Maus' Symbolism Essay

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In 1992, an American writer and cartoonist, Art Spiegelman won the special Pulitzer Prize for 'Maus,' which was the first time a Pulitzer had been awarded to a graphic novel. Because the author abandons the traditional text and adopts the form of comics to present the holocaust which is narrated by his father with the animal image as the protagonist, it shows outstanding artistic expression and writing skills. The author uses the cats, mice, and pigs, as images to represent Nazi Germany, by the cruel persecution of the Jews, and the Nazi accomplices-polish people. This is not just an accident of artistic creation. Through these images, the author reflects the positions of all parties in this holocaust, their identities, and human nature. This paper analyzes the identities and symbolic expression in “Maus” to discuss the author's understanding and reflection of different identities, to reveal the unique literary value of the work, and to demonstrate the significance of the work to the literature of the holocaust.

Identity, as an important literary theoretical concept, combines the research results of sociology, psychology, and other fields and has been further developed. Identity research is not only an important tool to understand literary works, but also a theoretical basis for in-depth study of Maus. The main idea of identity theory is that identity consists of a series of self-views that are formed through self-categorization or based on identity within a particular group or role (Stets, 224). Identity is a characteristic of the self's point of view, as well as its dependence on society or a particular group of people. When individuals share basic internal factors with other members, that is, a specific group of people has common characteristics, we think it forms a Shared identity. And the nation is such a community with a wide range of identity sharing. (Stets, 224).

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When Spiegelman wrote “Maus”, he abandoned real characters and chose animal images as his subjects. While avoiding the negative impact of the identity associated with the Holocaust, it has successfully constructed a new identity. This makes descriptions and accounts of the holocaust less irresistible, less distant, and more sympathetic. But when people read deeply, it is not hard to find traces of Nazi Germany and Jews everywhere, which makes people feel the cruelty of the holocaust more deeply.

In 'Maus', the author represents different races through the images of different animals, for example, the cat represents the German Nazi, the rat represents the Jew, and the pig represents the Polish. These animals are chosen as representatives because these animals themselves have the different characteristics of people from different races or nationalities during the Second World War.

There are no mice in Maus. Likewise, there are no cats or dogs or pigs or frogs. Of course, virtually every page of Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust is covered with drawings of animals… The entire metaphorical foundation on which Maus is based relies on the ability of the reader to see past the mice and cat heads on the bodies of the main characters and mentally translate them into the faces of Jews and Germans. (De Angelis, 230)

Traditionally, cats are gentle, kind, and well-behaved, but when they face mice, their instinct makes them vicious and dangerous. This is very similar to the cruelty the German Nazis treats Jews. In 'Maus', both German soldiers and German civilians are depicted as evil cats, who are ready to pounce on their prey. The cats represent the German Nazis as 'torturers'. The author paints cats rounding up mice in the street and the execution in the novel, which reflects the persecution of Jews by German soldiers in the city where the author's father lived. In the natural world, cats hunt and devour mice. When this is mapped to the relationship between the German Nazis and Jews, it more clearly proves the brutal tyranny and dehumanization of the German fascist.

Meanwhile, corresponding to the image of the cat of German fascists, Siegelman uses mice to represent all the Jews who were brutally persecuted. Jewish groups live like mice under the claws of fascists and are slaughtered. In the novel, the mice have to risk being hanged in the street by Nazi Germany to get some food in the black market. To avoid being captured by the German Nazis, they hide in the cellar and live a life of anonymity and survival. The image of the mice is not only a symbol of the 'victim' status but also a reflection of the living conditions of the Jews during World War II. They meet ferocious Nazis like mice and cats to be teased, be beat and be killed. Jews are suffering from persecution, helpless and miserable.

By dehumanizing Jews, Spiegelman indirectly alluded to Hitler's advocacy of the idea that 'The Jews are undoubtedly a race, but they are not human' (Spiegelman, 4). If someone is supporting Hitler's idea of the dehumanization of the Jewish nation, the extermination of all the Jews made the holocaust possible. It also reflects the fact that the real non-humans are the devilish Nazis who turned themselves into 'evil cats' and innocent Jews into 'mice'.

The image of the pigs constructs the identity of another important group, the 'accomplice' —— the Polish people. Although there are some good Polish people, most of them are selfish, cold, and greedy. For example, the Polish governess who once bonded with the Vladek Family refuses to help them when the Vladek Family is in danger. On the one hand, the Pigs are oppressed and persecuted by the powerful German Nazis. However, objectively, they become the accomplices of the German Nazis. They inflict merciless blows on their former Jewish friends and Jewish neighbors. Therefore, The Polish existence caused the suffering of Jews to become more miserable and helpless.

“His use of animals enriches the story to make the audience perceive the message more realistically. It makes the audience understand that if the novel is gory and tragic, then the reality must have been unbearable. In a way, using animals makes the story more human”. (Ma, 115) Spiegelman uses animal images to construct new identities and define their characteristics, making the group images vivid and the history of the holocaust even more shocking.

Spiegelman tells the story of his father's half-life, from a mediocre life before World War II to a life of prosperity and fortune, and then losing everything in the war. Although he finally survived the Holocaust like mice, he lost his original human feelings and good lifestyle. From the perspective of individuals, it reflects the disasters, brought by the war to people, not only causing blood and tears but also constantly corroding people, slowly erasing humanity, making people seem to be still living in the war after the war.

When the father first time appears in the novel, he is already a sickly, perverse old man. He takes a lot of vitamins every day, forces the 30-year-old 'son' to finish his meal, repairs the roof drain by himself to save money, quarrels endlessly with his wife, Myra, and laughs at the relationship between the author and his friends. For holocaust survivors, represented by their father, Vladek, the holocaust became a lifelong nightmare. Although their bodies escaped the concentration camp, their mind and souls never left it. This kind of lingering pain is inflicted on the descendants of survivors represented by the author, which also causes serious indirect trauma to their psychology and life.

For the author, the distress of being the offspring of holocaust survivors is initially reflected in his estranged relationship with his parents. His father's experience of the holocaust had made him demanding, realistic, extremely frugal, and even money-obsessed. As age grows, Spiegelman is confused with his identity as a 'descendant of holocaust survivors'.

The idea that the face is a primary visual focus of personal and social identity was central to the realist project. A description of each character’s appearance generally accompanies his or her introduction in realist novels; consequently, such descriptions are numerous. We have not sufficiently questioned the centrality of the face or the role it plays in the ascription of social identity. (Goldstein, 66)

Therefore, like the self-portrait of the author in “Maus”, Spiegelman's face is no longer a mouse, but a man in a mouse mask. This image is a symbol of Spigelman's aversion to his old identity, but he is still confused about what his new identity should be and what it should look like.

In the author's opinion, the destruction of the holocaust still exists, and it will have a profound impact on people's psychology for quite a long time, and then affect their lives, leaving those survivors and more people to continue to live in misery.

In conclusion, Spiegelman uses symbolism in “Maus” to give different animal imagery to German Nazis, Jews, and Polish in the holocaust. The author constructs a new identity for them and endows them with new characteristics, that make the graphic novel have unique artistic expression and strong appeal. The novel leads the personal story to a national level, which makes the reader more clearly realize that the Jewish holocaust, which is involved in a wide range, damage depth, and the non-human nature. The author's vigorous prosecution of the atrocity also helps readers at all levels to better understand the work. In the history of holocaust literature, the “Maus” has exerted a lasting influence on the comic world and the literary world.


    1. De Angelis, Richard. 'Of Mice and Vermin: Animals as Absent Referent in Art Spiegelman's Maus.' International Journal of Comic Art 7.1 (2005): 230-49. ProQuest. Web. 20 Mar. 2018.
    2. Goldstein, Judith L. 'Realism without a Human Face.' Spectacles of Realism: Body, Gender, Genre. Eds. Margaret Cohen and Christopher Prendergast. U of Minnesota P, 1995. 66-89. Cultural Politics~~Cultural Politics~~10 ProQuest. Web. 20 Mar. 2018.
    3. Ma, Sheng-Mei. 'Mourning with the (as a) Jew: Metaphor, Ethnicity, and the Holocaust in Art Spiegelman's Maus.' Studies in American Jewish Literature 16 (1997): 115-29. ProQuest. Web. 21 Mar. 2018.
    4. Spiegelman, Art. “Maus: A Survivor’s Tale”. New York: Pantheon Books, 1992.
    5. Stets, J. E. and Buike, P. J. “Identity Theory and Social Identity Theory.” Social Psychology Quarterly 63.3(2000): 224-37.
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