What is the purpose of literature? For there are seven billion people in the world, there are likely to exist seven billion answers. Science fiction lovers would say that literature must have the ability to transport one into a world beyond their imagination. The admirers of romance novels would claim that literature must take one through the pain of heartbreak to the promise of eternal happiness in a matter of hours. But what would graphic novel devotees say?
The absence of a universal theme — a universal feeling, meant to be awakened in the hearts of the audience — makes a graphic novel a truly unique literary experience. Its purpose extends beyond narrative storytelling and its design makes it possible to fully immerse the readers into its imaginary world. However, unlike any other type of literature, graphic novels and comic books often have to face the issues related to ethics and morality, as their visual depictions of violence or death tend to be more impactful than those presented by the narrative form. Flesh, blood and dead bodies populate the pages of thousands of comic books as if their entire purpose was to convince the audience how corrupted their minds are, for they can turn still images into a horrifying mental sequence full of sensations, sounds and smells.
Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus follows a similar pattern, yet the violence on its pages serves a completely different purpose. The novel is based on the interviews with the author’s father Vladek Spiegelman, a Holocaust survivor, who looks back at his experiences during the genocide. However, despite its dire connotation, Maus is not a novel just about the Holocaust. It tells the stories of marriage, childhood and friendship, weaving the tragedies of the death camps into the fuss of the characters’ day-to-day life. As a result of the novel’s detached and sometimes even casual tone, Maus raises a lot of ethical concerns — from depicting Jewish people as mice and undermining their suffering to mixing massive destruction and loss with the character’s domestic quarrels. Likewise, the mere existence of a Holocaust novel raises many ethical debates: who gets to write the story and in what way?
I argue that due to the urgent and unprecedented nature of the novel, Maus cannot and should not be evaluated through a prism of traditional morality. The history of the Holocaust must not be forgotten — yet, traditional literary genres and methods, coupled with careful ethical considerations, would never make its narratives as accessible to the masses as Maus did. By choosing to forego certain moral norms, Spiegelman sought to alleviate the devastating impact that the genocide story would have had on a typical reader and as a result, Maus achieved widespread popularity and touched upon the lives of millions of people. Maus may not be as noble or careful or inclusive as other Holocaust chronicles, but the novel’s historical and social significance outweighs its occasional mishandling of common ethical values. This paper will examine some of the major moral concerns raised by Maus and provide insights into the possible explanations behind them.
One of the main reasons for the heated ethical debates around Maus is Spiegelman’s decision to use animal allegories as a way to differentiate between the character’s nationalities. In Maus, Jews are represented as mice, Germans turn into cats and Poles become pigs. While Spiegelman did not seem to place much emphasis on the nationalities that played a minor part in the story, such as the Swedes or the British (MetaMaus 129), the cat and mouse metaphor carries the highest importance. The author explained that this allusion is meant to represent much more than just cats’ evolutionary predisposition to hunt and devour mice. According to Spiegelman,
Jews were [regularly] represented literally as rats. Caricatures by Fips (the pen name of Philippe Rupprecht) filled the pages of Der Stürmer: a grubby, swarthy, Jewish apelike creatures in one drawing, ratlike creatures in the next. Posters of killing the vermin and making them flee were part of the overarching metaphor (MetaMaus 116).
The gas chambers in Auschwitz took away the lives of 1,000,000 Jews by poisoning them with Zyklon B — the gas specifically manufactured to kill vermin.
As a result, the cat-and-mouse metaphor in Maus plays into the long history of antisemitism and carries a danger of reinforcing the stereotype that Jewish people are “mice meant to be exterminated.” If Spiegelman were to take a similar approach and use primate imagery to represent the history of slavery in the United States (similarly to Jews being compared to mice, monkeys were used to discriminate against black people for centuries), the book would never see the light of the day. Representing nationalities as animals creates an additional risk of emphasizing the historical inequality between them, due to the different statuses or ‘uses’ that humans have assigned to animals, with cats and dogs standing at the top of the ladder and pigs and mice at the bottom. Therefore, from an ethical perspective, it would be best if Maus were to portray the characters in their real human form.
In my opinion, such an approach would rid Maus of any opportunity to be seen and read by the general public. First, as can be seen in Prisoner from the Hell Planet (Spiegelman’s 1972 comic that appears in Vol. I in Maus), the comics that realistically show human characters are close to impossible to read. When the horror on the pages is tangible, too close to our real life, the plot becomes hard to follow. At the same time, Prisoner from the Hell Planet does not showcase even the smallest part of all the violence and terror that Maus has to grapple with, from rotten corpses piled up on the floor of a concentration camp to kids swallowing poison so they can die before the Nazis will catch them. Realism would kill Maus — I doubt that Spiegelman would be able to portray such a broad expanse of human suffering in a realistic way and remain sane. In Spiegelman’s 2011 MetaMaus, the author pointed out that using animals ‘allowed [him] to approach otherwise unsayable things’ (127). The mouse allegory alleviates the anguish and terror that reside on the pages of Maus, making them less palpable, less credible, less true. Despite their human-like actions and figures, the characters seem as though they came straight from the world of Disney, which makes us look at the novel in a different way, removing the text from the realm of history, almost turning the Holocaust into fiction. Notably, Spiegelman had to ask The New York Times to move Maus from the fiction to the non-fiction section and in the end, his request was granted (Spiegelman, MetaMaus 150). Yet, while it is indeed immoral that the fictionization in Maus diminishes the torment that Jewish people had to go through, such a detachment was absolutely necessary to give the audience a chance to sympathize with Vladek’s story without losing their mind. The current generation is not strong enough to comprehend the true horrors of the Holocaust, and Art Spiegelman must know it better than anyone else.
In fact, at the beginning of Chapter II, Vol. II of Maus, the author shows himself experiencing the blurring of the line between reality and fiction. Spiegelman writes,
Vladek started working as a tinman in Auschwitz in the spring of 1944…I started working on this page at the very end of February 1987. In May 1987 Francois and I are expecting a baby…Between May 16, 1944, and May 24, 1944, over 100,000 Hungarian Jews were gassed in Auschwitz.
All these phrases appear in the same speech bubble: Spiegelman makes no differentiation between the present and the past, between his life and the life of his father, between his family and the families of the Jews gassed in Auschwitz. The reality that Spiegelman has to live with — where it is not a metaphorical mouse, but his own father fighting for his life — is slowly destroying him. “Lately I’ve been feeling depressed,” Spiegelman says, as he draws himself sitting on top of a pile of dead mice, but in his reality, these mice are the dead bodies.
In this chapter, Spiegelman faces yet another pressing question: How ethical is it to profit off the Holocaust? Who has given him the right to speak on behalf of the survivors, let alone cash in on their stories? Around him, there are reporters, filmmakers, even merchandisers, all trying to help Spiegelman sell his story when it’s the last thing he wants to do. In fact, when discussing his novel’s astounding success, Spiegelman pointed out that ‘the anhedonic way [he] experienced the success of Maus was to spend the next 20 years trying to wriggle out from under [his] own achievement’ (Garner). The author also explained that he never expected Maus to achieve such a success: the novel was turned down by most American publishers because the idea of a comic book about the Holocaust seemed beyond anyone’s imagination and common sense of morality.
Spiegelman’ use of comics as a literary medium for Maus is perhaps one of the most critical issues in regard to the morality of the novel. According to Copley, ‘Maus was heavily criticised on its release for its use of a format which many found upsetting, on the premise that it was too flippant to deal with the weight of the subject matter’ (2). Indeed, comic books are notoriously famous for their childish themes, exaggerated plots, unnecessary violence and even profanity, so narrating a Holocaust storyline in such an infantile and mischievous environment may seem rather unacceptable to the general public. A German reporter once asked Spiegelman if he thought that a comic book about the Holocaust was in bad taste (Garner). His eloquent response was, “No, I thought Auschwitz was in bad taste.” I too believe that there are many justifications for Spiegelman’s choice of a graphic novel as the most suitable medium for Maus.
An obvious reason would be that Spiegelman was a professional cartoonist, so regardless of his chosen topic, a comic strip was the only narrative device that he could effortlessly operate. It is precisely due to Spiegelman’s enormous talent as a comic artist that Maus is able to depict the Holocaust not as a singular event, but as a continuous force shaped by Vladek’s memories, which take place both in the past and in the present. Maus brings the two points in time together to show that even though the Holocaust might have ended, it still exists in the mind of the Jewish people, shaping their everyday lives. In addition, as a comic strip format allows for a flawless transition between the events happening within different timeframes, it makes the plot less shocking and more possible to digest. By skillfully shifting the scenes between his father’s experiences in Auschwitz and his life in Rego Park, Spiegelman wants to give his readers a cushion that they can fall into when they feel too overwhelmed with the central plot. The Holocaust storyline is important and must be taken seriously, but if it had to exist on its own, without any humour, any promise of future or happiness, Maus would be a book that only a few people would dare to open.
However, the very same storytelling approach has become another source of the controversy behind Maus. In almost every chapter of the novel, Spiegelman presents his father’s recollections of the Holocaust alongside his daily squabbles with everyone around him, including his second wife Mala, grocery store managers and even African-American hitchhikers. While this makes Vladek’s story more relatable to the audience — we can see that in spite of his tragic past, his life is quite similar to those of our own parents and grandparents — it also steers attention away from the novel’s key theme, the Holocaust. Vladek seems to agree with that judgement. In the very first chapter of Maus, he orders Art not to disclose the details about his personal life as ‘it has nothing to do with Hitler, with the Holocaust!’ In the following panel, Vladek explains that mixing such ‘private things’ and the history of the Holocaust would be improper and disrespectful. Throughout the novel, Spiegelman is constantly aware of the great responsibility that he assumed when he decided to narrate his father’s experiences in a comic book format. It is my belief that the author treated such a responsibility with the utmost care, always pointing out where the truth was married with fiction and acknowledging his own struggles as he had to come to terms with particular artistic decisions. Spiegelman begins Chapter II in Vol. II by showing himself drawing Maus with a mouse mask on. This scene is meant to remind us that behind the frames of the comic book panels, behind the metaphor of cats killing mice, there are real people, each with their own version of history.
While it is not a novel, but not a comic book either, Maus is essentially a fusion of many literary genres, such as biography, autobiography, fiction, non-fiction and history; it consists of two parallel timeframes as well as two distinct narratives. Therefore, something that is considered immoral in another novel might be necessary in Maus precisely due to its non-heterogeneous and abnormal nature. Spiegelman defies the boundaries of genres and literary forms to deliver a narrative that is candid, captivating and frightful. He approaches the Holocaust from almost a fictional perspective so that the audience can make full sense of the novel’s contents without sinking into the depths of despair. In doing so, Maus gained victory over commonplace ethics and secured its place in history — in the history of art, literature and the Holocaust.
- Copley, Jessica. ‘Modes of Representing the Holocaust. A Discussion of the Use of Animation in Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Oryl Yadin and Sylvie Bringas’s Silence.’ Opticon1826. 2010.
- Garner, Dwight. ‘After a Quarter-Century, an Author Looks Back at His Holocaust Comic.’ The New York Times. 12 Oct. 2011.
- Spiegelman, Art. Maus: A Survivor's Tale. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986 - 1991. Print.
- Spiegelman, Art. MetaMaus. New York: Pantheon Books, 2011. Print.