’s life and death in comparison to his own experience, and is swarmed by the media, becoming overwhelmed, and surrounded by the corpses of his anonymous characters. To further elucidate how he feels, he displays himself growing smaller and smaller, and his responses becoming increasingly childish until he is illustrated as an infant. “Vladek started working as a tinman in Auschwitz in 1944… I started working on this page at the very end of 1987. In May 1987, Françoise and I are expecting a baby… From May 16-24 of 1944, over 100,000 Hungarian Jews were gassed in Auschwitz… In May 1968, my mother killed herself. She left no note. Lately, I’ve been feeling depressed… I want absolution… no… I want my Mommy!” (Spiegelman, 201-202). This displays the residual depression of the tragedies of Spiegelman’s parents, as well as the devastations occurring during Art’s lifetime. Spiegelman’s descent into immaturity, as well as the pile of corpses surrounding him for the entirety of his storm of interviews, display the symbolism of how the aftermath of his mother’s suicide and his rise to fame after writing the book affects him as a character, and drives the ongoing theme of continuous tragedy. Nevertheless, a far more prevalent form of symbolism unique to this story alone is constantly present. The moment a reader picks up the book, symbolism stares them in the face in the form of a mouse. Throughout the novel, people of different races are portrayed as different anthropomorphic animals- the Jewish are mice, the Poles are pigs, the Germans are cats, the French are frogs, the Romani (Gypsies) are moths, the Americans are dogs, and so on. The connection between some of the races, or species, is clear- The Nazi regime hunted the Jewish people of Europe like cats would hunt mice, and the Americans chased the Germans into hiding, as dogs would chase cats. The author, in an interview by the New York Review of Books, states: “I had found that this animalistic metaphor could be applied to my experience… But I realized- I could change from Ku Klux Kats and American racism to the Nazis hunting Jewish people as they had in my nightmares as a child,” (“Why Mice?”, 1). While conversing with his wife, Françoise, as documented in the text, Spiegelman discusses an example of his reasoning for choosing a specific animal for each respective race. “Nah, too sweet and gentle… I mean, the French in general. Let’s not forget the centuries of anti-semitism… How about the Dreyfus Affair? The Nazi Collaborators… I tell him I just married a frog,” (Spiegelman, 172). Symbolism is a key component in the structure of the story. By utilizing the symbolism of animals to represent races of people, the symbiosis between species can be compared to the events of the Holocaust, and the reader can further understand the horrors and adversities that the Jewish people faced. The use of anthropomorphism is unique to Spiegelman’s story, embodying the author’s signature style.

In conclusion, Art Spiegelman made use of imagery, tone, and symbolism in order to demonstrate a subject of tragedy. Each form of author’s craft was utilized to cause the reader to sympathize with Vladek’s story, perceiving the immense pain and suffering waged by the countless anathemas and obscenities that became symbols of the world’s most (ironically) infamous genocide. The author was extraordinarily successful in accomplishing what he aimed to accomplish: Exhibiting his father’s story through a painfully personal lens. Despite the personal challenges the author faced, his skill and craft produced an intense, unique modern classic that went on to tell the world the story of how his family eluded death at the hands of ethnic cleansing, but could never escape the aftermath.

Works Cited

  • “Death Marches.” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum,
  • “Typhus.”, Państwowe Muzeum Auschwitz-Birkenau w Oświęcimiu, 2015,
  • United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum,
  • Spiegelman, Art. “Why Mice?” The New York Review of Books, The New York Review of Books,

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