Through the use of modulating points of view, Art Spiegelman pieces several stories into one in order to portray his father Vladek’s Holocaust story as well as his experiences with Vladek as he wrote the book. The conflict between Art and his father is one major theme of Maus which may be analyzed in terms of Vladek’s belittlement of Art, Vladek’s dissatisfaction with Art’s occupation, and Vladek’s frugality.
In the first several pages of the graphic memoir, Art presents a comic which, from the start, demonstrates a tension in the paternal bond between his father and himself. When young Art’s skate breaks and his friends abandon him, he walks sullenly to where his father is working in the garage, seeking paternal love. When Art tells his father about his friends skating off without him, his father replies, “Friends? Your friends?… If you lock them together in a room with no food for a week… Then you could see what it is, friends!” (6). While it is true that compared with the vast atrocities Vladek has experienced Art’s problem is of minor consequence, his reaction is not suited well as a response to a young child’s plea for help. The belittlement Art felt on that occasion lasted beyond his early childhood into adulthood. When Vladek upsets a bottle of pills during one of many interviews with his son, he blames it on Art. Art is obviously frustrated by this but he offers to help pick up and recount the scattered pills. At this Vladek says, “You don’t know counting pills” (30). It seems that Vladek trusts only himself to care for himself. While this is unfortunate, it is nonetheless sensible because during the most trying time of his life he could count only on himself for survival. As he told Art, “It was everybody to take care of himself!” (114). Janina, Vladek’s first son’s governess, had always offered to help the endangered Spiegelmans. However, even she abandoned them as she found her own life put in harm’s way by their presence on her doorstep . Because he is accustomed to doing things in his own way, Vladek sees only fault and immaturity in his son’s actions. From being forced to finish everything on his plate to being upbraided for dropping cigarette ashes on the carpet, Art’s father constantly treats him as a child.
Unfortunately for Art, Vladek’s dissatisfaction with him extends also to his chosen occupation. Art tells Mala, “He never reads comics… He doesn’t even look at my work when I stick it under his nose” (104). A slightly more humorous example of his lack of understanding of Art’s career occurs when he identifies him with Walt Disney, a well-known child’s cartoonist. To identify the writer of Maus, a deep and moving piece of scholarly literature, with Walt Disney, the artist behind countless low-brow cartoons, is laughable but also unfortunate if the association is made by the author’s father. The conditions causing Vladek’s lack of appreciation for comics is brought to light when he tells Art, “Better you should spend your time to make drawings what will bring you some money” (12). It may be true that, prior to the publication of Maus, Art did not make as much money as his father would have liked. However, making comics is what satisfied him so it is what he did. Having been born during the baby boom, Art is associated with a group of people that grew up in relative economic comfort and rebelled against the practical ways of its parents. The parents of the baby boom, survivors of the worldwide depression preceding the war as well as the war itself, saw more value in money and a pragmatic way of life. Thus it is not only Vladek and Art that lived in both separate worlds and the same house; instead, it must be considered a widespread phenomenon.
Vladek’s appreciation for money can be further explained by his war-time experiences. Money and its clever usage is what allowed Vladek to survive the war. Throughout the story one sees a constant recurrence of financial concerns and it seems as if all other matters fade when it comes to surviving a greedy enemy. In order to be bailed out of prison he has to “make signs to show [he can] pay” (114). Valuables are traded throughout his experience in exchange for food, a hiding place, or a way out of arrest. On one occasion his black market business associate and Polish hiding place hostess Mrs. Motonowa claims to have no bread when Vladek cannot put enough money together to buy any. Despite a long history of good credit, Mrs. Motonowa refuses his credit because money is more important than friends. Vladek is not offended by this because he understands the nature of the time. The temporary role reversal of friends and money is permanent for Vladek, as evidenced by his second wife’s exclamation, “He’s more attached to things than to people!” (93). When Art pays seventy-five dollars for a tape recorder he is criticized for spending forty more than he should have (73). This annoys Art, as does the collection his father keeps of every material belonging he has ever acquired. An interesting example of this takes place when he picks up a piece of telephone wire from the road and keeps it because of its potential good use (116). This habit, while strange to all but the most neurotic of individuals, serves Vladek well during the war as we find that he has kept valuables such as a fourteen karat cigarette case and a similar lady’s powder case in a safe box at the bank since shortly after the war. He attempts to place these items in Art’s care in order to keep them away from his wife, Mala, of whom he is suspicious. His suspicion, like his frugality, was warranted during the Holocaust. As he tells Art there was “no such thing as families” during the time because, if it meant survival, one would not hesitate to steal from or sell out his closest relatives (114). Vladek became caught up in this value system not because of immorality, but because of survival. This cannot be deemed immoral because it is a basic human instinct that drives him to the placement of material possessions above his family.
The persona of Vladek is a complex one. When one sees his poor parenting of Art it causes the reader to dislike him, but after realizing what he goes through in his time it becomes apparent that all of his negative words and actions are easily explained. He is merely a product of his environment and, unfortunately, the individualistic determination, pragmatism, and frugality that saves his life in the 40s makes it difficult to have a satisfactory relationship with his son in the 70s.