The way the concept of empathy is dealt with in Maus tells Vladek’s story in an unconventional but relatable way that feeds the idea that one’s faults do not justify cruelty or murder. Additionally, the representation of Vladek’s flaws and their magnification due to trauma allows the reader to empathise with his humanity and understand him in a deeper context beyond being a Holocaust survivor. However, Spiegelman’s turbulent relationship with his father is depicted at times in Vladek’s portrayal as completely emotionally unaware and insensitive.
To determine the ways in which Maus provides a sympathetic perspective on Vladek’s character and traumatic life events, it is important to discuss how the concept of empathy is represented in the graphic novel. No person, no matter how good or bad, extraordinary or mediocre, flawed or saintlike, deserves to be oppressed with such brutality and disregard for human life as the Jews were by the Nazis. Empathy is not shown conventionally in Maus, the purpose of the novel is not to paint Holocaust survivor’s as heroes, but to enforce that everybody deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. Rather than encourage empathy for glorified accounts of the horrors that some Holocaust victims were fortunate to have survived, Spiegelman highlights the lack of significance fictitious heroism or wealth had on the subsistence of individuals at the height of the Second World War. Demonstrating through the story of Vladek’s survival that “It [was not] the best people who survived, nor did the best ones die”. Spiegelman’s choice of epigraph, which cites the claim by Adolf Hitler that “The Jews are undoubtedly a race, but they are not human” reinforces the idea that the novel’s purpose is to completely contradict this statement. The very beginning of The Complete Maus focuses on Vladek’s life before the war, his relationship with Lucia and how he met Anja. By including elements of Vladek’s story that “[have] nothing to do with…the holocaust”, “It makes everything more real – more human.” Maus aims to challenge Hitler’s dehumanization of the Jewish people and highlight the similarities between Holocaust victims and common people; to allow others to see themselves in Vladek’s story. It is the representation of Vladek and his families imperfections that provides an opportunity for much deeper empathy.
Vladek’s negative traits are often criticized by his family, however, the graphic novel does not exist to humiliate Vladek, rather to provide context as to why he is the way he is. In Chapter six of Book 1, Mara expresses her frustration with aspects Vladek’s character. She argues that his extreme hang ups are not a result of trauma, rather pre-existing flaws with the logic that “[Mara] went through the camps…[and] all [their] friends went through the camps. [Yet] Nobody is like him”. On closer analysis, the subject of Mara’s grievances are the consequences of how the Holocaust warped, not altered, Vladek’s personality. Many examples throughout The Complete Maus demonstrate how many of Vladek’s positive qualities are exaggerated to a point where they become irritating and difficult to live with. Vladek is characterised as cheap, however, Art describes him as pragmatic and resourceful. Vladek tells Art that “ever since Hitler, [he] [does not] like to throw out even a crumb.” This simple line of dialogue directly provides context into Vladek’s neurotic behaviours. By explaining Vladek’s problematic quirks in this way Spiegelman provides basis for forgiveness of Vladek’s actions and behaviours, thereby displaying empathy for his father’s situation.
Despite Spiegelman’s desire to remain unbiased in his representation of his father, it could be argued that Art’s turbulent relationship with Vladek still contributed to his portrayal in the graphic novel. In ‘Prisoner on the Hell Planet’ the visuals depicted in the comic show the emotional disconnect between father and son. On panel seven, page 103, Art is illustrated as visibly bigger than his father. When Anja takes her life, much of the fall out is Vladek coming to pieces while Art is “expected to comfort him.” This causes Art to feel abandoned by his father. Throughout the novel, there are many incidences where Vladek is insensitive to Art’s feeling and concerns and unintentionally makes situations about himself, leaving Art to cope in isolation with the responsibility of excusing Vladek’s behaviour. Art frequently recounts “arguing with [Vladek]…and being told that [he] [could not] do anything as well as he could.” These kinds of dynamics within families build resentment. As a consequence of this resentment, Spiegelman’s portrayal of Vladek is inevitably biased. Because Spiegelman is partial against his father as a result of neglect and gaslighting, his documentation of Vladek’s story is not consistently sympathetic.
Although Vladek’s unfavourable qualities are denounced in The Complete Maus, the graphic novel is ultimately a sensitive and thoughtful representation of his survival during the Second World War. The unorthodox ways empathy is depicted in the novel and the way flaws are embraced as part of Vladek’s story makes Maus unique in the way it relates to the lives of people who did not suffer through the Holocaust. However, Art’s existing resentment towards his father results in Vladek being portrayed negatively at times. At its core, The Complete Maus allows the reader to sympathise with Vladek despite his difficult personality and evokes a deeper sense of empathy for the many people that experienced the horrific part of history that was the Holocaust.
Written by Babette Ben-Meir, Year 9.