The Themes of Memory and Guilt in Art Spiegelman’s “Maus”

Introduction

Art Spiegelman’s Maus makes a powerful impression on the reader, not only through the book’s theme but also through its representation. Written and published in the form of a comic book, Maus portrays tragic topics in a seemingly entertaining way. Doherty remarks that Spiegelman’s creation presented “an unsettling aesthetic and scholarly challenge” (69), earning “extraordinary” attention and “rhapsodic” response (70).

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Like any Holocaust narration, Maus uncovers many tragic issues concerning both the time of the Holocaust itself and the years that followed. The main characters continuously struggle with their thoughts and feelings as well as with each other in an attempt to understand the root of all problems as well as to find solutions to them. However, as it appears, the reality of this tragedy is inescapable. In Maus, the themes of guilt and memory are revealed through the narrator’s depiction of his relationship with his father and memories of his mother.

The Concept of “Survivor” in the Book

Even though Art was born after the Holocaust, he appears to be connected to it through his parents’ history. The narrator seeks approval or at least understanding from his father, Vladek, and tries to relieve the effects of painful recollections about his mother, Anja, who has committed suicide. Thus, two approaches to defining the concept of “survivor” in Maus are apparent. The first involves considering the direct meaning of the word: Art’s parents survived the Holocaust and its concentration camps, making them both survivors.

The second way of interpreting the word is by looking at Art’s emotions connected with the fact that he will never be able to live through what his parents have. Not only do his mother and father have the history of the Holocaust in common, but they also lost their first son at that time. This “unassimilated trauma,” according to Young, is partially responsible for Vladek’s behavior (667) and adds to the conflict between Art and his father.

Thus, the young man must survive his mother’s death and his father’s resistance to understanding him. As Staub notes, Maus is about Art’s inability “to confront fully or represent metaphorically a monstrous past” (37). Because the narrator has not participated in the tragic events he is trying to describe, he feels as if he is a survivor himself. He suffers from a lack of knowledge and not having been present in the most tragic and influential period of his family’s life.

While Vladek is a Holocaust survivor whose story provides the basis for Spiegelman’s book, Art does not always feel pity toward his father and his story. As Rothberg mentions, Maus is a “new strand of Jewish-American self-construction” (665). In this innovative interpretation, Spiegelman depicts Art’s survivor father’s suffering by “refusing to sentimentalize the survivor” (Rothberg 665). As such, the concept of a survivor acquires yet another characteristic: that of an obstacle to understanding between the father and son.

Art’s Relationships with His Father

Throughout the book, the author depicts numerous instances of misunderstandings between Art and Vladek. At the beginning of the story, Spiegelman remarks that father and son “weren’t that close” (11:1). The theme of guilt is closely associated with the relationship problem. Art does not get along with his father, and he feels bad about it. The lack of a cordial connection between Vladek and Art stems from several reasons. First, father and son belong to different generations: Vladek survived the Holocaust and the loss of his first child and first wife. In contrast, Art was born after the tragic events, and no matter how hard he tries, he cannot convince his father that he has any possibility to perceive the entirety of the past tragedy.

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The second and more complicated aspect of the father-son communication problems shown in Maus is that Vladek has destroyed Anja’s diaries. For Art, these notes bear both personal and historical meaning. With their help, he might have better understood the life and death of his mother. At the same time, she was also a survivor, so her diaries could have contributed to Art’s book. However, Vladek has burned them, even though his deceased wife used to say, “I wish my son, when he grows up, he will be interested by this” (Spiegelman 159:1). Art is indeed interested, but no notes remain for him to read. Thus, he refers to his father as the “murderer” (Spiegelman 159: 2).

In the explanation of this conflict, Levine notes that Art “experiences this shock as a repetition of the Holocaust” in which his father is not the offended but the offender (325). Vladek’s decision to destroy Anja’s memoirs does not seem clear since, as Staub mentions, speaking about the past “gives them a reason to speak with one another” (34). Without that reason, Vladek risks losing touch with his son altogether.

Memories of the Mother and Her Importance to Art

Probably the most painful experience depicted in Maus is Art’s loss of his mother. The book even has a special insert dedicated to this storyline. The young man’s suffering goes beyond that typical in losing a parent: he has not had an opportunity to understand much about his mother because of the huge gap between them—not only a generation gap but something much deeper. Art cannot quite grasp all the atrocities that his mother has survived. Moreover, unfortunately, Anja and Vladek have deprived him of any opportunity to further understand.

Anja killed herself when Art was twenty, and she “left no note” (Spiegelman 100:1). This is the point where the two major themes—guilt and memory—intertwine and cause much suffering to Art. He struggles to remember something about his mother but cannot because he was too young to communicate with her about important ideas while she was still alive. Anja’s suicide is “his own trauma” from which he cannot recover (Elmwood 694). Thus, the mother’s role (or, rather, his memory of her) in Art’s life is highly significant.

The Portrayal of Anja Throughout the Story and in “Prisoner on the Hell Planet”

The author employs not only lexical but also graphical means of drawing attention to the tragedy of losing his mother. In a special insertion, “Prisoner on the Hell Planet” on pages 100-103, the story of his mother’s suicide is told. Here, Spiegelman does not draw allegoric mice but uses the images of people and even one photograph (Spiegelman 100:1). In these pages, the theme of tragedy is superseded by that of guilt. The young man has a constant feeling of being responsible for the death of his mother. He recollects how she had recently come to his room and asked whether he still loved her, and he was reluctant to reply, feeling “resentful of the way she tightened the umbilical cord” (Spiegelman 103:2).

Art mentions that everyone thought her suicide was his fault and admits that “the guilt was overwhelming” (Spiegelman 102:3). The narrator remarks that for the most part, he “was left alone” with his thoughts” (Spiegelman 103:1). Such is the portrayal of Art’s mother in “Prisoner on the Hell Planet,” in contrast to the story, where the depiction of this character is rather different.

In the beginning, Vladek spends time describing how he courted his future wife and how he adored her looks and wisdom. It seems that despite all the hardships of the Holocaust, Vladek has kept tender feelings toward his first wife, which he demonstrates in his story in telling it to Art (Spiegelman 17-18). His second wife, Mala, is jealous of Anja even many years after her death and says that Vladek keeps her things “like a shrine” (Spiegelman 104.4).

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These instances lend themselves to the idea that both Art’s and Vladek’s lives might have been much better if Anja had not killed herself. The failure to understand her motives has made the son feel remorseful. Furthermore, his father’s treatment of his mother’s diaries has created a feeling of distance between them that nothing can eliminate.

Conclusion

While the tragedy of the Holocaust is profound, it is not the only problematic theme portrayed in Art Spiegelman’s Maus. The aspects of memory and guilt are depicted in the book through the narrator’s relationship with his father and feelings about his mother. The young man feels guilty for his mother’s death, but at the same time, he cannot forgive his father for destroying the only evidence that his mother Anja had left behind. Thus, each of the main characters is a survivor and a victim to some extent.

Works Cited

Doherty, Thomas. “Art Spiegelman’s Maus: Graphic Art and the Holocaust.” American Literature, vol. 68, no. 1, 1996, pp. 69-84.

Elmwood, Victoria A. ““Happy, Happy Ever After”: The transformation of Trauma Between the Generations in Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale.” Biography, vol. 27, no. 4, 2004, pp. 691-720.

Levine, Michael G. “Necessary Stains: Spiegelman’s Maus and the Bleeding History.” American Imago, vol. 59, no. 3, 2002, pp. 317-341.

Rothberg, Michael. ““We Were Talking Jewish”: Art Spiegelman’s Maus as “Holocaust” Production.” Contemporary Literature, vol. 35, no. 4, 1994, pp. 661-687.

Spiegelman, Art. Maus: A Survivor’s Tale. Vol. 1, Penguin Books, 1986.

Staub, Michael E. “The Shoah Goes On and On: Remembrance and Representation in Art Spiegelman’s Maus.” Melus, vol. 20, no. 3, 1995, pp. 33-46.

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Young, James E. “The Holocaust as Vicarious Past: Art Spiegelman’s Maus and the Afterimages of History.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 24, no. 3, 1998, pp. 666-669.

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StudyCorgi. "The Themes of Memory and Guilt in Art Spiegelman’s "Maus"." July 8, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/the-themes-of-memory-and-guilt-in-art-spiegelmans-maus/.

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StudyCorgi. 2021. "The Themes of Memory and Guilt in Art Spiegelman’s "Maus"." July 8, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/the-themes-of-memory-and-guilt-in-art-spiegelmans-maus/.

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