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.
The story begins with a brief prologue, set in Rego Park (Queens), NY, in 1958. The narrator, Art Spiegelman, at this point a small boy, is on roller skates, racing with his friends to the schoolyard. Art's skates break, and he runs crying to his father, Vladek. He tells his father that he fell and that his friends skated on without him. His father responds that until he has spent five days locked in a room with a group of people and no food, he cannot know the meaning of the word "friends."
It is 1978. Art greets his father at the old man's house in Rego Park. They are clearly not close, and they have not seen each other in some time. Vladek's first wife, Anja - Art's mother - committed suicide in 1968, and Vladek has since had two heart attacks. Vladek is a Holocaust survivor and has remarried a woman named Mala, who is also a survivor. The two fight constantly. Over dinner, Art tells his father that he wants to write a comic book about the old man's experiences during the Holocaust. Vladek mounts a stationary bicycle and begins to tell his story.
It is the early 1930s in Czestochowa, Poland. Vladek is young and handsome, and working in the textiles business. One day his friend introduces him to a girl named Lucia, and the two date for three or four years, but Vladek never feels particularly committed to the relationship. He travels to Sosnowiec, Poland, to visit his family in December of 1935, and is introduced to a girl named Anja, who is "clever, and from a good family." They hit it off, and though they live 40 miles apart, they begin to speak on the phone at least once a day. Anja send Vladek a photo of herself, which he places on his dresser. When Lucia sees the photo, the two end their relationship. Vladek and Anja are engaged at the end of 1936, and Vladek moves to Sosnowiec to live with his fiancÃ©.
After the engagement, but before Vladek has moved to Sosnowiec, Lucia comes to his apartment and begs Vladek to take her back. Vladek refuses, and he does not hear from Lucia again. However, he also ceases to hear from Anja. When he calls, Anja's mother tells him that Anja received a letter from someone in Czestochowa that said horrible things about Vladek, including that he is only planning to marry Anja for her money. Vladek travels to Sosnowiec to address the situation. The letter is from Lucia, and after much convincing, Anja agrees to proceed with the marriage. They are wed in 1937, and they move into one of Anja's father's apartments. Vladek takes a share in his father-in-law's hosiery business.
Vladek tells his son that he does not want this part of the story in the book; it is too personal. Art promises not to include it.
In Chapter 1, we learn that Art - both the author and the narrator of Maus - wishes to draw a book about his father's experiences during the Holocaust. Vladek begins his story shortly after, telling his son about his courtship and eventual marriage to his first wife, Anja. This chapter follows a structure that will soon become familiar, in which the story opens during a period between 1978 and 1982 (from here on referred to as the "present narrative") and then jumps to the past as Vladek continues his tale of Holocaust survival (the "past narrative"), before retuning again to the present. The past narrative is often briefly interrupted by small sections of present narrative. These past and present narratives represent the majority of the pages within Maus, and the pattern of "Present-Past-Present" is repeated in every chapter except for Chapter 2 of Book 2, which opens with a distinct third narrative (the "meta-narrative") before returning to the past.
Maus is really two stories, not one. The first story follows Vladek's experiences in World War II Poland, while the second story deals with Vladek's relationship with his son. Chapter 1 is an excellent introduction to this relationship: the two men are not particularly close, and they do not have an easy or relaxed manner around each other. One of the primary themes in Maus is that of guilt, which manifests itself a number of ways, such as in Art's feelings that he does not treat his father as well as he should. Evidence of this guilt appears on the very first panel of the first page. Art tells us that he hasn't seen his father in a long time, and that they are not particularly close. Upon his arrival, however, he gives his father an excited greeting - a disproportionate response resulting from the guilt he feels over his neglect of the old man.
Guilt is also present in another form within the pages of Maus. Throughout the book, we are subjected to the author's continuing obsession with the Holocaust: he feels that it has affected - and continues to affect - almost every aspect of his life. At various times in the story (notably in Book II, Chapters 1 and 2), Art tells us that this obsession existed even as a child. As described later in the story, much of this obsession stems from Art's feelings of guilt over having avoided the horrible events that both of his parents lived through. The opening prologue is the only part of Maus that shows Art during his childhood, and from this short scene, we can begin to see exactly why it is that the Holocaust plays such a dominant role in his psyche.
In the scene, ten-year-old Art breaks his roller skate and falls, and his friends skate on without him. This experience is fairly ordinary, and has played out in one form or another for thousands of ten-year-old boys and girls across the country. Most parents, when confronted with this situation, would offer words of comfort to their injured child. Vladek, however, immediately compares the situation to the Holocaust. Indeed, it seems likely that he compares almost every situation to the Holocaust, cementing the events in the mind of his son. The scenes illustrates not only the reasons for Art's continuing obsession with the Holocaust, but also the fact that the events of the Holocaust are never far from Vladek's own thoughts.
Further evidence of the Holocaust's continuing impact on Vladek can be found if one compares Vladek personality in the late 1970s to his pre-Holocaust self. His relationship with Mala, his second wife, is clearly strained and loveless, and Vladek himself is somber and irritable. In the early 1930s, however, he is handsome and calm, and clearly filled with love for his first wife, Anja.