The Depiction of Jews as Mice in the Graphic Novel "Maus" by Art Spiegelman

Term Paper, 2018

15 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Analysis of the function of the depiction of Jews as mice in Maus
2.1 Direct way to the material
2.2 Reversal of the Nazi image of the Jews
2.3 The fluidity of character

3 Conclusion

4 Works Cited

5 Appendix

1 Introduction

The graphic novel1 Maus by Art Spiegelman has been one of the most popular and deeply discussed comics of the last decades. Being the first graphic novel about the Holocaust, it arose much attention but was also often criticized of not dealing with the topic with enough respect. The aspect which led to the most criticism was the depiction of all characters as a certain animal based on their ethnicity or religion. Spiegelman portrays Jews as mice, Germans as cats and Poles as pigs which leads to the question as to why he chose to draw his characters as animals instead of humans. However, there are few recent studies which aim their attention at the the effect of Spiegelman’s decision on the reader and which examine the graphic novel in comparison to the Nazi’s ideology, which declares Jews as vermin with a racially defined character. This paper will concentrate on the function of the portrayal of Jews as mice as they represent the main characters and, thus, form the focus of the novel. In addition, analyzing the other animals or more aspect of the comic would exceed the purpose of this paper. Furthermore, I will aim my attention at the first part of the novel called My Father Bleeds History, for the same reasons already mentioned.

I propose that with the depiction of Jews as mice, Spiegelman provides the reader with a more direct way to the material. Moreover, by creating a paradox, he disapproves Hitler’s statement, which is printed in the epigraph of the novel, that “Jews are undoubtedly a race, but they are not human” (qtd. in Spiegelman 3) and by using masks to modify the character’s identity Spiegelman criticizes the Nazi’s racial logic that specific populations have an unchanging character.

2 Analysis of the function of the depiction of Jews as mice in Maus

Spiegelman portrays all characters as animals, even himself, the author depicts as a mouse. However, the species are not chosen randomly and convey a specific meaning. The Jews are represented by mice which are associated with weakness, hiding or even vermin. The first two properties, create the image of the underdog without any prospects on a victory. The association of Jews with vermin, refers to the Nazi ideology in which they are described as embodying evil and being the opposite of the Arians, the Germans (Bärsch 312f). Thus, portraying the Germans as cats, the natural enemies of mice, simply seems obvious. Cats are not only the mice’s foe and opposite, they are also stronger, more powerful, and always on the hunt for prey. The depiction of Poles as pigs is not as easily explicable but according to Young they “symbolize what is treif or non-kosher” (690), which means that the Poles are not foes of the Jews by nature, though, they are clearly separated from them and non-Jewish. It also relates to the experiences Vladek, Art Spiegelman’s father, shared with the Poles during the Shoah as he witnessed them as fairly neutral, sometimes protecting the Jews, and sometimes helping the Germans. Other nationalities are depicted as animals as well but as they do not appear in the first part of Maus their depiction will not be discussed further.

2.1 Direct way to the material

The Holocaust is naturally an emotional and difficult topic which is still hard to handle. Therefore, it is important to provide the reader with an easier access to the story. At first, it may seem illogical to use animals instead of humans to make the topic more accessible, as one would usually think that it is less complicated to evolve a connection with one’s kind. However, the portrayal of characters through animals facilitates the connection of the reader with the material.

This becomes clear when taking a closer look at some panels of the comic (cf. appendix 1). The young Vladek is depicted with a suit, a tie and a white button-down, creating a sophisticated and wealthy-looking appearance. His former girlfriend Lucia wears a tight-fitting skirt, a blouse and jewelry. In addition, they are both standing in an upright position, and are shown without a tail. Furthermore, their hands consist of four fingers and a thumb and Vladek lives in a furnished apartment. Their heads look like mice heads, with big ears and a snout with whiskers. Nevertheless, their facial expressions are human. Lucia is shown crying with a tear running down her cheek, and she raises her eyebrows when she is angry. Vladek also uses gestures associated with human behavior, as he lifts is flat hand next to his chest while explaining the end of their relationship.

As animals are natural, we try to read their feelings and understand their actions. Children can already relate to animals and share empathy, especially when they are depicted with large heads and walk on two legs, as the animals remind them of humans (Boyd 224). This can also be applied on the reaction of the reader towards the animals in Maus. They are drawn in a human way, and because of their behavior, posture, clothes, and facial expressions, they do not appear like animals. In that reason, by depicting them with clearly human features, Spiegelman simplifies the process of connecting with the characters. According to Boyd, “we can project ourselves onto them […]” (226). This is even furthered by the style of comic, as the graphic novel is drawn simplistically, the facial expressions are universally recognizable, easing the understanding of their emotions for a global readership. Additionally, “[the reader] can humanize [animals] or moralize them” (Boyd 226). In Maus, the humanization has already been initiated by Spiegelman and the way in which he draws the animals. He shows them with clothes and human behavior. Therefore, they do not really look like animals rather like humans with animal heads. Thus, as they seem so like us in the comic “they evoke [emotions like] awe, fear, admiration, gratitude, love, [and] exasperation” (Boyd 225) which help the reader to relate to the characters more easily and to create a connection. This connection fosters the access to the topic and allows the audience to gain an emotional as well as a very personal insight in the story.

Nevertheless, using animals does not only lead to closure, it also creates distance between the reader and the topic. Though, this distance contradictorily helps to gain access because the subject itself is too cruel to be depicted uncensored (Young 687). Spiegelman accomplishes to show the events of the Holocaust without really showing them by telling the story in an uncommon way (Young 687). Even though, the reader is always aware of the seriousness of the topic, he approaches it indirectly through the mice’s tale. Hence it becomes easier for the reader to cope with the subject. The author explained in an interview that “using animals allows you to defamiliarize the events, to reinhabit them in a fresh way because they are coming to you in a language you are not used to hearing” (qtd. in Boyd 235). Maus is the first graphic novel to deal with the Holocaust, and the first graphic novel to use animals to tell this story, too. Most of the comics before Maus, were light-hearted and told funny stories mainly for a young audience. Animals were always used in graphic novels, however, in different contexts, the most famous one would be Mickey Mouse. For these reasons, the events are represented in an unfamiliar way, fostering both distance and curiosity. When first published, the comic was accused of being “ill-equipped for the moral seriousness and tonal restraint that have been demanded of Holocaust art. But [..] the cartoon medium possesses a graphic quality well-suited to a confrontation with Nazism and the Holocaust” (Doherty 71). Maus is a paragon of this graphic quality as it achieves to evoke compassion towards the mice and on the other hand creates separation between the reader and the subject, creating a more direct way to the material and making it less difficult to deal with the Holocaust. Additionally, depicting the characters as animals “even allows a constant play of humor, which, far from diminishing the horror of the story, stops us from glazing over into numbness” (Boyd 237). Furthermore, it was impossible for Spiegelman to depict the past realistically as he is not a part of it, and only knows the Holocaust trough media or his father’s narratives. By choosing to draw animals in instead of humans, the author creates an unrealistic access to the topic which is also more accessible for his audience as most of them do not have personally experienced the Holocaust either.

2.2 Reversal of the Nazi image of the Jews

According to the Nazi’s ideology, humans belong to different races with distinct character and physical traits. The Arians, as the Nazi called themselves, are the most sophisticated and developed race of all. Therefore, they believe that it is their destiny to flourish and to rule over the less developed races. Contrastingly, the Jews are seen as the opposite of the Arians, as the lowest and most vicious race, which needs to be eliminated so that the Arians can fulfill their destiny and prosper (Bärsch 312f.). Spiegelman includes Hitler’s quote “Jews are undoubtedly a race, but they are not human” (qtd. in Spiegelman 3) in the epigraph of Maus. Here it becomes clear, that the Nazis did think of the Jews as a distinct race, however, they degraded them to being inhuman. The noun `race` is defined by the Encyclopedia Britannica as “a group of people of common ancestry or stock” or as “a category of humankind that shares certain distinctive physical traits” (“Race”). Though, it can also be applied to animals, referring to “a variety or breed of animals […]” (“Race”). The first part of the definition fits the Nazi’s racial logic best because their ideologist tried to group people based on their national or religious ancestry. Furthermore, they strongly believed in heritage which lead to passing characteristics on to the next generation. In addition, the Nazi’s description of `race` includes the second part of the definition, as well. However, they expanded the physical traits to psychological traits, too, claiming that race does not only shape one’s appearance but also one’s character.

At first, it seems paradox that Spiegelman includes the quote in his graphic novel in which he portrays the Jews not as humans but as animals, almost as if he supports Hitler’s statement through reproducing the Nazi image of the Jews. On the one hand, the different ethnicities are made visible and easily distinguished in Maus, and it upholds the theory of them being completely different. Furthermore, Spiegelman consistently uses the same animals across generations, thereby stressing the fact of ancestry and continuity which is part of the concept of race. As well, it emphasizes that the past is not yet overcome as it is still part of the present and has also become part of the second-generation’s identity. Though, according to Young Spiegelman “is able to caricature- and thereby subvert- the Nazi image of Jews as vermin” (690).

Firstly, he accomplishes to overturn the Nazi’s racial logic by setting the mice portraying Jews apart from normal mice in the comic. The first three panels (cf. appendix 2) show Vladek and Anja hiding in a cellar. Anja is scared seeing a rat behind a barrel but Vladek comforts her by assuring that “they`re just mice” (Spiegelman 147) and not rats. Here it become clear that Vladek views mice as harmless animals whereas rats are terrifying. Moreover, the rat is depicted like a small, vicious creature lacking human features in contrast to the human looking mice which portray Jews. Additionally, the mice are the same scaling as all the other characters in the comic. Thereby, the author creates a contrast between the mice and the rats in the graphic novel by emphasizing the mice’s humanity, as well as their innocuousness. Moreover, the same scaling leads to a connection between the characters and sets the mice even further apart from the rats. By that, Spiegelman refutes the second part of Hitler’s statement, and accomplishes to stress that Jews are human even though he depicts them as mice. As already discussed early in this paper, the mice are drawn in a very human way and look like humans with mice head. This aspect also refutes the statement of Jews not being human. In addition, the panels accentuate why the author preferred to draw mice instead of rats, the animal often used in Nazi propaganda to depict Jews (cf. appendix 3). By choosing mice, he utilizes the more appealing aspect of mice in comparison to rats, which is also expressed by Vladek in the panel. Furthermore, Spiegelman opposes the Nazi ideology of Jews as vermin. The mice in the graphic novel stand for “vulnerablility, unalloyed suffering, [and] victimization” (Huyssen 75) and lead to empathy among the readers towards the Jewish characters.


1 The terms graphic novel and comic will be used synonymously throughout the paper.

Excerpt out of 15 pages


The Depiction of Jews as Mice in the Graphic Novel "Maus" by Art Spiegelman
University of Würzburg
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Maus, Spiegelman
Quote paper
Julia Holleber (Author), 2018, The Depiction of Jews as Mice in the Graphic Novel "Maus" by Art Spiegelman, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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