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Art Spiegelman's graphic novel Maus - Free Sample Essay

This unique free sample literary criticism essay analyzes Art Spiegelman's graphic novel, Maus. It suggests that while Spiegelman's comic book style work is a biography of his father Vladek, it can actually be interpreted as the author's autobiography. This example English assignment takes a detailed definition of autobiography and applies it to the graphic novel. The essay would be a good reference for someone who wants to analyze an unusual topic and apply it to modern critical theory.

Discovering Artie - Maus as Autobiography

While Art Spiegelman's Maus describes itself as "A Survivor's Tale," who the true survivor is remains controversial. Some argue Vladek's near-constant presence makes Maus his narrative, but others say Maus' attention to Art's creative and personal struggles place the graphic novel as autobiography. Unfortunately, bookstores are no help. Barnes and Noble lists the graphic novel under "Alternative Comics" while Amazon.com says Maus falls under "Biography and Memoir." Even the Library of Congress' Catalog designates Maus as the biography of a Holocaust survivor and the "biography" of a survivor's child. The lack of consensus leaves Maus' genre open to interpretation.

I believe Maus should be classified as autobiography and will use a framework developed by Carolyn Barros in Autobiography: Narrative of Transformationto explain. Barros defines autobiography as, "Someone Telling Someone Else 'Something happened to me'" (Barros 1). While this definition appears simple, Barros stresses that transformation is a central, but little-discussed theme in autobiography. According to Barros, one can identify autobiographical narratives by the rhetorical strategies they use. These strategies, persona, figura and dynamis, allow the reader to examine who changes, how they change and the motives behind such change, respectively (11). Although critics argue Maus is Vladek's biography, the subtle development of Artie's character, his life-changing journey to chronicle the Holocaust, and secret desire to understand his parents make Maus his story.

Some argue that Maus functions as biography because it focuses on Vladek's experiences. On the surface, this argument seems credible - Maus acts like a typical biography because it follows Vladek from childhood until death. The reader spends much of Maus I learning about Vladek's character - Artie only interrupts to fact check. One thinks the book clarifies its purpose right away: Artie tells Vladek in Maus I, "I want to tell your story, the way it happened" (Spiegelman I 23). Indeed, throughout Maus I, Artie, like a faithful biographer, insists Vladek keep his story in chronological order to ensure accuracy (I 82). Critics say the interactions between Vladek and Artie in Rego Park serve as a frame story, transitioning the reader from one historical episode to the next. If Maus were a traditional novel, then this explanation would make sense. Yet the graphic novel, reveals Artie grows as he learns more about Vladek's story - he forces his father to talk about his past and we see more of him as the story progresses. While Vladek ages in Maus, his story has already happened - but Artie's journey to understand the Holocaust and the challenges he faces arguably make the graphic novel more compelling because the reader is unsure how it will end. While Spiegelman does not declare Maus his autobiography, the subtle focus on Artie amidst the backdrop of the Holocaust suggest otherwise.

The visual development of Artie's persona in Maus allows one to interpret the graphic novel as autobiography. Carolyn Barros writes that persona, one of the three rhetorical elements of autobiography, is the "who" that transforms over the course of the story. For Barros, the persona consists of "the voiced words that constitute the character" (Barros 21). It "exists in the text as sets of imaged characteristics, traits, and qualities that may be either explicit or implicit" (29). In Maus, Artie's character lives in Vladek's shadow, but as he writes, his persona ultimately eclipses Vladek. But this transformation does not occur through words, but in Artie's visual appearance. At the beginning of Maus I, the reader sees young Artie dwarfed by his father and the gray city (Spiegelman I 4). History weights down on him. Years later, Artie still lives in Vladek's shadow - when he visits Vladek in Rego Park, his father's image dominates the page, with Artie looking small in the background (I 12). As Vladek relates his past, the reader hears little from Artie - he passively takes notes. But as Artie absorbs the story of the Holocaust, the reader can see his transformation unfold. As he learns about his father's past and tries to compile the story, Spiegelman draws Artie more prominently - the reader starts to see him in the foreground with Vladek behind him (105). Maus becomes Artie's story when the father becomes dependent on the son: When Vladek takes Artie to the bank, he breaks down. Unlike the beginning of the graphic novel, the son towers over the father and must comfort him (127). By Maus II, one cannot doubt Artie's importance in the graphic novel - Vladek does not appear until page seventeen. While Vladek's narrative continues, the reader concludes Maus is ultimately Artie's story when one sees him hunched over a canvas, dead bodies lying beneath him (41) - the Holocaust has become his burden.

Since autobiography, as Barros argues, is a narrative of transformation, then Artie's life-changing journey to create Maus allows the reader to place it alongside other personal tales. According to Barros, the process of transformation, or figura, allows the persona to evolve. Figura "suggests the dominant interpretive strategy of the autobiographer's change in the narrative" (Barros 13). It describes how a transformation occurs. Barros explains that Saint Augustine's figura, the act of confession, transforms him from sinner to saint (14). For Artie, the writing process - his figura - allows him to confront the Holocaust and emerge from his father's shadow. Artie tries to represent the Holocaust in comic form because he used this tactic to explore feelings about his mother's suicide. Prisoner on The Hell Planet translates Artie's complex emotions into understandable art. No longer does he need to bottle his anger or confusion inside - he can express it in pictures. "I felt nauseous, the guilt was overwhelming," (Spiegelman 102) Artie writes as the world swirls around him. This cathartic release allows Artie to comprehend Anja's death - indeed Vladek tells him "it's good you got it outside your system" (104). But unlike Prisoner on The Hell Planet, Holocaust representation is formidable. The details nearly overwhelm Artie: When Vladek speaks about the death chambers - "And the fat from the burning bodies they scooped and poured again so everyone could burn better" (II 72) - Artie can only hang his head, shell-shocked (II 73). Artie's writing process tortures him - when interviewers ask if writing Maus was cathartic, Artie sobs (II 42). "Some part of me doesn't want to draw or think about Auschwitz. I can't visualize it clearly, and I can't BEGIN to imagine what it felt like," (II 46) Artie confesses to his psychiatrist. Yet Artie has to finish what he started - he perseveres and ultimately grows.

I would argue Artie's transformation is driven by a desire to explore and deepen his relationship with Vladek and Anja. Examining this motive allows one to see Maus as autobiography because Artie writes to satisfy his own needs, not Vladek's. These motives, which Barros calls dynamis, must exist in autobiography for transformation to occur. Identifying the author's dynamis, even if it is not explicit, allows the reader to understand why change takes place (Barros 15). Although Artie does not explicitly state his reasons for writing Maus, one can infer from his actions that he wants a deeper connection with his parents by understanding the trauma they experienced. Thus Artie is the one who tells Vladek "I want to hear [the story]" (Spiegelman I 12) - he makes Vladek reveal it. Indeed, examining how the two are drawn reveals how Artie fulfills his subconscious wish. At first, Vladek and Artie are not close - they sit on different ends of the room - Vladek pedaling, Artie taking notes in a corner (I 12). But as Maus progresses, the space between them reduces until father and son stand side by side, even touching (II 36). Despite their often rocky relationship, Artie and Vladek are partners in the Holocaust story. Likewise, Artie's pens the graphic novel to connect with Anja. He tells Mala, "I wish I got Mom's story while she was alive," (I 132) and continually searches for her diaries. The bits of information that Vladek provides fail to satisfy Artie - he wants to learn more about Anja the woman, not Anja the depressed survivor who psychologically murders him in Prisoner on The Hell Planet (I 103). When Vladek admits he burned Anja's diaries, Artie is furious: "You Murderer! How the hell could you do such a thing!!" he cries (I 159). Artie lashes out not because his book will be incomplete, but because his desire to learn more about Anja is cut short. But while Artie cannot learn more of Anja, his conversations with Vladek allows him to understand their deep love. Thus, Artie decides to do the next best thing: he reunites her with Vladek at the end of Maus (II 136), concluding her story, and his.

Recognizing Maus as autobiography means one will have to redefine the genre. Artie, while not expressing, "This is my story," becomes the main character, the object of change. It is as if the story chooses him, not the other way around. It will be interesting to see if other narratives follow Maus' quiet route of picking the hero - this "Subtleography" is indeed a new kind of literature.

Works Cited
Spiegelman, Art. Maus I. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986.
Spiegelman, Art. Maus II. New York: Pantheon Books, 1991.
Barros, Carolyn. Autobiography: Narrative of Transformation. Ann Arbor: The University of Michican Press, 2001.
 
1,506 words, 6 pages
 

 
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