The Animal Metaphor in Art Spiegelman's "Maus"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2013

34 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Animals in Literature
2.1 Animal Characters as Literary Device
2.2 "Funny Animals" in Popular Culture and in Comic Books

3. Spiegelman's Maus
3.1 Synopsis
3.2 Reception

4. The Animal Metaphor in Spiegelman's Maus
4.1 Spiegelman's Personal Dimension of the Animal Metaphor
4.2 The Animal Mask
4.3 The Animal Metaphor as a Distancing and Defamiliarizing Device
4.4 The Self-Reflexivity of the Animal Mask
4.5 Construction of Identity and Ethnicity by the Animal Metaphor
4.6 The Visual Dimension – Maus 's Drawing Style
4.7 Criticism and Incongruities of the Animal Metaphor
4.7.1 Stereotyping and Insulting of Ethnicities
4.7.2 Narrative Incongruities

5. Conclusion

Works Cited

1. Introduction

Representing the Holocaust in a comic book is a daring enterprise; doing it with animal figures is even bolder. Spiegelman's work Maus braves many conventions of dealing with the Holocaust but reconstructs it in an unprecedented and unique manner. By exceeding literary boundaries and generic expectations, it is thus an essential addition to Holocaust literature. The use of the animal metaphor is central to Spiegelman's work. As a literary device and in its visual realization, Maus 's animal metaphor opens up various dimensions of analysis and interpretation. Its manifold implications have triggered controversial and vivid discussions which indicate Maus 's ambiguity and its value as a serious work of literature.

This paper analyzes the animal metaphor in Spiegelman's Maus. It examines and discusses the different spheres in which the functions of the animal metaphor become evident. First, this paper traces back to the origins of using animals in literature. After a brief historical introduction of the sources and the development of animal figures, chapter 2 explains their literary function and their significance in comic books. The so called "funny animal" genre is a popular category of comic books and animated cartoons which bears its own conventions and customs. For the further analysis, it is essential to have an understanding of how animal characters function within this popular tradition. Chapter 3 delivers a brief overview of Maus. It includes a synopsis of the comic's plot as well as a summary of its reception.

Chapter 4, the main part of this paper, investigates the various functions and receptions of the animal metaphor in Maus from different perspectives. In chapter 4.1, Spiegelman's personal explanations reveal how Maus' s animal characters function for him as a second generation witness. He explains how the animal metaphor empowered him to approach the Holocaust as a literary subject and as a second-hand experience at all. The notion of the animal mask is a distinctive feature of Maus adding a further layer to the discussion of the metaphor. Chapter 4.2 focuses upon these implications brought into play with the use of the mask. A further subject, discussed in chapter 4.3, is how the animal imagery serves as a distancing and defamiliarizing device in order to deal with the horror of the Holocaust. A post-modern feature of Maus is its self-reflexiveness which is closely intertwined with the animal mask. Chapter 4.4 discusses the interconnection between both features. In chapter 4.5, the examination tries further to comprehend how the animal metaphor contributes to the reconstruction of ethnicity and identity in Maus. Since any analysis of a comic book must not neglect its visual dimension, chapter 4.6 considers Maus 's drawing style and the significance of its visual representation. Maus has attracted many critics and its reception has been diverse and manifold. Target of the criticism has been especially the use of animals as substitutes for human beings. Chapter 4.7 examines and discusses Maus 's animal device from a critical point of view regarding its incongruities and problems brought into play with the association of human beings and animals. The last chapter summarizes the insights of the analysis and discusses in what way Maus 's animal metaphor strikes a new path in the conception and reconstruction of the Holocaust.

2. Animals in Literature

The use of animal characters in literature is as old as recorded literature. In fables, fairytales or comic books, animals appear as protagonists serving as literary figures. This chapter explores animal characters as literary device from a historical perspective and focuses on their use in popular culture as they appear in comic books.

2.1 Animal Characters as Literary Device

Aesop's fables (c. 550 BC) might have been the first tales of western literature in which animal characters attain human traits. These short stories by Aesop, presumably a slave in ancient Greece around 550 BC, are based on animal characters and usually convey a brief moral lesson. "The Fox and the Grapes" and "The Tortoise and the Hare" are among the most famous of Aesop's fables dealing with ethic conflicts and human issues such as honesty or failure. Another ancient source of fables, besides the Greek origin, is the Indian "Panchatantra" (The Five Discourses on Worldly Wisdom), a collection of animal fables in verse and prose believed to have been composed in the 3rd century BC. As "certainly the most frequently translated literary product of India", its stories are worldwide known and contain proverbs promoting the wise conduct of life (cf. Viṣṇuśarman, Olivelle 17-19). Aesop's fables as well as the Indian Panchatantra feature anthropomorphized[1] animals whom are given human qualities such as reason or language. In these traditional animal fables which convey a certain moral or wisdom, human character traits are abstracted and projected onto animals (cf. Witek 110).

Beast fables or beast epics emerged in European medieval times and put less emphasise on moral issues than original fables. According to Joseph Witek, they "link into a system of well-established correspondences based on the natural attributes of species; foxes are cunning, wolves voracious, mules stubborn, cats curious, and so on" (110). Prominent examples are "Roman de Renart", a 12th-century group of related tales, Edmund Spenser’s "Prosopopoia" (1591), a satirical poem, and John Dryden's "The Hind and the Panther" (1687), an allegory and account of the hostility between Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism (cf. Encyclopædia Britannica "Fable, Parable, and Allegory"). In the 17th century the fables of French poet Jean de La Fontaine continued the Aesopian tradition. He enriched the simple stories which were subordinated to their didactic intention and forged his animal characters as serious representations of human types. His fables hint that human nature and animal nature have much in common and skillfully exploit the incongruities between the animals and the human elements they embody (cf. Encyclopædia Britannica "Jean de La Fontaine").

A more modern example of a literary work featuring animal characters is George Orwell's Animal Farm (1945), "a sophisticated modern version of this allegorical tradition" (Witek 110). As a political satire, fable, and allegory, it criticizes the misuse of political power in Stalinist Russia. Animal Farm 's animal characters are based on specific historical people, such as Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Trotzky.

But why using animals in literature and why using them in a metaphoric way assigning them human traits? Art critic and writer John Berger explains that the use of the animal metaphor reflects upon the relationship, the differences, and the similarities of animals and humans. He states in his essay "Why look at animals?" that the first symbols were animals. The first subject matter for painting was animal, the first paint was animal blood and "the first metaphor was animal" (7). He explains that this was "because the essential relation between man and animal was metaphoric"; what man and animal "shared in common revealed what differentiated them. And vice versa" (7). Berger refers to the works of Rousseau and Lévi-Strauss, and especially to examples from Homer's Iliad (ca. 1194-1184 BC), in which "the use of metaphor still reveals the proximity of man and animal, the proximity from which metaphor itself arose" (9). According to Berger, without animals as metaphoric references, Homer would not have been able to convey such "excessive or superlative qualities of different moments" as for instance in book 17 of the Iliad, when "'Menelaus bestrode his body like a fretful mother cow standing over the first calf she has brought into the world'" (cf. 9-10).

According to Randy Duncan and Matthew J. Smith, "as a literary device, anthropomorphism acts as a mirror, allowing the storyteller to reflect human characteristics – more often than not, the less flattering ones – back upon the readers in order to enlighten them about the human condition" (206). Lorraine Daston and Gregg Mitman (2005) explain that the use of animals in literature is based on the assumption that humans share thought and feeling with a wide array of animals. Hence, animals have long been used by men "to symbolize, dramatize, and illuminate aspects of their own experience and fantasies" (2).

Such a perception of animals might be too short-sighted and morally problematic since casting animals in human roles can be seen as a form of self-centered narcissism or anthropocentrism (cf. Daston, Mitman 4). Although, for moral stories such as fables, the use of animal characters instead of human beings entails several advantages: much more than humans, animals strongly differ in their visual and auditory forms and appearances, in their behavior and habits. Thus, they offer a wide array of resources for literary characters and serve perfectly for the projection of human stereotypes. Further, "[a]nimal characters are perfectly designed to meet Aristotle's requirements of characters in drama. They should show only the characteristics appropriate to their identity and nature and should remain consistent throughout each action" (cf. Aristotle, Poetics, XIV, 4-6 in Calder 122). Thus, the fox is cunning, the lion is brave and the dog is loyal. Stories told about humans might run the risk to lose the moral in a tangle of individuating detail we are usually excited to know about other people. Hence, "substituting animals as actors strips the characterizations down to prototype. Animals simplify the narrative to a point that would be found flat or at least allegorical if the same tales where recounted about humans" (Daston & Mitman 9).

2.2 "Funny Animals" in Popular Culture and in Comic Books

Animal characters have appeared in some of the greatest achievements in American popular culture. Not only Walt Disney's world-famous characters Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck dominated animated cartoons for decades, but also Otto Mesmer's Felix the Cat, as well as Warner Brothers' Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, were equally central to the development of American animation.

Anthropomorphized animal cartoons and comics have its formal sources from beast fables and folktales, although the "funny animal" genre of comics "has developed its own distinctive, peculiar conventions and metaphysics" (Witek 109). The characters of funny animal comics think and act more human than animals. They combine animal faces with bodies and behavior including human properties such as intelligence, language, clothing etc.. George Herriman's Krazy Kat (1913) and Floyd Gottfredson's Mickey Mouse (1930) might have been the most prominent animal comics which appeared in newspaper comic strips. Others such as Messmer's Felix the Cat or Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse perfectly matched the needs of the animated film industry which emerged in the early 20th century. Funny animal characters have been intended to reach a rather young audience (cf. Booker 234/ Witek 109). For Witek, perhaps the best animal comic book of all is found in the works of Carl Barks. He was the creator and story writer of cartoon capitalist Uncle Scrooge and Donald Duck for more than twenty years. Bark's Donald Duck is a complex person and Bark always conceived of him as a human being who just happened to be shaped like a duck (cf. Witek 109). According to Witek "[t]his curious indifference to the animal nature of the characters is a distinguishing mark of the 'funny animal' tradition in popular narratives" (Witek 109).

A central question raised by the funny animal comics seems to be whether their characters represent animals who act like people or whether they represent people who look like animals or something else (cf. Booker 234). In contrast to the allegorical characterization of animals in the beast fable, "which sets up inflexible correspondences between traits and animals that have come to embody such traits in a culture, the 'funny animal' comic transcends allegory in its embrace of human typology" (Chaney 137). The animal comic "takes these allegorical meanings as a starting point but then proceeds to ignore, qualify, or reverse them" (Witek 110). The funny animal comic uses those meanings often "only to establish relations among characters, and the 'animalness' of the characters becomes vestigial or drops away entirely (...) the species are subordinate to their relation; Mickey is essentially a man, and Pluto is 'man's best friend'" (Witek 110).

M. Keith Booker observes a racial undertone in the funny animal comics. He remarks that "[f]unny animal characters were built on, overlapped with, and gradually replaced other cartoon tradition of racial and ethnic stereotyping" (Booker 235). The repeated lesson exercised through its characters "seemed to be that children, but particularly black children, were simply another species of friendly animals" (235-236). Michael Rogin points out that Walt Disney's "white-gloved and black-faced Mickey Mouse, was copied from the Jazz Singer", a 1927 American musical film featuring a black-faced protagonist (29).[2]

Robert Crumb's Fritz the Cat became one of the only underground comic figures which crossed over into the popular media. In this work, which embodied increasingly adult content such as satiric social commentary, the conventions of animal comics were thoroughly explored (cf. Booker 229/Witek 111). In one of Crumb's stories, titled "The Goose and thee Gander Were Talking One Night", the characters being geese are aware that they are animals "but think of themselves as human, too" (Witek 111). Witek states, "that the gooseness becomes part of the furniture of the story, enabling us to see past the intentional banality of the setting and conversation to the real-life situation it depicts; we are aware that these are talking geese even as we ignore the fact" (111). In this way, Crumb superimposes "the conventions of animal comics onto a mundane and threatening modern world". As a result of Crumb's underground comics, the funny animals genre could "open up the way to a paradoxical narrative realism" (Witek 111).

3. Spiegelman's Maus

After having gained some insight in the world of literature – especially comic books – featuring animal characters, in the following, Spiegelman's work Maus is introduced. This chapter provides a brief synopsis of its content as well as a summary of its reception.

3.1 Synopsis

Maus is a two-volume comic book in which the comic artist Art Spiegelman retells the story of his father Vladek, a Polish Jew, who survived together with his wife and Art's mother Anja the Nazi concentration camp in Auschwitz. Besides telling a story about the Holocaust entirely in the comic-strip format, the most striking feature of Maus is that Spiegelman draws its characters as anthropomorphized animals, Jews as mice, Nazis as cats, Poles as pigs etc.. The author puts himself in the narrative appearing as Artie Spiegelman. As a figure in his own comic, Spiegelman comments self-reflexively on the work and on the writing process of Maus.

The first chapter of Maus appeared in 1980 in Spiegelman's comic magazine Raw. In 1986, Pantheon Books collected the first six chapters and published them in one book. The volume was called Maus: A Survivor's Tale, and subtitled "My Father Bleeds History". In 1992, Pantheon Books published the last five chapters in the second volume, subtitled "And Here My Troubles Began". In 1996, the two-volume edition The Complete Maus was published, containing both Maus I: A Survivor's Tale and Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began.[3]

Maus is a combination of a historical and personal account of Vladek's Holocaust experiences and of the portrayal of Art's life with his father. Additionally, it provides an ethnographic examination of contemporary Jewish survivor culture (cf. LaCapra 141). This makes Maus not easy to categorize which became apparent in 1922, when the Pulitzer Prize committee had difficulty finding an appropriate category. The obvious rubric biography seemed ill-suited for a comic-book. Finally, Maus was rewarded with the "Special Award". The New York Times Book Review moved Maus from the fiction to the non-fiction category of its bestseller list after Spiegelman's protest (cf. Doherty 69).

Each of the book's six chapters opens with Art visiting his father Vladek at his home in Rego Park, New York. Art retells the interview sessions in which his father recalls episodes from his years in Europe during the Nazi Regime. In this way, the actual story is embedded in a frame story of Art and Vladek's father-son relationship and the aftermath of Vladek's experiences. The individual chapters follow Vladek and Anja through their early romances and marriage in the period right before they become aware of the Nazi threat, and until the point when they pass through the gates of Auschwitz concentration camp in winter 1944 (cf. Baker 140).

A distinct feature of Maus is its self-reflexivity. The comic contains various passages in which Spiegelman breaks the narrative flow and accounts for the problems and complications in his writing process. One example of this post-modern convention is "Prisoner on the Hell Planet: A Case History", a four-page story embedded in the larger narrative of Maus. The story deals with the suicide of Art's mother Anja and is depicted with human characters in a totally different style (cf. Witek 98-100). Further self-reflexive passages occurring in the narrative, deal with the interview sessions between Art and his father and with the complications of the animal metaphor.

3.2 Reception

Maus has attracted huge attention and received ambivalent reception. For many critics and comic readers Maus represents unquestionably a landmark comic credited as a major work in holocaust literature generally (cf. Sabin 91). One of Maus 's merits was to help "to establish comic storytelling as a sophisticated adult literary medium" (Encyclopædia Britannica "Art Spiegelman"). The "Special Award" of the Pulitzer Prize was awarded to Maus in 1992 and the work appeared on the New York Times bestseller list. The commercial and critical success of Maus brought Spiegelman a solo exhibit at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art. Another indicator of Maus's success is the translation of the two volumes into more than 20 languages (cf. Encyclopædia Britannica "Art Spiegelmann").

Jospeh Witek refers to the critical voices which Maus has stirred but claims that "[m]ost readers of Maus have struggled to understand how a Holocaust comic book can be so compelling and why the unlikely genre of 'talking animals' seems so paradoxically appropriate" (Witek 109). One main issue Maus' s reception has mainly been concerned with is the question of whether the medium of a comic, "associated with the madcap, the childish, the trivial" (Doherty 71), can be appropriate in representing the Holocaust. Other critics have addressed the style and the way of substituting humans as animals in the framework of a Holocaust representation. Chapter 4.7 provides a detailed discussion of the critique concerning the animal metaphor in Maus.

The question of whether Maus follows the tradition of Aesop's fables or rather the funny animal genre has been answered differently and depends upon the aspects focused on. Maus seems to incorporate different aspects from various traditions and genres being aware of its precedents. Adam Gopnik holds that "[i]t's extremely important to understand that Maus is in no way an animal fable or an allegory like Aesop or Animal Farm", since "[t]he Jews are just Jews who just happen to be depicted as mice, in a peculiar, idiosyncratic convention" (31). He claims that "[t]here isn't any allegorical dimension in Maus, just a convention of representation" (31). Wolk refers to the similarities and differences of Maus and the funny animal comics. He judges Maus as inspired by the tradition of funny animal comics, even though "the story is about horrible reality instead of whimsical fantasy, and the actual linework of Maus is deliberately unlike the smooth, clean lines of most funny animal comics" (343). In contrast to Gopnik, Huyssen claims that Maus"resonates less with Disney productions than with a whole tradition of popular animal fables from Aesop to LaFontaine and even Kafka" (70). At the same time, Maus would differentiate itself from the older tradition of the enlightening animal fable. If the animal fable "had enlightenment as its purpose either through satire or moral instruction, Maus [would] remain thoroughly ambiguous, if not opaque, as to the possible success of such enlightenment" (Huyssen 70). Instead of providing a moral or a happy reconciliation, "the aesthetic and emotional effect of Maus remains jarring throughout" (Huyssen 70). Huyssen explains that Maus evolved rather from an American comic book counter-tradition born in the 1960s including Krazy Kat and Crumb's Fritz the Cat (cf. 70). Witek as well refers to Crumb's kind of satiric social commentary which is in Maus extended in a historical and (auto-)biographical fashion (cf. 111).


[1] The interpretation of nonhuman things or events in terms of human characteristics (Encyclopædia Britannica "anthropomorphism")

[2] Blackface is a form of theatrical makeup used in minstrel shows, and later vaudeville, in which performers create a stereotyped caricature of a black person. The practice gained popularity during the 19th century and contributed to the proliferation of stereotypes (

[3] The citations of Maus in this paper refer to the The Complete Maus as appeared in 2003 by Penguin Books (Maus I pp. 1-161, Maus II pp. 164-296)).

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The Animal Metaphor in Art Spiegelman's "Maus"
University of Tubingen  (Philosophische Fakultät)
Popular Culture
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animal, metaphor, spiegelman, maus
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Simon Essig (Author), 2013, The Animal Metaphor in Art Spiegelman's "Maus", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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