In addition to being a narrative of war and survival, Maus is, in large part, a chronicle of Artie’s efforts to understand his father despite the fractured bonds between them. Their difficult relationship bears marks of tragedies that have shaped them — the devastation wrought by the Holocaust, and the trauma of Anja’s suicide — but their troubles are also a product of their basic human shortcomings, their native selfishness and neuroticism. Artie strives to be as honest as possible about his relationship with Vladek, and about his father’s many shortcomings. He knows that Vladek, for all the strength, resourcefulness, and courage he displayed during the war, is not an uncomplicated hero, and that it would be misleading to depict him as such — especially given his own lingering feelings of resentment toward Vladek, which an unambiguously positive portrait would disguise.
Though the most difficult aspects of this relationship never resolve themselves entirely — in the second volume of Maus, written after Vladek dies from congestive heart failure, Artie confesses that “[m]y father’s ghost still hangs over me” — Artie’s interviews with Vladek help bring to light the deep love at the center of all their family’s troubles. Vladek showers Artie with warmth and affection, even as he stifles him with unsolicited advice and manipulative demands for attention. He expresses unwavering love for Anja, and on multiple occasions insists that their love for each other gave them strength to survive the most difficult moments of the war.
Artie gains some deeper understanding of his father through their interviews, but the loss of his mother’s diaries means that he cannot use the book to explore or resolve the deeply conflicted feelings he feels toward her. In his comic “Prisoner on the Hell Planet” — which Mala, and later Vladek, finds and reads — Artie describes the overwhelming mix of anger and guilt that possessed him after his mother’s suicide: he knows that friends and neighbors blame him for Anja’s death, and admits that he has turned his back on his mother in moments when she desperately needed to feel loved, but nevertheless feels that Anja is the one who has “murdered” him, turning his life upside down and trapping him in a prison of guilt. His inability to sort through these conflicted feelings in the same way he examines his difficult relationship with Vladek leaves Artie in a state of unresolved tension, even after hundreds of pages and panels.
The final image in the book, of the gravestone that bears both Vladek and Anja’s names, suggests Artie has relinquished his anger and is ready to let his parents’ memories rest peacefully. Though his story does not have a neat or satisfying ending, Artie must release his pain before he can finish his work and move forward with his life. Yet it’s important to note that his gesture of love and forgiveness does not completely heal Artie’s suffering, or that of his parents. A difficult story like theirs cannot be redeemed easily, and given the scope and magnitude of the disasters that shaped them, may not be redeemable at all. To carry on in the face of all that has happened, Artie must settle for “good-enough” resolutions and learn to live with pain and uneasiness where he cannot overcome it.
Guilt, Anger, and Redemption ThemeTracker
Guilt, Anger, and Redemption Quotes in Maus
Ilzecki and his wife didn’t come out from the war. But his son remained alive; ours did not.
He wants me to go help him fix his roof or something. Shit! Even as a kid I hated helping him around the house. He loved showing off how handy he was … and proving that anything I did was all wrong. He made me completely neurotic about fixing stuff. I mean, I didn’t even own a hammer until we moved into this place! One reason I became an artist was that he thought it was impractical — just a waste of time … it was an area where I wouldn’t have to compete with him.
In 1968 my mother killed herself … she left no note!
Well, Mom, if you’re listening … Congratulations! … You’ve committed the perfect crime … You put me here … shorted all my circuits … cut my nerve endings … and crossed my wires! … You murdered me, Mommy, and you left me here to take the rap!!!
Mala: Pragmatic? Cheap!! It causes him physical pain to part with even a nickel!
Artie: Uh-huh. I used to think the war made him that way.
Mala: Fah! I went through the camps … All our friends went through the camps. Nobody is like him!
Artie: Mm … It’s something that worries me about the book I’m doing about him … In some ways he’s just like the racist caricature of the miserly old Jew.
Vladek: These notebooks, and other really nice things of mother … one time I had a very bad day … and all of these things I destroyed.
Artie: You what?
Vladek: After Anja died I had to make an order with everything … These papers had too many memories, so I burned them.
I never felt guilty about Richieu. But I did have nightmares about S.S. men coming into my class and dragging all us Jewish kids away. Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t obsessed with this stuff … It’s just that sometimes I’d fantasize Zyklon B coming out of our shower instead of water. I know this is insane, but I somehow wish I had been in Auschwitz with my parents so I could really know what they lived through! … I guess it’s some kind of guilt about having had an easier life than they did.