Maus: A Survivor's Tale
by Art Spiegelman
What Animal Allegory?
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
Perhaps the most obvious feature of Maus is its use of animals to represent different races and nationalities. In representing the Jews as mice, Spiegelman is playing off the anti-Semitic stereotype of Jews as vermin or pests, as less than human. Spiegel is also playing off a pun on the German verb mauscheln, which is derived from the Yiddish Mausche (Hebrew: Moscheh/Moses), on several levels. In German, the verb is a derogatory term that translates into “to talk like a Jew” or “to swindle like a Jew.” The verb mauscheln visually contains the word Maus. Interestingly, Vladek’s fluency in multiple languages – English, French, Polish, Yiddish, and German – gives him a key edge in many situations.
For the rest of the menagerie, we have animals that in some way play off of a national characteristic. The Germans are cats, predators who prey on the Jewish mice; the Americans are dogs who save the Jewish mice from the German cats. The French are frogs, and the Gypsies are moths. The Poles are pigs, which does not seem as random when we consider that the Nazis sometimes referred to the Poles as pigs (Considering Maus, 21).
But again, Maus plays off the racial stereotypes, and even stereotypical thinking in general, by indicating where the allegory falls apart. The mice are not universally good, nor are the pigs universally good or bad. Mice can pass for other animals by wearing pig masks or cat masks. The allegory falls apart at times when the animal-humans deal with actual animals, as when Art’s Jewish therapist has pet cats (!), or when Art and Françoise have to use bug spray to get rid of bugs when they are vacationing in the Catskills, a reference to Zyklon-B, the pesticide used to gas concentration camp prisoners.