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Race and Class
Unsurprisingly, given the subject matter, issues of race and class figure heavily in the plot, themes, and structure of Maus. At the most basic level, issues of race play themselves out on the grand scale of the Holocaust, a terrible culmination of senseless racism that is drawn and described in all its brutality and efficiency. But Maus also deals with these issues in other, more subtle ways, through the use of different animal faces to portray different races.
In Maus, Jews are portrayed as mice, while Germans are portrayed as cats. The metaphor of Jews as mice is taken directly from Nazi propaganda, which portrayed the Jews as a kind of vermin to be exterminated. The cat/mouse relationship is also an apt metaphor for the relationship between the Nazis and Jews: the Nazis toyed with the Jews before ultimately killing them.
The decision to portray different races as different kinds of animals has been criticized as over-simplistic and for promoting ethnic stereotypes. Beneath the simple metaphor, however, is an earnest attempt to illustrate the unyielding stratification by class and race that was very much a part of life in World War II-era Poland. Within the pages of Vladek's story, the Jews are rarely seen socializing with the non-Jewish Poles, except in cases where the Poles serve as janitors, governesses, or other household assistants. The idea of stratification and classification is best illustrated by the man in the concentration camp who claims that he is German, not Jewish, and who is ultimately taken aside and killed. When Art asks his father whether the man was really a German, Vladek replies, "who knows...it was German prisoners in there also...But for the Germans this guy was Jewish." There were no shades of gray within the German system of racial classification. Indeed, this middle ground is so rare within the pages of Maus that the only instance of mixed marriage (Shivek's brother, who married a German woman) comes as quite a shock, especially when we see their children, who are drawn as cat/mouse hybrids.
This, however, is not the only form of racism that exists within the pages of Maus. One of the most interesting aspects of the story is the fact that Vladek, who survived the horrors of the Holocaust, is himself a racist. When Francoise picks up an African-American hitchhiker on their way back from the grocery store, Vladek can hardly contain his anger that she has let a "shvartser" into the car and spends the whole ride home watching his groceries to make sure they aren't stolen. This episode serves as a reminder that the racism of the Holocaust survives in other forms to this day.
Just as the animal metaphor is an attempt to explain an existing social stratification, other aspects of the story seem to suggest that this stratification is a manufactured illusion. This is most clearly illustrated in opening pages of Chapter Two of Book II, which take place after the publication of the first book of Maus. In this narrative, Art Spiegelman is clearly having doubts about the animal metaphors that form the backbone of the story. Here, people are still characterized by animals based on race, but these characterizations are now clearly only masks that have been tied to their heads with a bit of string. Thus the idea of race is only an artifice, Spiegelman suggests, and underneath the masks we are all essentially the same.