Pascal Gunsch

WT2 Maus


Prescribed question:
How could the text be read and interpreted differently by two different readers?

Title of the text for analysis:
Maus by Art Spiegelberg

Part of the course to which the task refers:
Part 1: Language in cultural context

My critical response will:
– Explain the chosen fragment and themes
– Explain the context in which it was written, i.e. audience and purpose
– Look at the fragment of the book from a modern American citizen’s perspective
– Look at the fragment of the book from a Jewish Holocaust survivor’s perspective

Written task

How could the text be read and interpreted differently by two different readers?

One of the main aspects of reading literature is interpretation by the reader. The way the reader interprets a story depends on their past experiences and their set of beliefs. This is also true for the book Maus, written by Art Spiegelman. In Maus, two different storylines are told next to each other. One focusses on the personal history of Art’s father Vladek. He describes Vladek’s life living as a Jew living in Poland during the rise of Nazism, and his struggle to survive the Holocaust. The second storyline is centred on Art himself. During the book, he discovers the story of his father and the rest of his family through different interviews.

While reading the book, it becomes evident that the relationship between Art and his father is not well established. Art blames this on the difference in experiences and beliefs of both himself, as an American citizen, and his father, as a Jewish Holocaust survivor. The same probably accounts to the readers. In this essay I outline some passages from the book and explain how the use of language and the context may cause different interpretations by two readers: a modern American citizen (like Art) and a Jewish Holocaust survivor (like Vladek).

One of the main differences between the two readers are their religious backgrounds. This difference can be well exemplified on page 59. Vladek is kept as a prisoner of war and has to do very hard and exhausting work for the Germans. One day, he dreamed of his dead grandfather. In his dream, his grandfather tells him that he will be liberated on the day of Parshas Truma. In Judaism, Parshas Truma is a specific day associated with a certain prayer. In this passage, Vladek’s grandfather is shown while wearing various religious Jewish objects, including a kippah and tefillin.

For a Jewish Holocaust survivor, a scene like this may mean a lot. The depiction of the religious symbols cause identification and add to the credibility of the story. Based on their belief, they probably value this dream a lot, just like Vladek does. For him, the dream of the Parshas Truma is not only of personal importance but also of religious importance. For a modern American citizen, on the other hand, it is a different story. They will just think that it’s a dream with a good prediction. For them, the religious connotation will not be so evident. Though the Parshas Truma is explained in the passage, the significance of the kippah and the tefillin is not. This will make it difficult for them to understand.

In the book, it is also emphasised that Vladek has difficulties with throwing away food or paying others for jobs. According to Art, this is due to his father’s stay in the camps. For example on page 133, in a discussion with Mala, this aspect is shown. Mala is Vladek’s new wife, after his previous one, Art’s mother, had committed suicide. Art tells her: ‘I used to think the war made him that way…’ In the following discussion, they discover that Vladek behaves like the typical Jewish stereotype of the miserable old Jew.

For a modern American citizen, this scene may be of great importance. It explains the behaviour of Vladek in terms of his background. In the discussion they will probably favour Art, since they can easily associate with him. Arts beliefs are mostly confirmed by Mala which makes it very believable for the reader. A Jewish Holocaust survivor, however, may find this passage inappropriate or even offensive. They would know what the Holocaust was like and though Mala also lived at that time, her point of view is very different from Vladek’s. They might think that Art has not though of this very well and doesn’t respect the behaviour of his father. Still, because the discussion is worked out, they will probably understand a little about where Art’s ideas originated from.

A third important aspect of Maus as a graphic novel are the images that are being used. These images add a great deal to the understanding of the story, since the only texts in the book are dialogues and an occasional diagram explaining something. The reader therefore depends on the images for their interpretation. On page 206, Art says that: ‘Some part of me doesn’t want to draw or think about Auschwitz.’ Next, he says that even if he wants, he wouldn’t know because he wasn’t there.

This is a very important difference. For a modern American citizen it is very difficult to imagine what the Holocaust was like. He can try to imagine life in camps like Auschwitz but he can never feel the same physical and emotional pain as the people described in the book must have felt. The use of animal heads rather than humans also adds to this. This may also make the book look offensive towards Holocaust survivors. Though many terrible things that have taken place are told, they either are drawn indirectly or only mentioned in dialogue. This way, the writer tried to avoid these scenes and the difficulty of drawing them. Jewish Holocausts survivors will probably sympathise with this decision.

Maus has been written from two different perspectives, and it can also be interpreted from the perspective of these two readers. Though there may occur some differences on a more detailed level, for example concerning the depiction of the Holocaust or aspects of the Jewish religion, in the end, the overall perception of the novel will be similar for both groups.

Total word count written task: 921 words

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