Art Spiegelman’s Maus is one of those books that I found quite difficult to critique. It is a terrific and absorbing read that once you start reading you just cannot put down, but I find it almost impossible to summarize in a few short paragraphs because it is so complex and multi-layered. I could just say that this is a survivor’s tale of the events of the Holocaust, but that would be selling this story short. It is so much more than just that.
I feel that the major, underlying theme of this book is of the relationships of the people in it. We see how Vladek, who has survived the horrors of Auschwitz, has had difficulty adjusting to life in America and how he just cannot get along with the people he loves the most. The relationship that is most focused on in the book is that between Vladek and Art, father and son. On the surface these two cannot get along. Art will never live up to his father’s expectations, while Art cannot forgive his dad for the strange way that he behaves which he just cannot explain or understand. Art tries to find an explanation for the weird ways in which Vladek behaves, but just like the horrific ways in which many German people behaved during the Holocaust there is no adequate explanation. Maybe Vladek behaves the way he does because of the terrible things he had to endure at the hands of the Nazis, or perhaps he is just a miserly, bitter, self centred old man and that is the way he always has been.
On the surface Vladek views Art as a failure, as Art can never be Vladek’s first son Richieu, who was another whose life was ended by the Nazi atrocities in the ovens of Auschwitz. Privately Vladek does admire Art, even though Art is just a struggling cartoonist. Vladek even seems at one stage very proud of Art’s work and achievements and he does allow Art to chronicle the terrible events that he had to endure in the 1930s and 40s.
There is also the relationship between Vladek and his second wife Mala. It seems that Vladek cannot forgive Mala for not being his first wife Anja, who committed suicide years earlier. We know that Vladek loves Anja and still has great affection for her, but I am unsure why he ended up marrying Mala after Anja’s death. Perhaps the reason for this is really as Mala speculates; because Vladek is a tight man and that she is the same size as Anja, which means that Vladek doesn’t have to buy her any new clothing because she can wear Anja’s things. In other words the only reason that Vladek married Mala is because she reminds him of Anja, but unfortunately she is not Anja, something that Vladek can never forgive her for.
We also see the events of the Holocaust as recounted by Vladek. We see how the Jewish people were persecuted by the Nazis, and the horrible conditions that they had to face, in the ghettos of Poland and the concentration camps of Auschwitz. We see how resourceful the Jewish people had to be to avoid death, although death could be random and that it did not necessarily matter how resourceful you were, that sometimes you just needed luck to stay alive.
Maus is a brilliant, important book that I feel should be read by anyone who wants to know about the atrocities performed by the Nazis during the Holocaust. The book is probably more accessible than a straight out history text book, because it is written in comic strip form. Because of this we can see visually just what lengths the Jews had to go to for survival, as well as the brutality of the Nazis and Poles. Spiegelman’s rightly won a Pulitzer Prize for this work. Even though this is a comic book it is not really suitable for children but it should be used in high schools to show what happened during the Holocaust. I wish that I could articulate my feelings about this a bit better.