Guilt in Maus

Guiltin Maus

Maus, a book by Art Spiegelman addresses the theme of guilt attwo levels, a personal level and a collective level. During theholocaust, many survivors found themselves blaming self over thedeath of their family members and close friends. The parents’ guiltarises from their inability to protect their children sufficiently,while the children’s guilt was not being in a position to sharetheir parents’ troubles. The author raises the question as towhether people felt the effects of the holocaust even after the waror not. In the novel, Spiegelman presents guilt in a number of ways,mainly through personal conversation. There is an instance where Artreflects on the death of Vladek, and how he later went on to publishMaus. The success of Maus on foreign media troubledhim, as he did not want the book to be turned into a televisionspecial or movie as requested. Earlier, his mother had committedsuicide without leaving a note, triggering a series of feelings ofguilt, which haunted and depressed him. As such, the paper offers adiscourse on the theme of family guilt, guilt of success as well assurvivor guilt, and the way they relate to each other.

Guilt over notbeing a good son

The feeling of guilt, because of not being a good son, is perhaps thesimplest form of guilt in the novel. At the beginning of the novel,Art demonstrates that he and his father had not been in terms.Despite the fact that they used to live close by, the two did notoften see each other. This was a serious implication of lack offamily unity, given that this was a time of intense atmosphere inEurope. There reaches a point where serious arguments broke outbetween the two, for instance, the time when Art dropped cigaretteleft overs on the carpet. In another instance, his father asked himto help with some jobs, but he blatantly refused to cooperate. Thesefeelings of guilt consume him over time, up to a point he personallywent to ask is father if he would need him to help around the house.

The situationbetween Art and his father takes the center-stage of the novel. Oneof the explanations of the sour relationship between the two is thatthey could not express affection to each other because of theunhealthy family atmosphere that existed. Art’s family was full ofsecrecy, riddled by taboos and could not come together and shareabout their experiences. It is understandable that Art did not quitego along well with the taboo that father and son should not argue. Hehad some sense of pride, and felt that not being able to express hisinner feelings, even to his father, was undermining him. The two didnot have total hatred for each other, as there were times they couldspeak about without problems. Nevertheless, what fueled the hatredbetween Art and his father was that the father burnt Anja’s diariesto erase her memories (Heer and Worcester 343). This was not the onlyinstance, which fueled the hate between father and son. Many times,Vladek failed to change to the adjusted environment after theholocaust, and only tried to save his money by being a miser. Thiswas what made his son label him “unbearable, cheap andever-complaining”. Vladeck’s compulsive behavior and unorthodoxmannerism were the main reasons why his son was always angry towardshim. However, as Art began to understand that his father’s erraticbehavior was because of the holocaust, he began to feel guilty overhis cold relationship with him. This relates to the general feelingof guilt by the children of the holocaust, who felt that they did notshare their parent’s troubles during the times of the holocaust.

Guilt overdeath of mother

As the plot develops, Art begins feeling guilty over the death of hismother. In the night of May 1968, his mother committed suicide (Heerand Worcester 346). After the holocaust, his mother became dependenton Vladek and her son for all emotional support. Anja had lostRichieu, Vladek and her first son, and turned to Art to support heremotionally. However, on his part, Art felt that his mother wasbecoming too emotionally dependent on him. Little did he know thatthis was slowly eating into her emotional makeup, and that she wasfeeling that there was no need to live anymore. The traumaticemotional impact that Anja’s death had on Art is demonstrated inthe 1974 publication “obscure underground comic”. At thistime, Art was only approaching his 20s. He went on to have an almostunbearable sense of guilt.

If there was amemory that fired up the feeling of guilt in Art over the death ofhis mother, is when she asked him whether she still loved her. Artwent on to give a simple and dismissive “sure”. This made himblame himself for his mother’s total emotional breakdown thatculminated in suicide. He is quoted saying “congratulations…youhave committed the perfect crime, you put me here, shorted all mycircuits, cut my nerve endings, and crossed my wires, you murdered memommy, you left me here to take the rap” (Levine 38). This quote isperhaps a defense mechanism of trying to fight the guilt that waseating through him, by attempting to place the blame on his mother.He depicts himself as a prisoner who has been jailed for eternity forcontributing to the death of his mother. The guilt is so much that hetries to blame his mother for the emotional tribulations he is goingthrough after her death. Nevertheless, in the real sense, Art istrying to take blame for everything, whilst regretting not being ableto give her the only thing she ever wanted from him, emotionalsupport.

Guilt overpublication of book

The first volume of Maus was published in 1986. This was fouryears after the death of Vladimir. After its publication, many mediahouses came forward and requested Art to make it a movie ortelevision program. The success of the book was huge. However, itaroused a feeling of guilt in Art. By saying that his father’sghost hang over him, some people felt that Art was feeling guilty ofthe negative way he portrayed his father in the book. Other peopleclose to him, such as Pavel, felt that the same guilt of the childrenof the holocaust was in Art, the guilt of survival (Heer andWorcester 359). The growing success of the book increased the feelingof guilt in Art, and he begun to question whether publishing it inthe first place was a good idea.

The book at times reminded him of the way he used to treat hisfather, and the general negative attitude he had towards him. Healways felt that it was wrong to treat his father in such a demeaningmanner, and worse, going ahead to publicize their failedrelationship. There is a moment where Vladek told his son not towrite about the conversations they had, because he felt that theywere too personal and it would be best if they kept them private.Despite this plea from his depressed father, he went ahead to publishthe book, and even included the very aspects that he had beenrequested to keep secret. Spielberg uses this event to show that Artwas always feeling guilty of disrespecting his father during themoments of his life, and even now in death.

Meaning of“survivor” and its factoring into father and son

The meaning of “survivor” in this novel has thematic complexity.This kind of guilt is manifested in the relationship between Vladek,the father, and Art, the son, because of the holocaust. The plot ofthe novel develops through the past and the present. The lives of thechildren who survived the holocaust were a reflection of the guiltthat developed in them. Despite the fact that Art was not born in theperiod of the holocaust, his parents survived the ordeal, and livedthe rest of their lives reflecting on the effects of the events.There is a connection between art and his parents, more so hisfather, at the early stages of the novel. He says

Somehow, I wish I had been in Auschwitz with my parents for I couldreally know what they lived through! I guess it is some form of guiltabout having had an easier life than they did (Simon, Rosenberg andEppert 111).

At the same time,his father is suffering from the guilt of having survived theholocaust. It compels Art to visit his psychiatrist, who explains tohim that there is a connection between the guilt he feels and thatwhich his father felt. It is then that Art understands that hisfather’s guilt is grew out of the uncomfortable feeling of havingsurvived the holocaust, while many of his friends did not. As aresult, he decided to take his guilt out on Art, who, according tohim, was a survivor. This is the connection between the father’sguilt and the son’s guilt.


The novel Maus uses the theme of guilt to explain the eventsand results of the holocaust. It uses individual experiences,thoughts and actions to show how those who were directly orindirectly affected by the holocaust lived. The theme of guilt isexplained by the survivors’ children experience of self-blame, overnot sharing the experiences of their parents during the holocaust.Art’s three feelings of guilt are all connected in the manner,which he related with his parents, how their family failed tofunction as a unit and how trauma affected all of them, albeit indifferent ways. Survival, which is one of the strongest motivationfor Jews who survived the holocaust, has been twisted to be a sourceof regret and blame. Art’s father’s struggle to survive theholocaust and life after it, Anja’s plead to have family affectionand Art’s own struggle to beat past memories are all paradigms ofsurvival and manifestations of guilt after the holocaust.

Works Cited

Heer, Jeet., and Kent Worcester. A Comic Studies Reader.Jackson,MS: University Press of Mississipi. 2009. Print.

Levine, Michael, G. The Belated witness: Literature, Testimony,and the Question of Holocaust Survival. Stanford, CA: StanfordUniversity Press. 2006. Print.

Simon, Rodger, I., Sharon Rosenberg and Claudia Eppert.BetweenHope d Despair: Pedagogy and the Rememberance of Historical Trauma.Lanham,MA: Rownman &amp Littlefield. 2000. Print.