The effects of the holocaust in Nazi Germany have been evaluated endlessly by many authors and historians throughout time. Spiegelman’s 1991 graphic novel, MAUS, is yet another account of its brutality. Concisely, Spiegelman describes his father’s story, a Jewish man in WW2, survivor of the holocaust. On page sixty-eight of the novel, on the sixth to last panel, Art Spiegelman provides a window into the behavioral changes of his father post-war, changes that have contributed to his father’s impulsivity and the overall damaged dynamic with his son, Art.
In these four panels there is a state of conflict over Art’s coat; Vladek threw It away without warning. This action catalyzed in Art a sense of overwhelming confusion, distress, disappointment and ultimately anger. His emotional turmoil becomes observable through his reaction, “What?!? You’re kidding” (68). Demonstrating his disbelief toward the senseless and unjustified action taken by his father. Vladek after announcing what he had done so nonchalantly, started heading out of the door. Suddenly he was turned back around by his son’s demand for him to “give it back.” Art wanted his coat back, but Vladek with a shrug explains that it is “too late.” The fact that Vladek was just about to leave, turning his back to Art, and responding to him with a shrug, indicates a lack of remorse or awareness about his impulsive action of throwing away the coat. This behavior is a recurring theme in Vladek’s and Art’s life, which has inevitably damaged the relationship between the two. In fact, the effects of Vladek’s behavior are so strong that the reader can easily observe how Art’s anger and disbelief lingers even after the fact and into the next page.
This impulsivity and unaccountability are a direct result of his psychic wounds; symptoms which are observed in most veterans of war and generally, trauma survivors, who battle their PTSD daily. According to the American Psychological Association, PTSD, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, is a psychiatric disorder that is developed in individuals who have witnessed or gone through intense trauma. Vladek’s experience, like most holocaust survivors was indisputably horrible and therefore, in this way, his behavior can be explained and understood. However, Art on the other hand must live with the toxicity that this condition brings, and that can also be detrimental to Art’s mental health. Hamida Bosmajian, Professor of English at Seattle University makes the observation that story telling is necessary to make order of experience, however, Art will never fully understand the true meaning of what he’s merely imitating through the telling of a tale (30-31). Art, therefore, in his novel, can do an incredible job at describing Vladek, however, he will never understand how Vladek feels and how complex his condition truly is. Seeing how Vladek’s behavior is like that because of trauma, Art in his disappointment can realize the futility of arguing with his father. It is futile because he realizes they’ll never truly understand one another.
To further facilitate this theme of futility, the reader can observe how Mala, a bystander and passive listener in this room, is visibly disappointed with Vladek. The sighs she lets out can be interpreted as both disappointment and exhaustion toward Vladek’s repetitive impulsive actions. Therefore, it is not just Art who is struggling to deal with Vladek, Mala also recognizes the patterns, which she obviously does not know how to handle, or improve in any way. Which is understandable seeing how people continue to struggle with the effective management of mental illness to this day.
In just four panels, and over a coat, Spiegelman can display such contrasting behaviors, strong body language, compelling dialogue, and convey a successful portrait of mental illness as a result of trauma, and how that can affect the relationships in our lives.