The tone varies as the voice shifts between Vladek and Art, but in general, the tone fits the somber themes of the book. Art’s reflections on his relationship with his father and on the crafting of Maus set the reader up for a more self-conscious reading of the book. Both Art and Vladek veer between melancholy and anguish as the weight of the past – its memories, traumas, losses – threatens at times to overwhelm their lives in the present.
In Maus, you actually get two autobiographies in one. First, you have the story of Art Spiegelman as told by himself, telling the story of transcribing his father’s words and turning them into the book you’re holding in your hand. Second, you have Vladek’s story. Technically, Vladek’s story should be biography since it is represented through Art Spiegelman’s words and images. But the book makes a great effort to show how faithfully Spiegelman records his father’s story. Scenes where Spiegelman is listening to and transcribing tapes of his father’s voice are included in the text. Vladek’s autobiographical account is often interrupted by Art’s questions, and by random events that happen while he’s talking to Art. With these two autobiographies so closely embedded in each other, you could say that the book is an autobiography of Art and Vladek's relationship.
Maus broke boundaries when it came out: first classified as fiction, it was then classified as non-fiction on the New York Times bestseller list. In addition, it uses a pop cultural medium (comics) to talk about heavy topics such as the Holocaust. For these genre-breaking reasons, Maus is also considered postmodern.
The title, the German word for “mouse,” is a reference to the Jewish characters, who are all depicted as mice. By using German (or the language of the cats as the novel likes to call it), Maus plays on the anti-Semitic stereotyping of Jews as pests. If the cover picture of the two mice huddled underneath a massive skull cross-hatched by a Nazi swastika doesn’t drive the point home for you, take a look at the epigraphs (see “What’s Up With the Epigraph?”).
As a German word that sounds like an English word, the novel is also referring to another anti-Semitic stereotype: that Jews have a tough time speaking German or any language fluently. The German verb mauscheln was used to stereotype the way Jews allegedly spoke. Ironically, it is Vladek’s fluency in languages, including English, which is an important key to his survival.
On the other side of the colon, we have the subtitle “A Survivor’s Tale.” Imagine how different the effect would have been if Spiegelman had written “Vladek Spiegelman’s Biography” instead. By referring to “a survivor,” the novel places an emphasis on the numerous survivors in the story: Vladek, certainly, but also Anja, Mala, and the other Holocaust survivors, as well as Art himself, as someone who survives the deaths of his parents. The title as a whole draws our attention to the way the Holocaust is transmitted as a story across generations.
Maus ends without resolving all the tensions it had set up over the course of the entire novel. Art sits with his bedridden father, who has just finished telling Art about his reunion with Anja after they both survived Auschwitz. Art stops his tape recorder, and Vladek turns to bed, addressing Art by his dead brother’s name, Richieu. Does this “accident” mean that Art will never live up to Richieu, never equal Richieu in his father’s affections? Or does it mean that Vladek has finally accepted Art by letting him share his brother’s place?
But the book doesn’t end with the last panel. The tombstone for Vladek and Anja’s grave juts up into and divides the last two panels. This tombstone, inscribed with their dates of birth and death, seems to introduce more questions. Vladek ends his story with a “happily ever after.” But the difference between Vladek’s death and Anja’s, who committed suicide in 1968, makes us wonder whether the story can possibly have a happy ending. Perhaps a story about the Holocaust can’t have a happy ending; perhaps it would be a betrayal to even suggest one. On the other hand, you could look at the tombstone as Art’s way of taking over his father’s story, giving it an ironic ending that his father didn’t intend.
Or perhaps the book really ends with Art Spiegelman’s signature at the bottom, with the dates of composition, 1978-1991. Spiegelman’s signature could be a definitive stamp of his authorship, a way of taking over Vladek’s story. The thirteen years it took to complete the Maus project could also link Spiegelman’s text to a Jewish boy’s coming of age at thirteen, when his bar mitzvah is celebrated. This sets up a chain of associations back to Vladek’s description of the significance of the parshas truma, which marked several important dates in his life, and was also read at Art’s bar mitzvah. Are we to read Maus as a kind of (very) secular parshas, a marker of a life-changing event and even perhaps an augur for the future, as it was for his father?
By leaving the ending split up into three equally ambiguous endings, Maus refuses to give us closure.
Maus follows Vladek Spiegelman in Poland in the years leading up to World War II. Germany invaded Poland in 1939 at the start of its hostilities against Russia. While Vladek starts the war as a soldier in the Polish army, by the time he is released from the POW camp he enters a Poland under German control, and thus subject to German anti-Semitic laws. Just like the Jews in Germany, Polish Jews were required to wear badges that identified them as Jews. Their businesses were taken over by the government and their property seized. Forced to move into ghettoes, they were subject to a strict curfew and were often the victims of brutality, as many scenes in Maus show.
Maus then follows Vladek to his internment at Auschwitz, a name that for many has become synonymous with the Holocaust. The Holocaust (also called the Shoah) refers to the systematic killing of over six million Jews during World War II. But Auschwitz was only a part of the Nazi plan. The infamous sign over its gates – Arbeit macht frei, or “work will make you free” – is a reference to prisoners who were forced to work in terrible conditions there.
The majority of the killings happened in nearby Birkenau, where Art’s mother was imprisoned. Here, prisoners who were too young or feeble to work were sent to be mass executed. Heinrich Himmler, Nazi Germany's Minister of the Interior, called Birkenau the “final solution to the Jewish question in Europe.” Over one million Jews were ruthlessly executed at Birkenau.
Maus captures life in both Auschwitz and Birkenau, and at Dachau as well, and it reminds us that not only Jews, but political prisoners and Gypsies also perished in the camps. Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated by the Soviet Army on January 27, 1945, and the American troops who arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau shortly after reported back the stories of horror there (source).
Vladek’s conversations with Art take place in the 1970s and 1980s, at the family home in Rego Park, a suburb of New York City, at vacation spots in the Catskills, and at a home in Florida where Vladek and Mala spend part of their time.
Maus Part I: “The Jews are undoubtedly a race, but they are not human.”
Maus Part II: “Mickey Mouse is the most miserable ideal ever revealed … Healthy emotions tell every independent young man and every honorable youth that the dirty and filth-covered vermin, the greatest bacteria carrier in the animal kingdom, cannot be the ideal type of animal … Away with Jewish brutalization of the people! Down with Mickey Mouse! Wear the Swastika Cross!”
The epigraphs for each book are both quotes from anti-Semitic texts. For Book I, we have the anti-Semite of anti-Semites, Adolf Hitler, describing the Jews as a race that isn’t human. This ideology fueled the Nazis’ systematic persecution and massacre of millions of Jews. The next image the reader sees is the cover of the first chapter, which features a couple of mice in a lover’s quarrel, cues us into the way the rest of the novel operates. The mice image is a gesture of defiance: the book uses anti-Semitic images to attack anti-Semitism.
The second epigraph, from a 1930s newspaper article from Pomerania, Germany, expresses a widespread anti-Semitic stereotype of Jews as “pests.” This quote is particularly ironic given that at one point in the novel, Vladek Spiegelman compares Art to Walt Disney, the only cartoonist that Vladek has ever heard of. The epigraph introduces the concerns that Art airs in Book II about the commercial success of his book.
Facing the epigraph is a photograph of his brother, Richieu, who died as a child during the Holocaust. The photograph and the epigraph create a tension that drives the book: it is both personally and historically important to share stories of the Holocaust, but do such stories also betray the memories of those who died and cannot tell their stories? Underneath the photograph, Spiegelman continues the dedication to his children, Nadja and Dashiell, situating his second book between an unimaginable, tragic past and an unpredictable future.
Maus is very readable to begin with, but as a graphic novel, it also has images that help the readers visualize the story. It’s a 2 instead of a 1 on the Tough-o-Meter because of its serious and troubling content. The story relates numerous instances of brutality: men and women are hanged, shot, beaten, and gassed; children are thrown against walls or poisoned; corpses litter the scene. Part of the genius of Maus is that it is able to communicate this horror in a visual, graphic form which does not sensationalize the violence in the way a Hollywood movie might.
As a graphic novel, most of the language is dialogue, with the images doing the work of setting the scene and representing the action. Thus the writing style tends to be conversational, closely following the speech patterns of Art and Vladek, including Vladek’s imperfect English. Tone and emphasis are conveyed through letters that are either enlarged, italicized, or in bold.
For a discussion of some of the images in Maus, see "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.
“I’m literally giving a form to my father’s words and narrative,” Spiegelman commented in an interview, “and that form for me has to do with panel size, panel rhythms, and visual structures of the page, so that a page is a very specific and significant unit, it’s not just a stream of panels one after another” (Considering Maus, 2-3).
In Maus, the frames of the panels are often stretched or fractured at key moments in the text. Their images spill out into the gutters, the space between panels. Sometimes the frames break apart in order to show how events in the past “bleed” into the present. For example, Vladek’s pills fall outside the frame when he gets distracted by imitating the arm twitch Art had as a baby. Also, think of the moment when the image of an elderly Vladek, displaying his prisoner number on his arm, is superimposed on the scenes relating Vladek’s entry into the concentration camps.
Other cells serve as backdrops to show how widespread and inescapable the Holocaust was, as when a map of Auschwitz and Birkenau serves as a backdrop for the smaller cells describing Anja’s life in Birkenau. Another way that Maus breaks the frame is when it places actual photographs on the page, photographs of the deceased: Anja, Richieu, and Vladek. The juxtaposition of the real, human figures and their animal counterparts is jarring and a little uncanny. It’s as if the book refuses to let its readers escape into a fictional, fantasy world: the real world, where real people suffer and die, constantly bleeds onto the page.
Diagrams are key to helping Art visualize Vladek’s experience during the Holocaust. Vladek inserts himself into the text at times, drawing out for Art how to repair a shoe or build a bunker. The technical skill that Vladek shows by sketching these diagrams creates a link between Vladek and Art: just as Vladek’s technical skills were survival strategies, Art’s technical skill as an artist is a way for Vladek’s memory to survive after his death.
“A reader might get the impression that the conversations in the narrative were just one small part, a facet of my relationship with my father,” Spiegelman once remarked. “In fact, however, they were my relationship with my father. I was doing them to have a relationship with my father” (source)
Art isn’t the only one seeking a relationship with a father, nor is Vladek the only father figure he seeks out. Vladek himself seeks out many father figures – his own father makes an appearance, but also his wealthy father-in-law, the grandfather in his dream, the rabbi at the POW camp, and the Catholic priest at Auschwitz. These father figures are voices of hope for Vladek; they laud his abilities, or, in the case of the priests, they identify him as a man marked for fortune by God.
Art doesn’t have this relationship with Vladek, who seems to think less of Art for not living up to his expectations. Art does find a kind of father figure in his therapist, Pavel, who, like his father, is also a Holocaust survivor. In fact, what pulls him into the particular session that we read about is his own imminent fatherhood. What kind of father will he be? What kind of story will he transmit to his children? The dedication of Part II to his children (and to Richieu) gives us an idea of what this story might be.
Maus goes back and forth between two first person narrators: Vladek and Art. We see the story unfold from both of their points of view. The use of a central first person narrator puts us deep into the action of the story: we feel Vladek’s anxiety and fear as he endures concentration camp life, and we experience Art’s conflicted emotions over his relationship with his father. Since there is no third-person narrator, we don’t have the benefit of an objective or dispassionate view of their characters – but we don’t feel we need any. The use of a personal perspective such as the central first person narrator is enough to establish our intimacy with the characters.
Vladek’s particular telling of his Holocaust experience takes a basic quest form, where he is the hero and the object of the quest is survival. Vladek must draw on his resourcefulness and cunning to succeed.
In a typical quest, the hero voluntarily embarks on a journey. For Vladek, the journey is involuntary: the Nazis deport himself and his family to the concentration camps.
At Auschwitz, Vladek tries to make the most of the situation. His skills as a tinsmith and a shoemaker earn him a few privileges, and even help to bring Anja over to Auschwitz from Birkenau.
If you thought Auschwitz was bad, welcome to Dachau. Here, Vladek experiences the most brutal and inhumane conditions. His skills are useless, and he falls gravely ill.
After they are freed by American troops, Vladek and Anja reunite in Sosnowiec. They immigrate to Sweden, and then to the United States, where they begin a new life.
Maus’s plot centers on Vladek’s story, as he relates it to Art. Vladek begins his story with a description of his affluent lifestyle before the onset of World War II. He has just married Anja, his father-in-law has helped him set up a factory, and Vladek and Anja have a young son, Richieu.
As World War II begins, Vladek is sent to fight, and ends up a prisoner of war. When he is freed, he returns to a Poland that is now occupied by Germany, and thus subject to its laws. Conditions worsen as the Germans confiscate the Jews’ property, restrict their movements, move them into ghettoes, and deport Jews to the camps.
For a while, Vladek and Anja are able to hide from the Germans in the homes of various Poles. But when they attempt to escape into Hungary, they are betrayed to the Nazis by their handlers.
At Auschwitz, Vladek and Anja experience the full horror and brutality of the concentration camps.
The ever-resourceful Vladek figures out a way to make life a tiny bit easier for himself and Anja in the camps by bartering his skilled labor and his language skills. As the war nears its end, Vladek and Anja are transferred to Dachau, where conditions are even worse than Auschwitz.
With the end of the war, Vladek and Anja reunite in their hometown, Sosnowiec. They emigrate first to Sweden, and then to the United States.
In the last scene, we return to the present as Vladek finishes his story to Art.
Vladek and his family live a prosperous life in Poland.
Vladek and his family are taken to the concentration camps.
Vladek survives, along with Anja, and they immigrate to the United States.