Module 13: Maus by Art Spiegelman

Maus is a graphic novel by Art Spiegelman. He tells his father’s story of his experiences during the Holocaust through animals — the Jews are portrayed as mice and the Nazis as cats. Maus won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992.

SUMMARY

The novel begins with a flashback from Art’s childhood in Rego Park, NY, where Art and his friends are rollerskating. Art falls down and his friends all leave him. When Art goes back to his father, crying that his friends left him, his father replies ominously, “Friends? Your friends? If you lock them together in a room with no food for a week, then you could see what it is, friends!”

The narration then cuts to 1978, where Art is interviewing his father about his experiences in the Holocaust for a book that he’s always wanted to write. The story includes both Art’s visits with his father, exploring the strained relationships between Art and his father, Vladek, and Vladek and his second wife, Mala, whom he married when Art’s mother, Anja, committed suicide in 1968, and Vladek’s memories of his life in Poland in the 1930s and 1940s. The book begins with Vladek courting Anja and marrying into her wealthy family and ends with he and Anja arriving at Auschwitz (a second volume, Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began, tells of their time in the barracks of Auschwitz to the bungalows of the Catskills).

Vladek and Anja married and had a baby, Richieu, but Anja, who has always been an “emotional” sort, has an emotional breakdown (what we would today probably recognize as postpartum depression) and she and Vladek go to a sanitarium until Anja is better. When they come back to their town, they discover that the Nazis have taken over. Vladek is drafted into the Polish Army and is sent off to fight the Nazis, but is taken as a prisoner of war.

When he is released from POW camp, he has to sneak across the German controlled land to reunite with his family. The city has been turned into a ghetto, and in 1943, they’re taken to a work camp. Vladek and Anja send Richieu off with Anja’s aunt when the Nazis begin rounding up and transporting Jews, hoping that he will be safe with her; however, they find out after the war that when Anja’s aunt was in danger of being taken by the Gestapo, she poisoned her three children, Richieu, and herself, killing themselves before the Gestapo could take them to an extermination camp to die.

Vladek and Anja manage to escape the ghetto and avoid the Gestapo, hiding with random Polish friends that they bribe with the last of their money and jewels for safekeeping. They arrange with smugglers to be taken to Hungary but are betrayed by the smugglers — they sell them out to the Gestapo, and Vladek and Anja are taken to Auschwitz. Vladek mentions that Anja kept diaries while in Auschwitz and that these are the only accounts of her experiences in Auschwitz, but when Art asks to see them, reveals that he destroyed them after her suicide. Art is furious, and the book ends with Art calling Vladek a “murderer” as he walks away.

IMPRESSIONS

The book is horrifying. The anthropomorphized characters do nothing to make the tale of the Holocaust less severe and heartbreaking. It’s always difficult to read about the brutalities that people inflict on each other and this is no different.

The narration, with the side by side stories of “present day” Art and Vladek that melt into Vladek’s memories, is very effective. I was never confused about that was going on and it made the storytelling aspect make sense, especially as told in Vladek’s broken English.

PROFESSIONAL REVIEWS

Told with chilling realism in an unusual comic-book format, this is more than a tale of surviving the Holocaust. Spiegelman relates the effect of those events on the survivors’ later years and upon the lives of the following generation. Each scene opens at the elder Spiegelman’s home in Rego Park, N.Y. Art, who was born after the war, is visiting his father, Vladek, to record his experiences in Nazi-occupied Poland. The Nazis, portrayed as cats, gradually introduce increasingly repressive measures, until the Jews, drawn as mice, are systematically hunted and herded toward the Final Solution. Vladek saves himself and his wife by a combination of luck and wits, all the time enduring the torment of hunted outcast. The other theme of this book is Art’s troubled adjustment to life as he, too, bears the burden of his parents’ experiences. This is a complex book. It relates events which young adults, as the future architects of society, must confront, and their interest is sure to be caught by the skillful graphics and suspenseful unfolding of the story.
School Library Journal

“Maus” represents Jews as mice, Germans as cats, Americans as dogs, Poles as pigs and the French as frogs. Mice and cats summon up the sort of conflicting associations that help to give the comic strip its metaphorical weight. Mice can be either adorable, like Mickey and Minnie Mouse, or the vermin to which the Nazis likened Jews. By exposing his characters to a range of interpretations, Mr. Spiegelman rejects precisely the caricatures that are supposedly a drawback of the comic-strip form.

His imagery is inextricably bound up with his text. But it is the text that ultimately propels “Maus” and sticks in the mind. If in several of the sketches the artist approximates German Expressionism, in the finished scenes he almost entirely avoids such obvious devices, opting for a simplified style remarkable for being so unremarkable. As much as possible, both visually and linguistically, Mr. Spiegelman allows the painful facts of Vladek’s life to speak for themselves, with a minimum of melodrama and sentimentality. It is not meant to take away from the undeniable power and seriousness of “Maus” as literature and history to say that Mr. Spiegelman’s manner of drawing is the least memorable aspect of his achievement.
New York Times

LIBRARY USES

This would be a great addition to either a Holocaust display or to a graphic novel collection. It would also be a good addition to a school library for teachers to access to showcase how memoirs can take different forms.

REFERENCES

Keeler, R. G. (1987, May). Maus. School Library Journal, 33(9), 124. Retrieved from http://connection.ebscohost.com/c/book-reviews/5795317/maus-book-review

Kimmelman, M. (1991, December 27). Examining how ‘maus’ evolved. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/1991/12/27/arts/review-art-examining-how-maus-evolved.html

Spiegelman, A. (1986). Maus. New York, NY: Pantheon.

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