Study Guide

Maus: A Survivor's Tale Art and Culture

By Art Spiegelman

Art and Culture

Book I, Chapter 4
Art Spiegelman

“A new tape recorder…Writing things down is just too hard.” (I.4.75)

Art’s use of a tape recorder (and inclusion of photographs) brings up the question of whether there are more accurate ways to represent the reality of the Holocaust. How can a comic compete with a tape recorder or a camera?

Vladek Spiegelman

“Show to me your pencil and I can <em>explain</em> you…such things it’s good to know exactly how was it – just in case….” (I.4.112)

Here, Vladek gets into Art’s territory, visually diagramming one of the bunkers he hid in during the war. But you have to ask, “just in case” what? The possibility of another worst-case-scenario is still on Vladek’s mind.

Book I, Chapter 5
Art Spiegelman

“It appeared in an obscure underground comic book. I <em>never</em> thought Vladek would see it.” (I.5.101)

Up to this point, Art has created art that he knows his father will never read; comics are a way for him to gain some independence from his father.

“One reason I became an artist was that he thought it was impractical – just a waste of time…it was an area where I wouldn’t have to compete with him.” (I.5.99)

Ironically, it is his father’s story that inspires one of his most successful and critically acclaimed books.

Vladek Spiegelman

“Yes. I don’t read <em>ever</em> such comics, and even I am interested […] Someday you’ll be <em>famous,</em> like…what’s his name?” “Huh? ‘Famous like what’s-his-name?!’” “You know…the big-shot cartoonist…” “What cartoonist could <em>you</em> know? …Walt Disney??” “Yah! Walt Disney!” (I.5.135)

Walt Disney is, of course, the creator of one of the most iconic cartoon figures ever: Mickey Mouse. Ironic, considering that we are reading a book called <em>Maus.</em>

Book II, Chapter 1
Art Spiegelman

“There’s so much I’ll never be able to understand or visualize. I mean, reality is too <em>complex</em> for comics…so much has to be left out or distorted.” (II.1.6)

In representing his father’s Holocaust experience, Art faces a quandary: 1) comics can’t represent reality as accurately as other media (say, photography or film, for example); 2) the Holocaust is unrepresentably horrible, so any representation is a failure.

Book II, Chapter 2
Art Spiegelman

“Anyway, the victims who died can never tell <em>their</em> side of the story, so maybe it’s better not to have any more stories.” (II.2.35)

Art confronts another problem in representing the Holocaust: the victims never get to tell their stories. Without their stories, the bigger story of the Holocaust is always going to be one-sided, slanted toward the perpetrators and the survivors.

“At least fifteen foreign editions are coming out. I’ve gotten 4 serious offers to turn my book into a TV special or a movie.” (II.2.31)

Art resists adaptations of his work into more popular forms, and he’s ambivalent about the success of the book. The concern that he might be exploiting the Holocaust in any way is constantly on his mind.

“Samuel Beckett once said: ‘Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness.’” (II.2.35)

As Art points out, Beckett had to say those words. That is, words are necessary to explain that words are unnecessary. These words help explain Art’s ambivalence toward writing about the Holocaust. In the face of such a tragedy, is every word an “unnecessary stain”?

Vladek Spiegelman

“I learned a little shoe fixing watching how they worked when I was with my cousin in Miloch, there in the ghetto shoe shop […] You see? It’s good to know how to do <em>everything</em>.” (II.2.50)

Vladek’s diagrams help Art to visualize life in the concentration camps, but these diagrams also suggest that Art’s visual skill as an artist is not so alien to his father as we might initially be led to believe.

Book II, Chapter 5
Vladek Spiegelman

“More I don’t need to tell you. We were both very happy, and lived happy, happy ever after.” (II.5.126)

There’s a see-saw in the book between Vladek’s story and Art’s retelling of Vladek’s story. Vladek’s ending to his story is a romantic “happy ever after.” But <em>Maus</em> shows us that not all was so “happy ever after” after Vladek and Anja are freed from the concentration camps. The image of his parents’ tombstone at the end of the novel reminds us that Anja committed suicide in 1968.

”Could you tell our audience if drawing <em>Maus</em> was cathartic? Do you feel better now?” “Wah!”

As Art’s childish wail suggests, the answer to both of those questions is “no.”