Animal Imagery in Art: Spiegelman’s “Maus”


Spiegelman’s Maus is an exceptional literary work due to several aspects. For one thing, it is a story of one of the most tragic episodes in human history told by means of a comic. For another thing, the characters in this comic are not pictured as humans but as animals. Not only does the author depict the horrors that Jews had to suffer during World War II because Hitler did not consider them “human” (Spiegelman 3). More than that, he employs allegoric images to demonstrate the unfair treatment of this race by Germans. It is typical to think of mice as small, weak, insignificant creatures that are also highly annoying. The writer chooses these animals to represent the Nazi’s attitude toward Jews: the former considered the latter as absolutely useless and disturbing. Meanwhile, Poles are pictured as pigs, and Nazis – as cats. Analyzing the graphic novel through the prism of animal symbolism allows understanding the relationships between different nations during the war. In Spiegelman’s Maus, the animal imagery reproduces a racial logic of the Nazi regime by representing Jews as mice, the lowest creatures on the chain of being.

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The Nazi Opinion About Different Populations’ Worth

The tragedy of the Holocaust was grounded in Hitler’s idea about the exceptional value of the German nation and utter contempt for Jews. There is no logical explanation of such thoughts, as well as of actions taken against Jews in pre-war Germany. However, the fact is that these people were not viewed as worth working in the most important spheres and regarded as equal to Germans (Friedländer 74). Spiegelman’s novel resembles the Nazi belief that some populations can be ranked as higher or lower on the chain of being. In Mein Kampf, Hitler described Jews as troublesome and unnecessary as mice. He noted that “the offices were filled with Jews. Nearly every clerk was a Jew and nearly every Jew was a clerk” (qtd. in Friedländer 74). Another opinion, expressed by Gen. Erich Ludendorff, was that Jews had acquired too much dominance in the economic sphere, which led to their enrichment “at the expense of the German people” (qtd. in Friedländer 74). Such thoughts had no grounds, but German authorities initiated the politics of removing Jews from important positions and worsening their lives in general.

Another point explaining the use of mice for representing Jews in Spiegelman’s Maus is that these animals are rather weak and small, and they can do nothing to protect themselves. The most they can do is run away and hide in holes until the danger is out of their way. When at the beginning of the 20th century, Jews started to feel oppressed, they “reacted, but only meekly” (Friedländer 74). They did not express any strong opposition toward the political and social constraints that were imposed on them. In 1912, there was a declaration of a program “for the complete expulsion of the Jews from German public life,” and the Association Against Jewish Arrogance was established (Friedländer 75). However, Jews were quiet as mice: they did not make loud protests and did not know how to protect themselves against those unjustified accusations. Therefore, the use of animals in Spiegelman’s novel is similar to the Nazi belief of Jews being a needless and powerless nation. The author employs allegory to exemplify how some human races consider themselves as more worthy than others, and by using power, subjugate and eradicate the weak.

Spiegelman’s Choice of Animals

The use of animals to depict such a serious theme as the Holocaust is not rare in American writers’ legacy (Kolář 87). Both the allegorical and metaphorical meanings of animalistic features enable authors to emphasize the similarities between humans and animals and explain people’s behavior during the war. As Kolář remarks, with the help of animal imagery, one can examine and exemplify the connections between “perpetrators, bystanders, and victims” during the Holocaust (87). Evidently, the Nazis’ role in this chain is the perpetrator’s one. This classification is the basis of Spiegelman’s Maus: there are three main groups of animals depicted in the book. Jews are represented by mice, Germans – by cats, and Poles – by pigs. There are other animals for rendering different nations: French are portrayed like frogs, Swedes – like deer, and Gypsies – like bees. However, the first three (mice, cats, and pigs) are the major classes one focuses on when analyzing the terrors of World War II and Jews’ place in it.

Kolář emphasizes that Spiegelman’s portrayal of nations by animals is “by no means artificial” (90). Just like mice are defenseless and paralyzed when attacked by a cat, so were Jews when confronted by Germans. Jews were “toys” for the Nazis who could do whatever they wanted with them (Kolář 90). One more function of animal imagery in Spiegelman’s novel is that of being the powerful way of explaining racism that is grounded in “biased, trivial generalizations and stereotyped constructions” (Kolář 90). In the animal world, the refusal to accept some species is vivid at first sight, which is a precise reflection of racist ideology.

Thus, Spiegelman’s major types of animals represent the following biases. Jews are portrayed as mice because they are defenseless and weak. Also, they do not have any distinctive features, which is the reflection of the Nazi racist approach that “reduced” the whole Jewish nation to “one anonymous mass” in which no one has individual features (Kolář 90). Showing Jews as mice induces the reader to think of these animals’ timidity, which highlights the Jews’ status as victims during the Holocaust (De Angelis 230). Also, such a graphic representation induces the audience to understand the Nazi perception of Jews “as not quite human” (De Angelis 230). The destiny of mice is miserable since they are to be deprived of all of their belongings, thrown out of their houses, and eventually murdered.

Germans are depicted as cats since they are the main hunters of mice. They are powerful, and it is no problem for them to catch mice and kill these weaker animals. The antagonism between cats and mice is one of the most popular themes of cartoons and fairytales. Cats represent cruel and hostile perpetrators that tease, torture, and kill mice. In Spiegelman’s novel, cats have portrayed as extremely nasty, unpleasant, atrocious, and tyrannical creatures (Spiegelman, Maus I 33). Their eyes are wicked, they have smirks on their faces, and their greatest pleasure is hurting mice and seeing them suffer.

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Finally, Poles are pictured as pigs: animals that elicit inertia, filth, and nastiness. Apart from these characteristics, pigs are quite indifferent, and probably that is why Spiegelman selected these animals to represent Poles. He has been criticized severely for such a choice because not all Poles were unfeeling, and many of them helped Jews to hide from Germans. Moreover, some Jews betrayed other Jews in order to gain some financial or social favors from the Nazis and Gestapo (Spiegelman 133). However, it was only a general image selected by the author, criticism of which disturbed Spiegelman to a great extent. The author expressed his dissatisfaction by the fact that the majority of readers did not object to Jews being pictured as vermin, but they were appalled that Poles were portrayed like pigs (De Angelis 321).

Overall, Spiegelman’s choice of animal imagery was guided by the attempt to resemble the Nazi belief in the different worth of various nations. Designating Jews as mice, which are considered as vermin, is “the first step in justifying their eradication” (De Angelis 231). Spiegelman’s metaphoric use of animals allows bringing to life the “artificial genetic hierarchy” that was supposed to be inaugurated by Aryan anti-Semitism (De Angelis 231). However, the selected animal imagery helps to emphasize the actuality of humans’ biases based on cultural differences.

Animals Masks and “Actual” Animals

Spiegelman’s graphic novel has earned unprecedented attention from critics due to its form and content. This monumental work is believed to have found a well-deserved place in a variety of contexts (Loman 212). One of such contexts is the representation of “otherness” by employing animal imagery (Chaney 130). According to De Angelis, the whole metaphorical basis on which Maus stands is contingent on readers’ talent to “see past” the animal heads and “mentally translate” them into the faces of Jewish and German people (230). People’s tendency to perceive the representatives of other species as “indistinguishable” from each other is similar to racists’ opinion that other ethnic groups’ members “all look alike” to them (De Angelis). Apart from these considerations, there is one more point for discussion concerning Spiegelman’s Maus. This issue concerns the occasions on which animals wear other animals’ masks and those in which metaphorical animals coexist with real animals.

Largely, actual animals mentioned in Maus are rats and dogs. In the first part of the novel, there is an episode when Anja is afraid of rats which she sees in the cellar where she and Vladek are hiding. To compose his wife, Vladek says that they “aren’t rats. They’re very small. <…> They’re just mice” (Spiegelman, Maus I 147:4). At this point, the author makes it very clear that the representation of Jews as mice is only figurative since they treat animals in the way a common person would do.

The same concerns dogs which are brought by Germans to smell the Jews out of a bunker. Vladek recollects that “the dogs ran up and down like mad,” but they could not find the Jews hiding beneath (Spiegelman, Maus I 111:2). Therefore, as Kolář justly remarks, Spiegelman’s animals behave like humans “with all their virtues and vices” so competently and persuasively that readers quickly forget that they are seeing the images of mice, pigs, and cats (91). In the second part, Spiegelman even worries that he might ruin his animal imagery. When Artie describes his visit to Pavel, his shrink, he mentions that there are many stray dogs and cats in the apartment. Immediately after that, Spiegelman says, “Can I mention this, or does it completely louse up my metaphor?” (Maus II 43:3). Thus, even the author himself is involved in the analysis of metaphoric animals against real ones.

Finally, the issue of wearing animal masks needs to be considered. When Jews feel extreme danger from Nazis, they put on masks of other animals in order to protect themselves and survive. For instance, in the chapter “Mouse Trap” in the first volume, Vladek wears a pig’s mask to be able to walk in the streets without being identified as a Jew (Spiegelman, Maus I 136). This instance symbolizes a “change of ethnic identity” that used to take place in actual history (Kolář 91). At the same time, the question of identifying false identities is raised. Vladek mentions that when wearing the mask, he had two choices of commuting by streetcar: taking the car for Germans or the one for Poles. Vladek recollects that the German would not pay any attention to him. Meanwhile, Poles “could smell if a Polish Jew came in” the car (Spiegelman, Maus I 140:4). Thus, wearing masks of other animals was used to protect one’s life by means of concealing the identity. In some cases, the possibility of being exposed was too high, but Jews had to go out sometimes to provide for their families.


The use of animal imagery in literary works is a common practice. Authors employ allegory and metaphors to exemplify human features and behavior. In Spiegelman’s Maus, animal imagery is employed to represent the racial logic of the Nazi regime by showing Jews as mice, the lowest creatures on the chain of being. Other animal characters are stronger and more powerful than mice: cats are the embodiment of Germans, and pigs exemplify Poles. The authors’ artful use of such metaphors allows the reader to forget about animals’ faces soon and concentrate on the characteristics these creatures symbolize.

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Works Cited

Chaney, Michael A. “Animal Subjects of the Graphic Novel.” College Literature, vol. 38., no. 3, 2011, pp. 129-149.

De Angelis, Richard. “Of Mice and Vermin: Animals as Absent Referent in Art Spiegelman’s Maus.” International Journal of Comic Art, vol. 7, no. 1, 2005, pp. 230-249.

Friedländer, Saul. Nazi Germany and the Jews: The Years of Persecution, 1933-1939. Vol. 1, Phoenix Giant, 1998.

Kolář, Stanislav. Animal Imagery in Kosinski’s The Painted Bird and Spiegelman’s Maus. N.d., Web.

Loman, Andrew. ““That Mouse’s Shadow”: The Canonization of Spiegelman’s Maus.” The Rise of the American Comic Artist: Creators and Contexts, edited by Paul Williams and James Lyons, University Press of Mississippi, 2010, pp. 210-234.

Spiegelman, Art. Maus I: My Father Bleeds History. Penguin Books, 1986.

—. Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began. Pantheon Books, 1991.

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StudyCorgi. (2021) 'Animal Imagery in Art: Spiegelman's "Maus"'. 8 July.

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