Posted in Reading, Teaching, Writing

ENG 111: Maus under the Microscope

Spiegelman, Art. Maus I. Pantheon, 1986. p. 66.

In the first weeks of the course, we studied Maus as a model for your literacy narratives. Now, as we turn to more formal academic writing, we will examine Art Spiegelman’s memoir as the subject for your second essay assignment, the textual analysis.

Analysis

Unlike a narrative, an analysis has an explicit thesis, which often—but not always—appears at the end of the first paragraph. A thesis is not a statement of fact; instead, it’s an interpretation or judgment* based on a close examination of the subject—in our case, Maus.

*Making a judgment is not the same as being judgmental. When you make a judgment in academic writing, you present an informed opinion based on evidence. When people say, “I’m not judging,” they are making the claim that they are not judgmental or intensely critical of others.

Statement of fact: The epigraph for Maus shows the young Art Spiegelman and his father talking but not truly communicating with each other.

Spiegelman, Art. Maus I. Pantheon. p. 6.

Thesis (which presents an interpretation or judgment): The cutting remark that Spiegelman’s father makes as he saws wood illustrates the communication breakdown between him and Artie; Spiegelman’s deft depiction of that gulf foreshadows the trials he will encounter: struggling to understand his father and himself as he aims to make meaning of their lives through his comics.

Notice how the thesis above addresses what Vladek Spiegelman says and also lets the reader see him sawing wood. Keep in mind that Maus is a graphic memoir. In your analysis, you will address both the pictures and the words on the page.

Where to Begin

Look back through the pages of your journal and note what aspect of Spiegelman’s memoir interests you most? Here are a few that might serve as your focus:

  • Vladek and Art Spiegelman’s father-son relationship
  • Maus as a dual memoir
  • Maus as a meta-memoir
  • The Nazi persecution of the Jews (leading up to the Holocaust, depicted in Maus II)
  • Anja Spiegelman’s depression
  • Anja’s diary

My journal for English 111 is a dual-entry notebook. I draw a line down the middle of each page to separate my summaries of the chapters (on the right) from my questions and comments (on the left). For more on keeping a double-entry notebook, see A Writer’s Reference, page 59.

Turn back to the pages of Maus devoted to the parts of the story that interest you most. Ask yourself how Spiegelman makes meaning with both his images and his words. Your answer to a how question about those words and pictures could serve as your thesis.

Questions to Ask of the Words

  • Are the words in the panel dialogue, narration, or both? (Dialogue is presented in speech balloons; narration or summary is presented in rectangles.)
  • If the panel includes dialogue, what does the exchange between the characters reveal about their relationship? Do the words of the second speaker propel the narrative forward or disrupt it?
  • Are any words enlarged or in boldface for emphasis?

Questions to Ask of the Pictures–the Panels, Tiers, and Pages

  • Is the image in the panel a close-up or a long shot?
  • Are the panels and the tiers on the page roughly the same size? If not, why might Spiegelman have chosen one in particular to dominate the page?
  • Are any of the panels borderless?
  • Do any of the panels break the frame and spill into the gutter (the white space between the frames)?
  • Are any of the panels oblique or slanted?
  • How do these visual effects contribute to your perception of the story? For example: What mood or atmosphere does Spiegelman create through his combination of black and white, lines, and silhouettes? How does the size of a panel or a series of panels convey the passage of time?

Look back at the panels from Maus at the top of this post. There Art Spiegelman presents the scene of Vladek’s surprise return to his family after he sneaks across the border from the Protectorate to the Reich. A narrow vertical panel shows him in his uniform holding aloft his son, Richieu, who responds to his father’s embrace with screams. Beside the vertical panel, two horizontal ones–close-ups of father and son–depict Vladek questioning his son and toddler’s tearful response. Richieu explains that it was the metal buttons on his father’s uniform that made him cry. In Richieu’s words, “Daddy–they’re cold!” (66).

Note how with minor changes, the preceding paragraph could serve as an opening-paragraph summary that leads to a thesis. Here’s a slightly altered version of the summary, followed by a claim, or thesis, about the panels.

In Chapter 3 of Maus, Art Spiegelman presents the scene of Vladek’s surprise return to his family after he sneaks across the border from the Protectorate to the Reich. A narrow vertical panel shows him in his uniform holding aloft his son, Richieu, who responds to his father’s embrace with screams. Beside the vertical panel, two horizontal ones–close-ups of father and son–depict Vladek questioning his son and the toddler’s tearful reply. Richieu explains that it was the metal buttons on his father’s uniform that made him cry. In Richieu’s words, “Daddy–they’re cold!” (66). That brief exchange between father and son exemplifies Spiegelman’s masterful rendering of the pain that underlies the moments of happiness in the narrative.

Although Richieu has no knowledge of the horrors of war that his father has endured, the uniform that symbolizes the war is a literal source of pain for the child when its cold metal buttons press against his body.

The passage above–the introductory summary, the thesis, and the topic sentence for the second paragraph–constitutes 155 words, which could be the first 155 words of a textual analysis of Maus. The analysis could be developed into one of five-hundred words or more by addressing these points:

  • The juxtaposition of happiness and sorrow in the words and images in the panels.
  • The specific horrors of war that Vladek’s uniform represents. 
  • Richieu’s screams as foreshadowing.

For more on writing analytical essays, see A Writer’s Reference, 69-78.