Characterization and symbolism in “Maus”

Term Paper, 2010

17 Pages, Grade: 2,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Fable or allegory?

3. Anthropomorphism and character traits
3.1 Why did Spiegelman choose animal figures?
3.2 Animals and their allegorical meaning
3.3 Untypical characterization and particularities

4. Other symbolism

5. Moral and message

6. Conclusion


1. Introduction

This seminar paper deals with the graphic novel “Maus” by Art Spiegelman. The book was published in two volumes. The first volume with the subtitle: “My Father Bleeds History”(1986) and the second volume had the subtitle: “And Here My Troubles Began” (1991). The novel is about the genocide of European Jews. The action is centered on the Holocaust survivor Vladek Spiegelman, who was imprisoned in Auschwitz. His son Art Spiegelman reconstructs the story of his father by interviewing him and taking notes. During the novel the author Art Spiegelman informs the reader also about his mother Anja and himself. First of all, there is the question of how to deal with the medium comic, because comics represent actually funny stories but the Holocaust is anything but funny thus they are extreme opposites. However, Spiegelman started a new era of comics, because he showed which opportunities exist in this medium and introduced the genre to a mass audience. He was able to do this, because he does not want to tell the complete history of the Holocaust but only a story of a survivor. The book includes three different time levels. The first one is the tale of woe of his father, who survives the Holocaust, the second one is where Art interviews his father about his experiences and memories and the third time level acts after Vladek's death and shows Art working on the second volume of “Maus”. Due to the jumping between the time levels emerges close connection between present and past, thereby the story appears truer. The exact title of this seminar paper is Characterization and symbolism in “Maus” and will deal with the question of what happens with stereotypes of nationalism and how Spiegelman reflect personalities. First, the genre of the book will be examined by characteristics of fables and allegories. Furthermore, the question will be why Spiegelman decided to choose animal figures and how he characterized them and which advantages the choice of animals in correspondence with the medium comic has. The characterization and symbolism will be mostly checked on the basis of the primary literature. Critical voices will be obtained by secondary literature. Moreover, this seminar paper will amplify several symbols and metaphors and ultimately, the last chapter will try to read out a moral and a massage. Questions whether “Maus” is a biography or an autobiography, yiddishkeit and parenthood will be left out, because it would go beyond the scope of this paper.

2. Fable or allegory?

Firstly one may ask whether ' Maus' is a fable or an allegory. The work of Erwin Leibfried “Fabel” will serve as a basis for the following analysis in order to explore which fable elements characterize “Maus”. First of all a fable is characterized by inanimate objects of nature, plants and animals. Further on, the actors are mostly known animals.1 This key feature applies undoubtedly to “Maus”, because the acting figures are well-known animals. Moreover, a fable consists of a limited number of acting figures if, however, there are a several number of figures, they were put into groups with the aim of clarity, because otherwise the reader would loose the overview. In fact, there is only a small number of animals, because all Jews are depicted as mice, all Germans as cats etc. This allows the reader to divide the animals in certain parties. Another aspect is the anthropomorphism of non-human elements. This means that typical human characteristics are transferred to, for example, animals.2 Here, too, “Maus” suits into the profile, because animals are equipped with human characteristics, which appear both in appearance and behavior. The figures in “Maus” only have animal heads but the rest of their body is human and their behavior is completely human. In addition, a fable mostly imparts a moral.3 It is indisputable that Spiegelman delivers a certain message. These individual aspects will be clarified in the course of this paper. However, there are some points, which make clear that “Maus” is not a pure fable. Erwin Leibfried points out that an important aspect of a fable is their fictionality. The author mostly makes up a story, which is actually impossible and the story is often very short.4 In this case that does not fit with “Maus”, because Spiegelman tells a real story, which really happened. Further on, “Maus” is not a short story but a novel.

Maus” has also certain allegorical elements. According to Gerhard Kurz an allegory has both a literal and an allegorical meaning. Only when the level of meaning is known one could understand the text.5 This categorization applies to “Maus”, because it is important to understand which allegorical meaning the animals have, otherwise the message remains closed. This aspect will be discussed detailed in the course of the work. As one can see “Maus” includes both fable and allegorical elements. The work can not exactly categorize, because there is no clear dividing line. In summarizing it can be stated that “Maus” is a fable with an allegorical structure.6

3. Anthropomorphism and character traits

3.1 Why did Spiegelman choose animal figures?

At first view Spiegelman's choice to use certain animals as protagonists is inappropriate, particularly with regard to such a difficult topic like the Holocaust. At a closer look the reader may realize that the animal figures have many advantages and Spiegelman dodges some conflicts, which I will discuss in the following. First of all the animals function as metaphors. Spiegelman tries to assign stereotyping elements and identities to certain animals and reaches easy identifications. So the reader can identify at first sight the role allocations, while human characters would make it harder to recognize offender and victim. In this way it is easier to see if a person is Jewish or not. For Spiegelman himself the use of animal characters “was a way to keep distance to the very personal story”.7 On the one hand he describes the story of his father and not his own story, so he cannot reach an authentic, realistic drawing, because he did not see the happenings for himself. On the other hand it would not be possible to reconstruct everything and everyone, who is mentioned in the book and Spiegelman could not claim to tell an authentic story. So he works around this problem by using abstract characters. Further on, the use of such characters has another important advantage, namely that abstract figures raise the willingness to identify with them. Or, as McCloud points it out, “When pictures are more abstracted from 'reality', they require greater levels of perception”.8 This is exactly what Spiegelman aims, because the “Jewish mice are iconically drawn and can be differentiated from one another only by stature and clothing”.9 Therefore, the actions of individuals can exemplary represent a larger group. In addition, Spiegelman leaves room for interpretation, because “The mouse heads are masks, virtually blank [and so] the reader can project on”10 his own impressions. Especially Holocaust survivors can incorporate their own experience better than with the use of human characters. Through this effect Spiegelman works around the problem of depicting human figures in his book. On the one hand he can not depict people who died, because they are dead and whether the survivers would agree is very doubtful. On the other hand it will be morally questionable to draw random people, because similarities to living and dead people can appear. Further on, Spiegelman does not want to publish a historical document, which claims to be objective but put some daylight between himself and the the horrible story of the Holocaust. Not only because it is not his own strory but also because of the brutality, which he can not and does not want to illustrate, instead he wants ”to show the events and memory of the Holocaust without showing them”.11 Thus, Spiegelman makes clear his book is only a construct of the reality and can never reach a realistic level and so he does not want to try it. Furthermore, “Spiegelman can defamiliarize his too well known story and can sidestep the 'already told' quality of the Holocaust”.12 This means that he deals with the Holocaust in a totally new way using animal figures. Firstly he attracts attention, because he is the first one, who deals with that topic in such a difficult way and secondly he does not have to compete with the already countless available Holocaust literature, because he uses a completely different genre. Besides “he escapes as well the overdetermination of meaning that the use of human characters would entail”.13 It is incontestable that many perpetrators killed people not of their own free will. The question is whether a person is responsible for his action even when he can not prevent the execution. With the use of the cat-and-mouse metaphor the question of moral responsibility does not even arise, because it is in the nature of cats to kill mice. It seems as if Spiegelman draws the Jews according to Hitler, because of his quotation in the beginning that “The Jews are undoubtedly a race, but they are not human”.14 This of course brings a lot of criticism into the arena. Critics argue that “To draw people as animals is doubly dehumanizing” because “The Holocaust was a crime committed by humans against humans, not - as Nazi theory held - by one biological species against another”15 He worries that Spiegelman supports and confirms the race ideology of the Nazis. Above that Charles Hatfield points out that there is a risk of “turning ethnic and nationalistic conflicts into natural predator/prey relationships (…) [and] mystifying the historical bases of European anti-Semitism and German imperialism”.16 This criticism aims at playing down of the Nazi crimes and justifying the exterminating of the Jews. One might imagine that Jews are prey by nature and that it is not a racial discrimination through the Nazis. But this criticism is absolutely insubstantial, because the characters are still humans with human character traits, who are only drawn with animal heads. Nor is it true that Jews are afraid of the Germans because they are cats, which actually would be logical according to the cat and mouse metaphor. On the contrary they are afraid, because the Germans are discriminating them. Thus, Spiegelman wants to demonstrate how absurd and untenable such thinking is. The simple fact that it is wrong to define the Jews as a race, shows the absurdity of the racial theory. Even Spiegelman himself points out that “the book is about (...) the commonality of a human beings. It’s crazy to divide things down the nationalistic or racial or religious lines. (...)These metaphors(...) are meant to self-destruct”.17 This means that Spiegelman intentional uses the animal metaphor to make clear that the allocation into race is insubstantial.

3.2 Animals and their allegorical meaning

Spiegelman chose deliberately animals for his story, because he wants that the reader associates certain characteristics with certain animals. So, for example, the mice are drawn anxious and helpless and that is why it is logical to draw the Jews as mice because, “it is natural to represent Jews, who were the prey of the Nazis (cats), as vulnerable, victimized species”.18 But not only this metaphor is the reason why Spiegelman chose mice to represent Jews. Even the Nazis propagated that Jewish people are an inferior race. For example, the Anti-Semitic weekly newspaper Der St ü rmer was responsible for Jew-baiting. The first illustration shows how a countless number of rats pounce on a sack wit the inscription “Nichtj ü dsch. Volksverm ö gen”. In the background is a yellow bridge that should make clear that the ravenous rats are Jews, who make money out of the German's national wealth. That should attack and hold Jews responsible for the difficult economic time.


1 Cf. Leibfried, Erwin. Fabel ( Stuttgart: Metzler 1982) 22-

2 Cf. Ibid.,25

3 Cf. Ibid.

4 Cf. Ibid.,27

5 Cf. Kurz, Gerhard. Metapher, Allegorie, Symbol 8 Göttingen: Vandehoeck, 1993) 31

6 Ibid., 51

7 Modlinger, Martin. “Historical Truth and the Art of Emplotment ” :Hayden Whites Geschichtskonzeption und Art Spiegelmans Maus ”. In: Gerd Bayer, Rudolf Freiburg (ed.). “Literatur und Holocaust.” (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2009) 249.

8 McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics (New York: Harper, 1994) 49.

9 Barr, Terry. “Teaching Maus to a Holocaust Class” in: Stephen E. Tabachnick (ed.). Teaching the Graphic Novel (New York: Modern Language Assosiation, 2009) 80.

10 Spiegelman, The Nation, 17 January 1994, 46.

11 Young E. James.The Holocaust as Vicarious Past: Art Spiegelman's Maus and the Afterimages of History," (Critical Inquiry: Vol. 24, No. 3, 1998) 687.

12 Witek, Joseph. Comic Book as Histor: The Narrative Art of Jack Jackson, Art Spiegelman, and Harvey Pekar ( Mississippi: University Press, 1989) 103.

13 Ibid.

14 Spiegelman, Art. The Complete Maus (London: Penguin Books, 2003) 10.

15 Hillel, Halkin, “Inhuman Comedy,” Review of Maus II by Art Spiegelman, Commentary, (Feb. 1992): 55-56.

16 Hatfield, Charles. Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature (Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 2005) 139.

17 Bolhafnet, Stephen J. The Comics Journal #145: Art for Art's Sake: Spiegelman Speaks on Raw's Past, Present, and Future( October 1991) 96.

18 Barr, “Teaching Maus to a Holocaust Class”, 80.

Excerpt out of 17 pages


Characterization and symbolism in “Maus”
Martin Luther University
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Art, Spiegelman, Maus, symbolism
Quote paper
Patrick Spieß (Author), 2010, Characterization and symbolism in “Maus”, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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