Maus I and
are incredible tales of survival. Art Spiegelman, the author, narrates in comic-book form, called a graphic novel, a delicately woven story about his father’s survival of the Holocaust, while at the same time telling his own story of surviving life with his sometimes-difficult father. The characters in the story have animal heads that represent different races and ethnicities. For example, Jews have mouse heads, Germans have cat heads, and Americans have dog heads. We see Vladek and Art’s relationship unfold as Spiegelman narrates the experience of interviewing his father about his life during the Holocaust. As Vladek tells Art about his experience in a Jewish Ghetto and in the concentration camp, we learn that Vladek wants Art to visit more often. It appears that the only time Art does visit is to interview his father. Art and his wife do visit to make sure Vladek is taken care of. Vladek’s first wife, also a Holocaust survivor, committed suicide years before the book takes place. In fact, Vladek destroys her diaries that she kept during the war, and Art is understandably angry that such an important piece of his mother is no longer accessible. Vladek remarries and Art shows how strained this second marriage is. Art candidly shares his complex thoughts and feelings of annoyance, resentment, and love for his father with the readers. We also see flashbacks to Vladek’s life during the war. Vladek was lucky compared to many, due to his professed resourcefulness. Readers can learn of the horrible conditions Jews and others lived in during the Holocaust at a level appropriate for both middle and high school. The loss of freedom and life is profoundly felt throughout the story. Vladek dies by the end of the second book. Students will be able to readily understand the content of the books, because the prose is at a fairly basic reading level, which allows for time to be spent analyzing the narrative structure and meaning of different elements in the story. We can focus on the “how” of the story, rather than only the “what.”
We will first explore what is being told to us. We will evaluate the relationships between the author and his father, the author and his mother, the author and the war, the author and himself, the father and the war, and the father and his second wife. The one aspect I think students will really relate to is the struggle of Art with his father. Against the backdrop of his father’s tale of surviving the Holocaust, anything Art does seems to him to be trivial. Yet, what he does is important. Art’s struggle with his father also validates the struggles between parent and child, something every one of my students understands. Adolescence is a time of figuring out who we are as individuals, separate from our parents. It’s also a time of struggle for the independence we want and feel we deserve, but aren’t quite ready for as our parents often point out. The books give voice to an aspect of this struggle.
We will then look at how the story unfolds. What did Spiegelman do to tell us his story and was it effective? Students will consider the unreliable narrator. Is what Vladek says true or is it colored by his own pride and need to show his son that he was resourceful? Can we trust that Art is presenting his father objectively given that their relationship is strained? What is a novelistic structure and why does this help us understand the story better? Students will analyze and evaluate the animals chosen to represent each ethnicity. Racial essentialism is important to this kind of story. We will examine what stereotypes are being presented to us and why they are needed. I will also ask the students if they think Spiegelman is questioning these stereotypes or perpetuating them. One interesting stereotype is that Spiegelman presents his father as a stingy, cheap man. This is the anti-Semitic view of Jews. We will look at the courage Spiegelman uses to present his father this way, knowing that some people will say “See -- there’s a Jew for you.” Irony is a concept that is often difficult for students to fully understand. We will look at the irony used throughout the books, especially in relation to the stereotypes and to Vladek himself. Depending on the level of the class, I might have to walk students through this in more of a lecture form at first.
At Sound School, we have electronic whiteboards, which are white boards that display a computer screen. You touch the board with a special pen and the pen acts as a mouse. Using the electronic white board, the class will spend a few days looking at the CD-ROM of
. This CD-ROM includes the entire content of both texts, three hours of interviews between Art and Vladek, extensive historical documentation about the Holocaust, audio and video commentary by Art about making MAUS, and hundreds of sketches and family photos. It’s an incredible resource that gives us a first-hand account of the story and shows the students that books don’t make themselves. We will understand what went into making the texts, and the CD allows students to see story-telling as a craft.