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Maus consists of two primary narratives: one that takes place in World War II Poland, and the other that takes place in late 1970s/early 1980s New York. The relationship between these two narratives - and more generally between the past and present - is a central theme of the story. The events of the Holocaust continue to influence the life of Vladek, a Holocaust survivor, and reverberate through future generations, ultimately affecting his son, Art.
Many of Vladek's peculiar personality traits can be linked to his experiences in the Holocaust. In 1978, Vladek is stubborn, irritable, and almost comically stingy with his money. His relationship with his second wife, Mala, is strained and seemingly devoid of love. Prior to World War II, however, he exhibits none of these characteristics. He is kind, wealthy, and uncommonly resourceful, and his marriage to Anja is filled with compassion and intimacy. His experiences in the Holocaust undoubtedly played a role in these dramatic personality changes.
Once relatively wealthy, Vladek's survival in German-occupied Poland depended on his ability to hoard and save even the smallest of items, such as the paper wrapper from a piece of cheese, or the cigarettes from his weekly rations. These small items took on enormous importance to Vladek, and even many years later, he feels unable to throw anything away. His stubbornness in 1978 can be explained by the fact that he survived the Holocaust largely because he possessed a remarkable intelligence and resourcefulness that enabled him to acquire the necessary food, supplies, shelter, and protection. Now he is much older, but he still thinks of himself as the same young man who could do everything on his own. He still wants to act accordingly, going to such extremes as climbing onto the roof to fix a leaky drain. Still, as Art notes on a few separate occasions, the Holocaust cannot explain everything about his father: "I used to think the war made him this way," Art reflects to Mala, in Chapter Six of Book I, to which she responds that "all our friends went through the camps; nobody is like him!" Vladek has clearly never fully recovered from the horrors of the Holocaust. This fact is poignantly illustrated by his final words of the story, when he mistakenly calls Art by the name of his first child, who died during the war.
Though Art was born in Sweden after the war and did not experience the Holocaust firsthand, his life has also been deeply affected by these unspeakable events. To begin with, Art is directly affected by secondary "aftershocks" of the Holocaust, in that Vladek's personality and parenting style were clearly influenced by these events, and Art's personality and lifestyle choices were in turn clearly guided by his father's personality and parenting style. Art describes a specific instance of this transmission to his wife:
[Vladek] loved showing off how handy he was... and proving that anything I did was all wrong. He made me completely neurotic about fixing stuff...One reason I became an artist was...it was an area where I wouldn't have to compete with him.
Art is also affected by the past in less direct ways. To begin with, he feels almost completely consumed by the horrible specter of the Holocaust. As a child, he sometimes fantasized that the showers in his house would spew gas instead of water, and he would often ask himself which parent he would save if he could have only saved one from Auschwitz (he usually picked his mother). In many ways, he feels guilty about the fact that his parents were forced to live through Auschwitz, whereas he was born after it ended, into a far more comfortable and easy life.
The relationships between past and present are often illustrated graphically within the context of the story. The most vivid representation of this concept occurs at the beginning of Chapter Two of Book II, in which Art is sitting at his drawing board above a sprawling pile of dead and emaciated Jewish mice.