The Themes of Suffering and Survivor's Guilt in Maus

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About this sample


Words: 1927 |

Pages: 4|

10 min read

Published: Jun 29, 2018

Words: 1927|Pages: 4|10 min read

Published: Jun 29, 2018

Art Spiegelman’s ‘The Complete Maus’ explores the devastating impact of the Holocaust on survivors and their families. Through the lens of his father Vladek Spiegelman’s past experiences and their present day relationship, Spiegelman highlights the obsessive behaviour and depression that splinter the lives of Holocaust survivors. By including a remarkably candid self-portrayal, Spiegelman additionally suggests that the children of those who endured the Holocaust are haunted by its impact, left alienated from their parents and experiencing survivor’s guilt. Including an element of hope, Vladek and Art’s complex post-holocaust relationship reveals the capacity for stories to become vessels of healing, which strengthen the bonds between survivors and their loved ones, alleviating their suffering.

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Through ‘The Complete Maus’ Spiegelman demonstrates that survivors of the Holocaust such as Vladek are left mentally and emotionally damaged as a result of their experiences. Through Art’s visits to his father Vladek, set in the 1970s and 1980s, Spiegelman reveals the harmful consequences of Vladek’s wartime ordeal on his new life in post-war America. Vladek describes having been forced to continually rely on his wits and pragmatism for survival in the Holocaust, such as through saving cigarettes to trade for food while a POW, trading on the black market while in Sosnowiec and exchanging a piece of bread for a spare lice-free shirt, in order to ensure he received a daily meal ration only given to the clean prisoners of Dachau. This need to be constantly resourceful during the Holocaust overwhelms other less material approaches to life in its aftermath, leaving Mala and Art to accuse Vladek of being “cheap” and “more attached to things than people!”

Vladek’s frugality, extreme to the point of being neurotic, is exemplified by his hoarding of items that range from pieces of telephone wire he picks up on the street, to nails, as well as his insistence on constantly leaving the gas burner running during Art’s stay with him in the Catskills in order to save on matches. Spiegelman emphasizes the panic Vladek feels when he sees Art simply lighting a match, by drawing the lightning fast movement of his head as he turns to Art to admonish him. Vladek’s now irrational personality is also shown through his often obsessive behavior, such as his insistence on finding a mistake of “less than a buck” in Art and Francoise’s calculation of his bank balance, so that it is exactly “so as on the statement.” Vladek’s intensity is further emphasized by his furious riding of his ‘exercycle’, recurrently depicted by Spiegelman as an activity that causes him exhaustion. By juxtaposing the tenacious, confident and courageous Vladek of the 1930s and 1940s with the depiction of his now mentally frail father, Spiegelman exposes the long term implications of the trauma of the Holocaust.

Spiegelman additionally conveys that those who endure the Holocaust experience perpetual depression in their lives following the ordeal. Vladek describes how Anja was “nervous”, even after the Holocaust and through Spiegelman’s inclusion of ‘Prisoner on the Hell Planet’, the reader learns that Anja was eventually driven to commit suicide, leaving no note. Spiegelman highlights the key role of the Holocaust in her depression, with the bolded words “Hitler did it!” and “Menopausal depression” separating confronting images of Anja’s body in the bath and a pile of emaciated corpses, surrounded by Swastikas. Spiegelman also draws the reader’s attention to his mother’s loneliness following the deaths of almost all her family in the Holocaust, by including the depiction of her “tightening the umbilical cord” to desperately ask young Artie if he loves her. Vladek articulates the impact of the loss of Anja’s last remaining family member, her brother Herman who died in a hit and run accident in 1964, describing how his death caused Anja to “also die a little.” Furthermore, Spiegelman emphasizes the depression Vladek suffers as a result of the horrors he and Anja lived through in WWII. As Vladek himself tells Art and the reader, “it can’t be everything okay!” with Vladek’s “life now”.

In the ‘Prisoner on the Hell Planet” cartoon, Spiegelman depicts his father’s grief following Anja’s suicide. Vladek is drawn by Spiegelman as a grotesquely skeletal figure, who had “completely fallen apart.” This depiction conveys the inward ‘death’ Vladek suffers as a result of Anja’s suicide, which left him without his beloved wife and the one person who could completely understand and empathize with his Holocaust experiences. Spiegelman conveys that the loss of Anja undermined Vladek’s later relationship with Mala, leaving him resentful of his second wife, simply as she could never be Anja. Mala complains Vladek has a “shrine” of photos of Anja on his desk, which Spiegelman corroborates by including Anja’s photo in several panels depicting Art and Vladek’s conversations, suggesting that Vladek is still grieving his first wife, unable to move forward with Mala. Vladek’s poor treatment of Mala also makes her life miserable and she describes feeling as if she’s “in prison!” to Art. By illustrating the inescapable depression experienced by both his parents and its negative impact on Mala, Spiegelman suggests unhappiness is an inevitable reality for Holocaust survivors.

In addition to highlighting the prolonged suffering of holocaust survivors, Spiegelman suggests that the impact of the Holocaust is intergenerational, as the children of survivors also suffer. Through a remarkably candid self-portrayal, Spiegelman reveals the second hand trauma he endured during his childhood and his experience of being constantly tied to his parents’ memories of WWII. This is reflected in the very first few pages of the novel, as Vladek denies his son sympathy after he falls over, instead reflecting on the brutal lessons he learned while in Auschwitz. Vladek’s attempt to teach Art what he views as a crucial life lesson – not to count on the kindness of others, exemplifies the negative impact of his Holocaust memories on his son. Spiegelman’s attempt to elicit sympathy from the reader by including this passage highlights his feelings of neglect and need to have his suffering recognized. Without fully revealing the causes of his depression, Spiegelman conveys that as a young man, he suffered mental problems so severe he had a stay in the “state mental hospital.” These issues are evidently compounded by his mother’s suicide, driven by her own depression, which causes Art enormous grief.

Drawing himself in prisoner’s garb in the comic “Prisoner on the Hell Planet”, Art describes feeling “murdered” by his mother and “nauseous” with guilt following her death. Through this negative depiction, Spiegelman conveys he was utterly destroyed by his mother’s death and struggling to cope with his emotions. The inclusion of a drawing of himself as a literal prisoner behind bars, reinforces the suggestion that Art felt incarcerated by his parent’s suffering and his own loss. Spiegelman also emphasizes the impact of his father’s holocaust memories and his own research on his life as an adult. Depicting himself creating “Maus II”, Art is surrounded by flies that also hover around a pile of emaciated corpses at his feet. Spiegelman underscores his being haunted by the Holocaust by juxtaposing the revelation that in “May 1987 Francoise and he are expecting a baby” with the statistic, “between May 16th 1944 and May 24th 1944, over 100 000 Hungarian Jews were gassed in Auschwitz.” While Art is neither resentful nor self-pitying in these frames, he conveys that his life is forever intertwined with the events of the Holocaust. This is reinforced by Spiegelman’s inclusion of the comment he was getting “eaten alive” by the ‘time flies’ even while holidaying in the Catskills with Vladek and Francoise. Through the intermittent inclusion of the horrors of the Holocaust in the depiction of his life in post-war America, Spiegelman demonstrates that the Holocaust pervades the lives of the children of survivors, as well as the lives of survivors themselves.

While exposing the destructive impact of the Holocaust on survivors and their families, Spiegelman conveys that hope stems from the healing process of sharing these experiences with others. Early in ‘Maus’, Spiegelman highlights his fraught relationship with his father, whom at the start of the novel he hadn’t visited “in almost two years.” Vladek’s experiences of the Holocaust form a seemingly indestructible wall between father and son, leaving Art feeling survivor’s guilt “about having had an easier life than Vladek and Anja did”. Art also feels inferior as a result of not sharing Vladek’s extreme experiences of endurance, reflecting “No matter what I accomplish, it doesn’t seem like much compared to surviving Auschwitz”. Having lived through a childhood where his struggles and successes were of little importance, when compared to the magnitude of the Holocaust, Art is at times selfish as an adult and inconsiderate of his father’s suffering. While telling Artie about Richieu, Vladek becomes visibly upset and his story begins to be unclear.

However rather than being sympathetic, Artie harshly says “Wait! Please Dad, if you don’t keep your story chronological, I’ll never get it straight”. At this moment Artie shows that he is only concerned with getting the story; his father’s grief is insignificant. However, through the cathartic process of creating ‘The Complete Maus’, Spiegelman demonstrates he is able to better understand and empathize with Vladek, strengthening their relationship. While listening to his conversations with Vladek on tape, Art hears himself yell “Enough! Tell me about Auschwitz!” at his father. Spiegelman depicts himself literally shrinking with shame as he hears himself treating his father so harshly. Furthermore, after listening to Vladek’s tales of extraordinary suffering, such as the gassing of “hundreds of thousands of Hungarians” to which Vladek was “an eyewitness”, Art is able to reflect on his father’s current psyche and realize “in some ways his father didn’t survive” the Holocaust. Art’s reflections on his father’s extreme wartime experiences make him a far more sympathetic son, as exemplified by his comment “I’m sorry for snapping at you before” to Vladek, following an argument later in the novel. Art is even able to finally acknowledge that his father’s health should be a greater priority than ‘Maus’, saying to Vladek, “I’m sorry I made you talk so much, Pop.” Spiegelman’s novel ultimately serves as a tribute to Vladek’s triumphs and suffering, as well as the deepened bond between father and son.

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Art Spiegelman’s ‘The Complete Maus’ reveals the perpetual trauma endured by generations of Jews following the Holocaust. Highlighting the psychological degradation caused by Vladek’s post-traumatic stress disorder, Spiegelman exposes the long term suffering of Holocaust survivors. This is reinforced through Spiegelman’s brutally honest depiction of the depression faced by both his parents. Moreover, by including himself as a character in ‘‘Maus’ Spiegelman depicts the trauma experienced by the children of Holocaust survivors, who are left alienated from their parents and experiencing survivor’s guilt. However, through elements of meta-narrative and the depiction of his evolving relationship with his father, Spiegelman suggests that by sharing Vladek’s stories, the father and son form a stronger, more empathetic relationship.


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  2. Gavrilă, A. M. (2017). Holocaust Representation and Graphical Strangeness in Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale:“Funny Animals,” Constellations, and Traumatic Memory. Acta Universitatis Sapientiae, Communicatio, (4), 61-75. (
  3. Costello, L. A. (2006). History and Memory in a Dialogic of" Performative Memorialization" in Art Spiegelman's" Maus: A Survivor's Tale". The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association, 39(2), 22-42. (
  4. Kohli, P. (2012). The memory and legacy of trauma in Art Spiegelman's Maus. Prandium: The Journal of Historical Studies at U of T Mississauga, 1(1). (
  5. De Leon, D. (2020). ‘My Father Bleeds History’: Survivor’s Guilt and Filial Inadequacy in Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale and EL Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel. (
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