The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman is usually studied in the Australian curriculum under Area of Study 1 - Text Response. For a detailed guide on Text Response, check out our Ultimate Guide to VCE Text Response.
- Analysing Techniques in Visual Texts
The Complete Maus is a graphic novel that depicts the story of Vladek Spiegelman, a Polish Jewish Holocaust survivor who experienced living in the ghettos and concentration camps during the Nazi regime. Vladek’s son, Art has transformed his story into a comic book through his interviews and encounters which interweaves with Art’s own struggles as the son of a Holocaust survivor, as well as the complex and difficult relationship with his father.
Survival is a key theme that is explored during Vladek’s experience in concentration camps and his post-Holocaust life.
For example, Vladek reflects that “You have to struggle for life” and a means of survival was through learning to be resourceful at the concentration camps.
Resourcefulness is depicted through the physical items Vladek keeps or acquires, as well as through Vladek’s skills. For example, Vladek explains to Art that he was able to exploit his work constantly through undertaking the roles of a translator and a shoemaker in order to access extra food and clothing by being specially treated by the Polish Kapo.
He even wins over Anja’s Kapo to ensure that she would be treated well by not being forced to carry heavy objects. Vladek’s constant recounts and reflections symbolise survival, as Vladek was willing and able to use his skill set to navigate through the camp’s work system.
During the concentration camps, food and clothes also became a currency due to its scarcity and Vladek was insistent on being frugal and resourceful, which meant that he was able to buy Anja’s release from the Birkenau camp.
Although survival is a key theme, the graphic novel explores how Holocaust survivors in The Complete Maus grapple with their deep psychological scars.
Many of those who survived the war suffered from depression and was burdened with ‘survivor’s guilt’. This can be seen through the character of Art’s mother, Anja, as 20 years after surviving the death camps, she commits suicide. After having lost so many of her friends, and families, she struggled to find a reason as to why she survived but others didn’t. Throughout the graphic novel, her depression is apparent. In a close-up shot, Anja appears harrowed and says that “I just don’t want to live”, lying on a striped sofa to convey a feeling of hopelessness as if she was in prison. Her ears are additionally drawn as drooped, with her hands positioned as if she was in prison in the context is that she must go to a sanatorium for her depression.
It is not only Anja’s guilt that is depicted, but also Art himself who feels partly responsible. Art feels that people think it is his fault as he says that “They think it’s MY fault!” and in one panel, Art is depicted behind bars and that “[He] has committed the perfect crime“ to illustrate that he feels a sense of guilt in that he never really was the perfect son. He believes he is partly responsible for her death, due to him neglecting their relationship. Spiegelman also gives insight to readers of a memory of his mother where she asks if he still loves her, he responds with a dismissive ‘sure’ which is a painful reminder of this disregard.
Art constantly ponders how he is supposed to “make any sense out of Auschwitz’ if he “can’t even make any sense out of [his] relationship with [his] father”. As a child of Jewish refugees, Art has not had the same first-hand horrific experiences as his parents and in many instances struggles to relate to Vladek’s stubborn and resourceful tendencies. Art reflects on this whilst talking to Mala about when he would not finish everything his mother served, he would “argue til I ran to my room crying”. This emphasises how he didn’t understand wastage or frugality even from a very young age, unlike Vladek.
Spiegelman also conveys to readers his sense of frustration with Vladek where he feels like he is being treated like a child, not as an adult. For example, Art is shocked that Vladek would throw out one of Art’s coats and instead buy a new coat, despite Vladek’s hoarding because he is reluctant and feels shameful to let his son wear his “old shabby coat”. This act could be conveyed to readers that Vladek is trying to give Art a life he never had and is reluctant to let his son wear clothes that are ‘inappropriate’ in his eyes. However, from Art’s perspective, he “just can’t believe it” and does not comprehend his behaviour.
Since we're talking about themes, we've broken down a theme-based essay prompt (one of five types of essay prompts) for you in this video:
3. Analysing Techniques in Visual Texts
The Complete Maus is a graphic novel that may seem daunting to analyse compared to a traditional novel. However, with countless panels throughout the book, you have the freedom to interpret certain visuals so long as you give reasoning and justification, guiding the teacher or examiner on what you think these visuals mean. Here are some suggested tips:
Focus on the Depiction of Characters
Spiegelman may have purposely drawn the eyes of the Jewish mice as visible in contrast to the unapparent eyes of the Nazis to humanise and dehumanise characters. By allowing readers to see the eyes of Jewish mice, readers can see the expressions and feelings of the character such as anger and determination. Effectively, we can see them as human characters through their eyes. The Nazis’ eyes, on the other hand, are shaded by their helmets to signify how their humanity has been corrupted by the role they fulfill in the Holocaust.
When the readers see their eyes, they appear sinister, with little slits of light. By analysing the depictions and expressions of characters, readers can deduce how these characters are intended to be seen.
Look at the Background in Each Panel
Throughout the graphic novel, symbols of the Holocaust appear consistently in the background. In one panel, Art’s parents, Anja and Vladek have nowhere to go, a large Swastika looms over them to represent that their lives were dominated by the Holocaust.
Even in Art’s life, a panel depicts him as working on his desk with dead bodies surrounding him and piling up to convey to the reader that the Holocaust still haunts him to this day, and feels a sense of guilt at achieving fame and success at their expense.
Thus, the constant representation of symbols from the Holocaust in Spiegelman’s life and his parents’ past in the panels’ background highlights how inescapable the Holocaust is emotionally and psychologically.
Size of Panels
Some of the panels in the graphic novel are of different sizes which Spiegelman may have intended to emphasise the significance of certain turning points, crises or feelings. For example, on page 34, there is a disproportionate panel of Vladek and Anja passing a town, seeing the first signs of the Nazi regime compared to the following panels. All the mice seem curious and concerned, peering at the Nazi flag behind them. This panel is significant as it marks the beginning of a tragic regime that would dominate for the rest of their lives.
You should also pay close attention to how some panels have a tendency to overlap with each other which could suggest a link between events, words or feelings.
Although not specifically targeted at Text Response, 10 Things to Look for in Cartoons is definitely worth a read for any student studying a graphic novel!