MAUS Summary and Analysis
Book II, Chapter 2
Note: Maus jumps back and forth often between the past and the present. To facilitate these transitions in this summary, the Holocaust narrative is written in normal font, while all other narratives are written in italics.
Auschwitz: Time Flies
It is February of 1987, and Art is sitting over a drawing table smoking, now portrayed as a human in a mouse's mask. Flies buzz around his head. Vladek died of a heart attack in 1982, he writes, and he and Francoise are expecting their first child in a few months. The first book of Maus was published last year to great success, but he is feeling depressed. The image zooms out to reveal that Art's drawing table is sitting atop a pile of dead Jews from the concentration camps. He is overrun by interviews and profit-seekers. One asks him if there was any message in the book. Another proposes marketing an official Maus vest, patterned on the one that Art so often wears. As Art becomes increasingly overwhelmed, his image begins to transform into that of a small child.
He visits his psychiatrist, Pavel, also a Jewish survivor. He, too, is wearing a mouse mask. Art tells him that when he has time to draw, he feels mentally blocked from continuing the story. It seems to him that nothing he ever accomplishes will compare with his father's survival of the Holocaust. They begin to discuss Vladek's and Auschwitz's effects on Art. Perhaps Art feels remorse that he has portrayed his father in a less-than-positive light in his book, Pavel suggests; or maybe Vladek himself felt guilty about surviving Auschwitz when so many other people died and subconsciously passed this guilt to his son. They also discuss exactly what it means to have survived the Holocaust. If surviving is admirable, does that mean that not surviving is not admirable? Pavel tells Art that survival in the Holocaust wasn't based on skill or resources. Ultimately, it was random, based purely on luck.
As Art leaves his session, he grows from a small boy to an adult again. These sessions always seem to make him feel better. Art returns home and begins listening to the tapes he recorded of his conversations with his father. On one tape, Vladek is complaining to his son about Mala's constant attempts to get at his money, and Art, frustrated, yells at his father to continue his Holocaust story.
Vladek is working at the Auschwitz tin shop, though he has never been trained in this profession. Yidl, the chief of the tinmen, sees that Vladek doesn't know what he is doing. Yidl is a communist and despises Vladek's past as a factory owner, and Vladek becomes afraid that he will be reported. He arranges with some Polish workers - specialists from nearby towns - to trade for pieces of sausage, eggs, and bread, and he offers Yidl this food as a gift to smooth their relationship. Food throughout the camp is in short supply, and the rations of bitter tea, spoiled cheese, turnip soup, and bread - made from sawdust and flour - are insufficient. On top of the hunger, the guards are brutal. On one occasion, a prisoner yells to the guards that he is a German, not a Jew, and that his son is currently serving in the German army. In response, the guards take the man into an alley, push him down, and jump on his neck.
During this time, Anja is at Birkenau, a larger camp two miles to the south. Whereas Auschwitz is a camp for workers, Birkenau is just a waiting area for the gas chambers and crematoriums. Vladek maintains contact with his wife through a Hungarian Jewish girl named Mancie, who has a higher status at Birkenau because she is having an affair with an S.S. guard. Anja is frail and dejected, and contemplating suicide. Her Kapo treats her poorly, giving her jobs that she cannot perform and beating her when she fails. Mancie passes notes and food between the two, though to be caught in this offense would surely mean death.
When an S.S. guard comes to the tin shop looking for workers to go to Birkenau, Vladek volunteers on the chance that he might see his wife. The smokestacks at the camp are ever-present, lording over the buildings and constantly spewing smoke. When he arrives at the camp, he calls out for his wife and eventually finds her. She is very thin, and they speak without looking at each other so that the guards will not notice them. She tells her husband that she occasionally works in the kitchen and brings scraps of food out to her friends, and Vladek responds that she should save the scraps for herself. Everyone in the camps is looking out for their own survival, and not the survival of others.
At another meeting in Birkenau, a guard spots them speaking to each other and takes Vladek into an empty room, where he is beaten with a club and forced to count the blows. So far, though, Vladek is still relatively strong, and he is able to survive the daily selections where the weak are listed and later sent to the gas chamber. He vividly recalls one selection when one of his fellow prisoners had a rash and was taken off to one side to have his number recorded. The prisoner screamed all that night in the barracks, in fear of his impending death the next day. Vladek calmed him by telling him that everyone at the camp was going to die eventually, and that he must be brave. Besides, perhaps it wasn't even his turn yet. Sure enough, though, the guards arrived the next day to take the prisoner away.
In the tin shop, Vladek is still worried about Yidl, so when a need arises for a shoemaker, Vladek offers his services, having learned a bit about shoe repair while working in Miloch's shop. He makes excellent repairs, and officials prefer to send their shoes to him instead of to the larger shop in camp. Because of these repairs, he often receives gifts of food. Vladek learns that some of the prisoners at Birkenau will be sent to work in at a munitions factory in Auschwitz. In Birkenau, Anja is still having a terrible time, and her Kapo beats her at the slightest infraction. The Kapo's shoes, however, are falling apart, and Anja suggests she send them to Vladek in Auschwitz to be repaired. When the shoes come back, they are as good as new, and the Kapo treats Anja far better from that point on.
In order to arrange for Anja to be transferred to Auschwitz, Vladek saves food and cigarettes to bribe the guards. He keeps all that he saves in a box under his mattress, but one day it is stolen and he is forced to start over again. Eventually, though, he saves enough and Anja is brought over. Vladek throws packages of food to his wife, but one time she is spotted and chased into her barracks, where a friend hides her under a blanket as the guard searches from room to room. The guard is furious and makes the entire barracks run and jump and exercise until they are exhausted. It continues like this for days, but nobody turns her in. Vladek soon loses his job close to his wife when the tin shop is shut down. He is made to perform physical labor, carrying stones and digging holes, and he becomes dangerously skinny. On the next selection, he hides in a bathroom to avoid being sent to the gas chamber.
Father and son return from their walk in the Catskills, and Francoise meets them outside. She has finished the bank papers and made sandwiches for lunch. Vladek makes tea with a tea bag that he had used for breakfast and left to dry by the sink. He then continues his story.
When the Russians advance into Poland, the Nazis begin to disassemble the camp. Vladek is again made to work as a tinman, taking apart the machines in the gas chambers. Underground, there is a room for undressing, and the prisoners are made to believe they are going in for a shower. When they are undressed, they are herded into a shower room, also underground, and the room is filled with pesticides. The bodies are loaded onto an elevator with hooks and brought to ovens on the ground floor, where they are incinerated.
At this point, Art asks his father why the Jews didn't try to resist, and Vladek responds that everyone was tired, and that they couldn't really believe what was happening all around them. And there was always hope that they could survive until the Russians liberated the camp. If you tried to resist, you would surely be killed. Just then, Vladek drops a dish and it shatters. Art and Francoise clean up the mess, but Vladek tells them to save the pieces so that he can glue it back together. When Art offers to wash the remaining dishes, his father refuses, saying that his son would only break the rest of them.
Later that night, Francoise and Art are sitting on the porch after Vladek has fallen asleep. Art tells his wife that he hopes his father will get back together with Mala, if only because otherwise Vladek is his responsibility. Just then, Vladek begins to moan loudly in his sleep.
The structure of Chapter 2 is unique, in that it does not follow the traditional Present-Past-Present trajectory. Rather, the chapter begins with a third type of narrative that can be referred to as a "meta-narrative." The chapter therefore follows a path of Meta-Past-Present. The meta-narrative takes place in 1987, one year after the publication of Maus I and five years after Vladek's death, and deals directly with Art's doubts and worries about the book's publication. The section also goes into further detail regarding Art's still unresolved issues of guilt surrounding his father. The meta-narrative is one of the most thematically important sections of the book, with detailed examinations of many of the book's themes, especially guilt, survival, and luck.
One of the most striking features of this meta-narrative is a shift in the nature of the animal metaphor. In both the past and present narratives, all characters are drawn with human bodies and animal heads. In the meta-narrative, all characters are drawn as humans wearing animal masks, with the string clearly visible on the back and sides of their heads. Previous instances in the book have suggested that on some levels, the author considers the animal metaphor to be inappropriate and overly simplistic (see, for example, the discussion in the previous chapter about his decision to draw Francoise as a mouse). The meta-narrative, however, offers the most direct challenge to the validity of the metaphor on which much of the book is based. In other words, Art is having second thoughts about his decision to assign distinct animals to distinct races and nationalities. By placing all of his characters in masks, he is suggesting that issues of race and nationality are purely products of our minds, and that underneath we're all just people. Even though he is having second thoughts, he continues the metaphor throughout the rest of the story.
This section also includes one of the book's most powerful images: A depressed Art Spiegelman sitting at a drawing board balanced atop a pile of dead, emaciated Jews. Similar piles line the sidewalks outside of his apartment. These images are a haunting representation of the Holocaust's continuing effect on the author, and a reminder of the effects of the past upon the present. Despite the many years that have passed since the Holocaust, and despite the fact that he never lived through it himself, the events are a part of his everyday life.
Art's discussion with his psychiatrist delves further into these issues, focusing particularly on Art's guilt. Pavel suggests that Art feels guilty about his father's less-than-positive portrayal in Maus I. He then talks about survivor's guilt, suggesting that perhaps Vladek felt guilty about surviving the Holocaust when so many of his friends and family were killed, and that he took this guilt out on his son. This idea of Vladek's own guilt is never corroborated by Vladek personally, but there are instances in the book in which we can see this transference take place. Perhaps the best example of this occurs during the brief prologue to Book I, which takes place in Queens, when Art is ten years old. In the scene, Art is roller skating with his friends when his skate breaks and his friends go ahead without him. When he comes crying to his father, Vladek only admonishes him and says that until he has been locked in a room with a group of people and no food for a week, he cannot even know the meaning of the word "friend."
Art's therapy session also delves into a discussion of survival and luck. Pavel asks Art whether it is admirable to have survived that Holocaust, and by the same token, whether it is not admirable to have not survived the Holocaust. In the end, says Pavel, all survival was random and based purely on luck. Though Vladek clearly possesses many qualities that helped him to survive the Holocaust - resourcefulness, the ability to save food and money, etc. - his survival was nevertheless dependent upon a great deal of luck. Instances of this luck are everywhere, and many examples can be found within this chapter. When Vladek becomes too skinny to pass the daily selections, for example, he hides in the bathroom, and is never discovered based purely on chance. Similarly, when the guard sees him speaking with his wife, he is severely beaten. Prisoners in Auschwitz were killed for far lesser offenses, and the fact that his life was spared was again based purely on chance.
MAUS Essays and Related Content
- MAUS: Major Themes
- MAUS: Essays
- MAUS: Questions
- MAUS: Purchase the Novel and Related Material
- Art Spiegelman: Biography
- MAUS Summary
- About MAUS
- Character List
- Glossary of Terms
- Major Themes
- Summary and Analysis of Book I, Chapter 1
- Summary and Analysis of Book I, Chapter 2
- Summary and Analysis of Book I, Chapter 3
- Summary and Analysis of Book I, Chapter 4
- Summary and Analysis of Book I, Chapter 5
- Summary and Analysis of Book I, Chapter 6
- Summary and Analysis of Book II, Chapter 1
- Summary and Analysis of Book II, Chapter 2
- Summary and Analysis of Book II, Chapter 3
- Summary and Analysis of Book II, Chapter 4
- Summary and Analysis of Book II, Chapter 5
- Questions of Genre in Maus
- Related Links on MAUS
- Suggested Essay Questions
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 1
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 2
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 3
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 4
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