Maus: A Family Story?

So, you read “Maus” by the magnificent Art Spiegelman and witnessed all the dehumanizing crimes his father narrates. You, as did I, frowned, gasped, and shook your head with the atrocities and the hate demonstrated by a cast of the very humanity we belong. You saw Spiegelman presenting thought-provoking personifications such as the Nazis as cats, Polish as pigs, and Jews as mice. It is logical to assume, and we would be accurate, that the graphic novel was composed to expose the atrocities of the Holocaust. After all, Vladek decides not to share Lucia’s entire story because, “it has nothing to do with Hitler, with the holocaust!” (23). But what about the characters who take part in the present time of the graphic novel, Artie and Vladek? How about the story of a dead mother and the reason that brought her to put an end her life? Reading the graphic novel under the spectrum of family relationships, we may discover a conflict between a father and his son, caused after the tragic death of the mother, and that Spiegelman had an additional motive to compose his work: guilt.

In the early pages of the novel, we know that Vladek loved Anja, but we may also realize that her absence has caused a void that he cannot fill. When Artie asks him “mom wasn’t that attractive,” Vladek replies that Anja wasn’t as pretty as Lucia, “but if you talked a little to her, you started loving her more and more” (18). Throughout the narration of how Vladek came to marry Anja, we can’t but recognize a relationship in which the couple appreciated one another more than the usual. A solid example would be after the birth of their first child. Anja’s post-partum depression and her treatment are more important to Vladek than his newly established career and factory. Additionally, although Vladek marries Mala after Anja’s death—probably because he doesn’t like to be alone—he is constantly irritated by her. Simply put, Mala is not Anja. She is not the woman with whom he survived the worst era of modern history, even though his experiences make him desire a life-partner. Thus, as much as he tries to fill in the void created by Anja’s sudden death, he still feels detached by his original “family.”

Artie’s love for his mother is also undeniable, for throughout the novel he expresses his guilt as much as his desire to have Anja’s story heard. His guilt—a demon in Artie’s mind who utters that he was responsible for Anja’s suicide—is revealed with the graphic novel inside the graphic novel, “Prisoner on the Hell Planet.” Spiegelman feels the need to tell honestly his story, and that’s why choosing to avoid any personification in the section of the novel. Plus, the scene where his mother comes into his room asking him if he still loves her, demonstrates a part of his guilt and remorse (103). One more piece of evidence hinting Artie’s guilt is his constant desire to find Anja’s notes and add them in his memoir. His persistence and rage at the end of the novel also hint that despite the fact Maus is a work that exposes Holocaust, it might be also a novel about a broken family. And Anja, per Artie, should be in the heart of it.

The void in both Artie and Vladek’s lives caused by Anja’s death becomes the most apparent when Vladek discovers “Prisoner on the Hell Planet.” Vladek confesses that he read the novel and that he cried but also told Artie that he had to get it out of his system (104). However, immediately after Vladek says that he hasn’t found Anja’s notes. We know that he probably lied because we read his final confession about burning the notes. This action could be interpreted either as Vladek’s own guilt on Anja’s death, or because he didn’t want Anja’s memory to be shadowed by her depression. What Vladek failed to foresee, though, is that if he had given the notes to Artie then the latter would have stopped blaming himself. His mistake not only brought up the final manifestation of his conflict with Artie but widened the gap between them. On the other hand, we know that Vladek grew in an era where secrets were vital—perhaps, he could not do otherwise. 

This sense of guilt is common with relatives of a deceased, and this is what is conflicted in this case. Both Artie and Vladek demonstrate a conflict with their own guilt, which creates the gap between them although it has been proven invalid. Anja shows early evidence of depression, which manifests after her first labor in the point she must go and stay in a sanitarium. She survives the Holocaust sometimes out of luck, and she loses her child by another mother’s suicidal action. Again, if Vladek hadn’t burnt her notes, Artie would probably have found more than one evidence that emphasized her depression.

At the end of the novel, the emotional conflict inside both father and son manifests with the latter’s rage. Although he has heard his father narrating crimes against humanity, he chooses to him a “murderer” (159). His guilt and rage blind him from seeing that his mother had many demons torturing her mind. Thus, this mistaken belief that he is in fault, and that Vladek murdered her memory—rather than protecting her—makes him almost terminating the relationship with his father.

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