Study Guide

Maus: A Survivor's Tale Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By Art Spiegelman

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

What Animal 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.

Breaking Frames

“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, “Just in Case”

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.

Fathers and Sons

“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.