In Maus, Art Spiegelman utilizes a combination of images and words in order to convey his own specific perception Vladek, not only as a Holocaust survivor but also as his flawed father. In order to fully understand this graphic novel, the reader cannot analyze the words and the images separately. While the words provide necessary information for the reader, the images determine the mood that the author attempts to construct. To validate the pitfalls of focusing solely on the words, one must consider how the narrative would flow with the words and images separated.
The text on page forty-one reads: “Time flies…Vladek died of congestive heart failure on August 18, 1982…Francoise and I stayed with him in the Catskills back in August 1979. Vladek started working as a tin man in the spring of 1944…I started working on this page at the very end on February 1987. In May 1987 Francoise and I are expecting a baby…Between May 16, 1944 and May 24, 1944 over 10,000 Hungarian Jews were gassed in Auschwitz…In September 1986, after 8 years of work, the first part of Maus was published. It was a critical and commercial success. At least fifteen foreign editions are coming out. I’ve gotten 4 serous offers to turn my book into a TV special or a movie. (I don’t wanna.) In May 1968, my mother killed herself. (She left no note.) Lately I’ve been depressed. Alright Mr. Spiegelman, we’re ready to shoot.”
Primarily, this passage separated from the images appears choppy and lacks any sort of central theme or mood. Because the first sentence mentions Vladek’s death, one may imply that the tone of the passage is sober. In the first couple of sentences, one perceives that Spiegelman parallels events in his life to events in Vladek’s life with a juxtaposition of facts. When Spiegelman describes the success of Maus, the details he includes indicates to the reader that he boasts about the novel’s popularity. When Spiegelman mentions that he doesn’t want to turn his book into a movie, the reader must question why. From his boastful tone, one most likely assumes that Spiegelman regards his book so highly that he doesn’t want another adaption to be made of it. After describing Maus’s success, Spiegelman immediately shifts to describing his mother’s suicide. This sudden shift throws off the flow of the passage. When he includes that he feels depressed, the reader assumes that his depression stems from his mother’s suicide. Finally, the last line of this passage does not conclude the passage well. The reader does not know who delivers this statement or where this statement is given. The last line lacks context, and thus, the reader cannot confidently assume any theme or meaning from the passage. This type of predicament regresses back to the tautological cycle of literature. Without being provided context, the reader must make a chain of associations to make sense of the material presented. The arbitrary nature of words additionally fuels this tautological cycle. Thus, Spiegelman includes images in order to provide specific context for his readers.
When observing the images presented on page forty-one, one must take into account the author’s opticality, essentially what Spiegelman chooses to see and what he chooses to present to the reader. Through use of images, he narrows the parameters of the reader’s imagination and personal context while forcing the reader to adopt his perception of his relationship with Vladek and the Holocaust.
Consider the first image paired with the thought bubble, “Vladek died of congestive heart failure on August 18, 1982…Francoise and I stayed with him in the Catskills back in August 1979” (41). Without the image, these two sentences are merely two simple life events. Considering the image, Spiegelman represents himself with the mask of a mouse covering his face, stubble on the sliver of his face that the mask does not cover, head tilted, and two insects flying around his head. The first conclusion that one makes is that Spiegelman does not present a positive or optimistic image. On the contrary, the tilted position of his head connotes a dejected attitude. What’s more the stubble and insects, which reappear in further images, imply a lack of hygiene or personal upkeep. Needless to say, Spiegelman communicates through this image that he works through a challenging and defeating experience. Therefore, the mention of Vladek’s death takes on a more poignant tone of bereavement. The later sentence that reads, “Francoise and I stayed with him in the Catskills back in August 1979,” adopts a different meaning as well. This statement transforms from a simple relaying of an event into Spiegelman unconvincingly attempting to perceive himself as a good son. Ultimately, through Spiegelman’s pairing of text and image, he conveys his own sense of guilt.
The next image is similar to the first, only differing in the fact that Spiegelman portrays himself in the action of writing. Like all of the images on the page, Spiegelman wears the mask of a mouse. This component of the image proves critical because of the fact that he portrays the Jews from his father’s generation as mice in Maus. Spiegelman portraying himself with the mask of a mouse signifies that he’s attempting to identify with his father but cannot fully grasp his father’s true identity, hence the mask. Accordingly, in both this image and the third, Spiegelman includes text in which he parallels events in his life with event’s from his father’s life: “Vladek started working as a tin man in the spring of 1944…I started working on this page at the very end on February 1987. In May 1987 Francoise and I are expecting a baby…Between May 16, 1944 and May 24, 1944 over 10,000 Hungarian Jews were gassed in Auschwitz…” (42). However, even with their events paralleled, there remains an obvious disconnect between Spiegelman and Vladek’s experiences. Because the Holocaust has been memorialized in American society, the reader associates Vladek’s experiences with acute suffering and heroism while viewing Spiegleman’s experiences as lackluster and mundane. Because of the Holocaust narrative that’s been engrained in American culture, Spiegelman cannot identify with his father, a hero and a survivor in society’s eyes. Although, Spiegelman attempts to make his father a round character, the mention of the Holocausts places his father into the archetype of a survivor, a hero.
The reader must keep this struggle in mind when Spiegelman writes with the next image, “In September 1986, after 8 years of work, the first part of Maus was published. It was a critical and commercial success.” Without the previous images to provide Spiegelman’s opticality, one assumes that Spiegelman praises his own work. Yet one must notice that Spiegelman labels Maus as a “commercial success,” and not a “personal success.” All in all, he failed to identify with his father. The fourth image confirms this idea. Spiegelman portrays himself with his face in frontal view instead of profile. With this view, one cannot distinguish between his face and his mask. In contrast, he fully displays both of his human hands. From the public’s point of view, Spiegelman successfully captured Vladek’s identity, which is why one cannot distinguish between the mask and his face. However, Spiegelman’s personal relationship with his father remains unresolved, so he cannot fully identify with his father, hence the full display of his human hands. As a result, Spiegelman presents Maus as a commercial success but a personal failure.
The climax of page forty-one occurs in the last image. First of all, Spiegelman stresses the importance of this image by enlarging its size and making it take up half of the page. In the first four images, Spiegleman had only given the reader a view of himself from the waist up. Yet, in this last picture, he provides a full view of himself and his space. Bellow him appears dead and naked individuals, presumably Holocausts victims, with the bodies of humans and heads of mice. Finally, Spiegleman provides a concrete context for the flies. Above the bodies sits Spiegelman slouched on his desk, almost as if the bodies are his foundation. The text paired with this image reads, “At least fifteen foreign editions are coming out. I’ve gotten 4 serous offers to turn my book into a TV special or a movie. (I don’t wanna.) In May 1968, my mother killed herself. (She left no note.) Lately I’ve been depressed. Alright Mr. Spiegelman, we’re ready to shoot” (41). Because of the previous images and text, the reader understands the guilt that Spiegelman feels for not identifying with his father or being a sufficient son. So, Spiegelman’s proclamation that “I don’t wanna” comes as no surprise. What’s more, he mentions his mother’s suicide for the first time on this page. With this insert, Spiegelman adds new depth to his guilt as a son. On top of not being unable to identify with his mother and father as Holocaust survivors, he can’t identify with them simply as his parents. He cannot be the son who provides his mother with a reason to survive in suburban New York, even after the horrors that she survived at Auschwitz. The acute guilt and shame that this grotesque image reveals presents Spiegelman’s depression within a more excruciating and heavy meaning than the text alone could ever provide. When a separate sound bubble from outside of the office reads, “Alright Mr. Spiegelman, we’re ready to shoot,” Spiegleman relays how the critics and public remain out of touch with his haunting guilt and personal failure.
In conclusion, Spiegelman attempts in many ways to break the Holocaust narrative and present his father as a round character. He tries to crack the hero archetype by revealing Vladek’s flaws and weaknesses. He utilizes the self-reflexive by writing about being a character in Maus. Moreover, with the use of images, he even strips the characters of their human appearances, depicting them as mice. Yet, even with all of these devices, Spiegelman cannot break the Holocaust narrative. When Spiegelman labels his father as a murderer at the end of Maus, the reader reacts with rage and loses sympathy for Spiegelman. Therefore, even with every attempt that Spiegelman uses to break the Holocaust narrative, the reader still perceives Vladek as a Holocaust survivor and a hero, a person not at all relatable to Spiegelman.