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Maus | Discussion Questions 31 - 40

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Why do Mala and Vladek decide to stay together in Maus?

Vladek and Mala's relationship appears to be one of convenience rather than romantic love. They are polar opposites in many respects, and to an outsider their marriage looks like an ongoing battle between Vladek's uptight, penny-pinching personality and Mala's desire to have more freedom and independence. Mala resents Vladek for keeping the family's purse strings so tight in his grasp and for needing her all the time. "I feel like I'm in prison!" she confesses to Artie in Book 1, Chapter 6. Fed up, she eventually leaves yet comes back when Vladek needs her. She knows Artie isn't going to give up his life to take care of his father, and Vladek doesn't have anyone else. Her sense of duty to Vladek, and perhaps their shared history, makes her stay loyal to their partnership. Vladek is more worried about his money than his relationship when Mala leaves him in Book 2, Chapter 1 and even tells Artie he'd rather live alone than live with her again. Then he begins to realize just how much he needs someone to look after him. Vladek is at a point in his life where it isn't safe for him to live alone, but he balks at the idea of spending money on in-home healthcare or a retirement community. Putting up with Mala and ceding to some of her demands sounds better to Vladek than spending money.

How do Vladek's and Wolfe's different attitudes about the war impact their survival in Maus?

When Vladek sneaks back into Sosnowiec after being held as a prisoner of war, he returns home to Anja, who is living with the rest of her family in her parents' house. Unlike Vladek, Anja's brother-in-law Wolfe isn't very concerned about the war. "The war will be over like lightning!" he assures Vladek in Book 1, Chapter 4. He doesn't worry about the family's future because "with money you can always get anything!" Wolfe is concerned about only the here and now. He does nothing to prepare for the future, spending money even faster than he can earn it. His work with the Jewish Community Organization teaches him no skills that are useful later in the war, and it doesn't afford him any opportunity to control his own income. Wolfe is coasting on his father-in-law's wealth and his own belief everything will be okay. In contrast, Vladek creates his own job smuggling fabric to bring in extra money for the household. When this becomes too dangerous, he takes jobs in various trades and learns how to work with tin, wood, and shoes. In modern terms Vladek is a hustler. He doesn't sit back and let things happen to him. He survives the war while Wolfe dies hiding in the shadow of his well-connected uncle, Persis Steinkeller.

Of what importance are the three real photographs used in Maus?

Only three of the photographs included in Maus are actual pictures, not illustrated representations. They include a snapshot of Anja and a young Artie in Prisoner on the Hell Planet (Book 1, Chapter 5), the portrait of Richieu at the beginning of Book 2, and the "souvenir" photo of Vladek after the war, which is shown in Book 2, Chapter 5. When displayed together, these pictures depict all of Spiegelman's immediate family: mother, father, and brother. They are the people this book is most deeply about. Spiegelman shows their real faces, not mouse faces, to emphasize that although Maus is a graphic novel, it is a work of fact, not fiction. Seeing a human face in a sea of cartoon animals has a jarring effect on the reader and serves as a reminder of what one family, the author's, lost under Nazi rule: each other.

What role do predictions of the future play in Maus?

Vladek and Anja are each given a glimpse into the future—Vladek in Book 1, Chapter 3 when he has the dream about Parshas Truma, and Anja in Book 2, Chapter 5 when she visits the Gypsy fortune-teller. Vladek and Anja don't put a lot of stock in dreams and fortune-telling—particularly Anja, who comes from a far less religious family than her husband. But these predictions, both of which hint at positive outcomes, come at the most difficult times during the war. Vladek is a prisoner of war when he dreams of the date of his release, and Anja fears she will never see Vladek again when she is told they will be reunited and have another child together. The fact that the predictions come true isn't nearly as important as what they represent in the moment: hope. Hope is the only thing Vladek and Anja can cling to when they are apart, and it is the thing that keeps them fighting for survival. The predictions are a reminder that there is always a chance things will get better, even at the very deepest moment of despair.

How do Vladek's and Anja's relationships with non-Jews change between 1937 and 1946 in Maus?

Anja and Vladek are both Jews, and in 1937 they live in a part of Poland home to both Jews and non-Jews. They live together peacefully for the most part until late 1938, when Vladek and Anja hear about anti-Semitic riots as they make their way to the sanatorium in Czechoslovakia. Vladek considers moving the family from Bielsko back to Sosnowiec after they return from the sanatorium for fear of German expansion into Poland. Their Polish nanny, Janina, is hurt that the Spiegelmans would think the voices of a few represented the beliefs of all. "I think of you as part of my own family!" she says in Book 1, Chapter 2. But her tune changes in 1944 when the Spiegelmans come to her for refuge. In Book 1, Chapter 6 she turns them away even though she "always offered she would help." She still cares about Anja and Vladek, which is why she holds onto their photographs during the war, but she isn't willing to risk herself for them, which is why she sells their valuable belongings. By the end of the war, Anja and Vladek have learned it is risky to trust anyone else, particularly those who haven't had the same experiences. This could very well be the reason the majority of their friends in the United States are Holocaust survivors.

How are money and material goods related to a person's chances of survival in Maus?

Having access to money and material goods was helpful to many of the people depicted in Maus, but it wasn't a guarantee of survival. The Zylberbergs, for example, were a very wealthy family. They were able to pay black market prices for food and other household goods during the early days of the war, and their lives were far more comfortable than those who didn't have such large cash reserves. Yet, as Artie points out in Book 1, Chapter 5, being millionaires didn't save Anja's parents' lives. They tried to pay Vladek's cousin to help them escape the holding unit in Srodula, but he took the money and ran. He wasn't willing to risk his own life to save two elderly people who had no chance of survival if they were caught. All of the Zylberbergs except Anja, her brother Herman (who was in the United States during the war), and Herman's son, Lolek, died at some point during the war. The money they had could not save them. It's important to note, however, how very valuable material goods were to Vladek's survival. While in Auschwitz and Dachau, he was always looking for things to barter—bread, cigarettes, chocolate, the last of his family's jewelry. None of these things, with the exception of the jewelry, had much monetary value, but they had untold worth to the other prisoners and even some of their captors. Vladek was able to improve his station in Auschwitz and make sure Anja was relatively safe by stockpiling his meager rations to purchase favors and earn the loyalty of those in positions of authority. These transactions didn't guarantee his survival, but they helped him along the way.

How does Artie and Vladek's relationship change over the course of Maus?

Artie and Vladek have never had a close relationship, but the interviews about World War II seem to bring them closer together. When the book ends, they understand each other more than they did prior to Artie's interest in Vladek's Holocaust experiences. The stories Vladek tells give Artie insight as to why his father was so exacting and domineering during Artie's childhood—insisting Artie eat every morsel on his plate, withholding money for even necessities like school supplies—which helps ease Artie's resentment. Vladek also begins to understand Artie's point of view, particularly after he reads Prisoner on the Hell Planet. Neither of them is good at talking about their feelings, but the war stories and the comic provide other avenues for explaining how and why they became who they are today. When Maus begins, Artie still feels very much like a child living in the shadow of his father's miraculous Holocaust survival. Vladek has all the power in their relationship. This changes as Vladek's mind and body begin to deteriorate. Not long after Mala leaves in Book 2, Chapter 1, he realizes he can't live alone, and, more importantly, he doesn't want to. He wants a companion, and he wants this companion to be Artie. Now Artie is in the power position. He chooses whether or not to visit his father, and he decides the terms of their relationship. Artie has taken over Vladek's role of caretaker, and he is not much more lenient than Vladek was all those years ago.

How does the language used by the characters in Maus impact the reader's understanding of the book?

Spiegelman uses language as a means of showing cultural differences and feelings of cultural isolation. Vladek's broken English is perhaps the most identifiable use of unusual language. He has lived in the United States for 30 years, and studied English at least 15 years before that, but he has yet to master proper grammar and syntax. "I wanted you would climb to the roof—it's a leak in the drain pipe," he admonishes Artie in Book 1, Chapter 4. No matter how long he lives in the United States, he is still Polish. He will never fit in with American culture the way Artie does. His language marks him as different. Spiegelman also uses language to show the divisions highlighted during World War II. In Book 1, Chapter 6, Vladek, Mr. Mandelbaum, and Abraham Mandelbaum speak in Yiddish in front of the Polish smugglers so as not to have their plan overheard. All the men were Polish by birth, but their heritage separated them. The three Jewish men see themselves as being different from the smugglers by virtue of their race, and they automatically assume the Poles can't speak Yiddish. This mistake lands Vladek and his friends in Auschwitz.

What is the significance of the characters wearing masks in Maus?

All the characters in Maus are depicted as different animals—Poles are pigs, Jews are mice, and Germans are cats, for example—but there are several instances in which figures are shown wearing masks over their faces. These masks, which are held on by strings that tie in the back, always depict a visage different from the one the person in question already has. In Book 1, Chapter 4, for example, Vladek pretends he is a non-Jewish Pole on the train home from Lublin. Spiegelman draws Vladek wearing a pig mask as he talks to another pig—that is, an identifiable Pole. In Book 1, Chapter 6, Vladek and Anja both wear pig masks as they try to find a safe place to hide. In both instances the characters are pretending they are someone else as they try to hide their Jewish features and background for their own safety. The strings keeping the masks on their faces hint that these disguises are not permanent or sustainable. There is always the threat of the mask falling off, which would reveal them to be Jews. Masks are also present in Book 2, Chapter 2, which is one of the only places in the book where humans are actually drawn as humans. This meta reference about writing the book the audience is reading separates Spiegelman the author from Artie the character, and as such Spiegelman draws himself differently, as a human. Yet he is still Jewish, and he is still related to the people about whom he is writing, so he draws himself in a mouse mask. The same goes for his therapist, Pavel, who is a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust. The masks on their human forms indicate their separation from the story being told as well as their connections to it.

In what ways is Vladek an unreliable narrator in Maus?

An unreliable narrator is someone who tells a story but cannot be trusted to tell the consistent truth. Some unreliable narrators alter details to make themselves look more appealing or heroic, while others omit key information that would help the reader understand the entire scope of the situation. Unreliable narrators aren't necessarily villains or deliberately negative, but they do add an element of suspense to an otherwise straightforward story. Vladek is an unreliable narrator because of his ego and the age at which he tells Artie his story. In Book 1, Chapter 1, Vladek is sure to emphasize his attractiveness to the opposite sex. This makes the reader suspect Vladek has an overly inflated opinion of himself and may not be able to view his experiences in the war through the most objective lens. Even if he relates only the facts, the reader wonders if he's embellishing his experiences to make himself look better. Vladek's narration is also unreliable because of his failing memory. In Book 2, Chapter 2, Artie asks his father about the orchestra at Auschwitz, and Vladek insists there was no such thing. This calls the validity of Vladek's memories into question, as does his confusion between Artie and Richieu at the end of the book. The reader wonders what other details Vladek may have forgotten or overlooked, and which things have been lost to an aging mind. The audience understands Vladek is telling the truth as he knows it, but it may not always be the literal, actual truth.

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