It is 1958. Arthur Spiegelman, narrating from a distance of decades, remembers an incident from his childhood. He is ten or eleven years old, roller skating with two of his friends through Rego Park, their neighborhood in Queens, New York. All three boys have mouse heads on their human bodies, indicating that they are all Jewish. Artie’s skate comes suddenly loose, and he falls. He shouts to his friends to wait for him, but the boys only laugh at his fall and skate on.
The fact that Artie separates this memory for the rest of the story, and that the childhood scene appears at all in a book that focuses almost exclusively on his adult life, suggests that this experience was extremely important to him. Though the scene of children roller skating seems innocuous, the sequence feels tense and significant.
Sniffling, Artie returns home. In the front yard of his family’s house, his father, Vladek Spiegelman, works at a wood bench. Vladek also has the head of a mouse, and he speaks in broken English that suggests he is an immigrant. He tells Artie to come over and hold a piece of wood for him while he saws. As he works, Artie continues to sniffle. Vladek asks the reason for his crying.
Vladek appears in this scene to be a pragmatic, unsentimental man. He occupies himself with practical, unpretentious manual labor and manages his young son’s emotions without showing much emotion of his own.
When Artie explains that his friends skated on without him after he fell, Vladek stops sawing and looks, somewhat incredulously, at his son. Artie should lock his “friends” together in a room with no food for a week, Vladek tells him – after starving for a while, Artie would understand what “friends” really are.
The lesson implied by Vladek’s comment – that friends will turn on each other as soon as times get hard – is a harsh one to teach a young child, as well as a very pessimistic view of life and human nature. It is clear that Vladek has been hardened by his experiences, and that those experiences have impacted his parenting.