Maus Story Structure
The majority of Maus documents Vladek’s inspiring experiences in the Holocaust, but at the heart of the story, the spine of it all, is the struggling relationship between a father and son.
Spoiler Warning! Below is the plot structure of Maus using Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet as the basis for the breakdown (see my review of Blake Snyder’s book Save the Cat, an excellent storytelling resource). For an explanation of each “beat” please refer to Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet. Thanks!
PREMISE: Maus is a tragic love story about Art, a New York cartoonist, who tries to have a relationship with his father, Vladek, by documenting his experiences during the Holocaust.
Opening Image: Maus begins with a prologue about friends. Art, as a little boy, has been deserted by his pals and Vladek scoffs at him for calling them “friends”. This story is about what it means to be friends (love).
Set Up: Many years later, Art visits his father. We learn that they aren’t very close, Vladek has had heart trouble after his wife’s suicide and he doesn’t get along with his new wife, Mala. The two men sit together and Art expresses his desire to document his father’s Holocaust experiences.
Catalyst: Vladek begins his story with how he met his wife, Anja.
Theme Stated: But once his first story is done, he tells Art not to use it; it would be improper. Art objects saying the story makes his experiences more real, more human. Art wants to see his father’s humanity. (We will learn later that Art and Vladek have always been in competition with one another and Vladek always wins. It’s as though Art is perpetually the flawed child and Vladek is the perfect superhuman adult. Through this project, Art hopes to see his father not as a superhuman but as a person, and perhaps, be validated by him.)
Debate: But can these two men be friends? As Art and Vladek regularly meet to document the stories (Art’s older brother, Richieu, and Vladek’s time as a P.O.W.), they have opportunities to get closer, but Art is more interested in the project than hearing about Vladek’s health and marital complaints, and Vladek continues to be critical while making decisions for his adult son without consulting him — Vladek throws away Art’s coat and doesn’t listen when Art protests.
Choosing Act Two: Vladek’s critiques and expectations are building. Vladek assumes Art will help him around the house and they argue about money – Vladek is very cheap. Art chooses to ignore their growing conflicts by redirecting their conversations toward the project; it has become a crutch for their relationship. Art is even more dedicated to the project when Vladek mentions Anja’s diaries. Art must have them but Vladek changes the subject.
B-Story: Later, after Vladek has told Art about being a black market businessman under the Nazi regime, and the first round of selections, Art spends some time with Mala while searching for the diaries. He doesn’t find them in Vladek’s massive collection of random old calendars and hotel stationeries, etc. Mala says that Vladek is more attached to things than people (Theme). It’s driving Mala crazy!
Fun n’ Games (Promise of the Premise): Art wanted a relationship with his father, he got it. As they continue documenting stories about Vladek’s time in the ghettos, Art has early wake up calls, guilt trips, reminders of their constant competition and also gets sandwiched in between Vladek and Mala about money. Anja’s diaries haven’t been found but Art’s mini-comic about Anja’s suicide has been and it upset Vladek. Mala is nearing her wits end and Art has regrets about portraying his Dad as a Jewish caricature in his comics, but he’s realizing that’s just who his father is (Art’s perception of his superhuman father is beginning to crumble)!
Mid-point: The first part of Maus ends with Vladek telling Art how he and Anja were sent to Auschwitz and admits that Anja’s diaries are gone; he burned them a long time ago. Furious, Art calls Vladek a murderer. They patch things up, but the damage has been done: Art’s anger lingers and Vladek has revealed a very human flaw.
Bad Guys Close In: Many pressures begin to take their toll on Art. With guilt, doubt and Vladek’s high-maintenance tendencies building, the Holocaust stories are a break from the stress! Art even breaks the fourth wall to flat-out tell the reader about the depression he has found in success, a success built upon the death and pain of the Holocaust and the flaws of his father. He feels small and powerless to the point of regressing to childhood form, living in his father’s shadow – still competing even after his death.
All is Lost (& Whiff of Death): Returning to the original timeline, Vladek tells Art and Art’s wife, Francoise, about life in Auschwitz: the work camps and the gas chambers. Later, Art and Francoise chat on the back porch about what to do with Vladek. Mala has left him, so should he move in with them? Art says, no, they’d go mad (spoken as he kill flies with a spray can, gassing them). Looks like the relationship has stagnated. It’s only a matter of time until it, too, meets it’s end.
Dark Night of the Soul: Guilt trips, returning used food to the grocery store, racism toward blacks, etcetera, Art is fed up with Vladek’s all-too-human behavior. We hear about Vladek’s time in the camps and his release at the end of the war but Art’s visits become less frequent. It isn’t until Vladek presents a box of family photos for Art’s project – not quite his mother’s diaries, but the best he can do – that they share a loving moment (their relationship is troubled, but not all bad).
Choosing Act Three: A few months later, while listening to a recording of Vladek tell about the death of Richieu and debating with Francoise about allowing Vladek to live with them (Art does not want the responsibility), Art receives a phone call from Mala. Vladek is in Florida with her, and he’s sick. Immediately, Art flies out to be with him.
Finale: Art and Mala tend to Vladek’s medical needs and help him move back to New York. Vladek is weak, but able to tell Art about his return to society after the camps. And a few months later, as Vladek grows weaker still, he finishes his story in the way he began it: how he found Anja. He even finishes by saying they lived “happy, happy ever after” – a nice idea, but not quite the truth (Vladek’s superhuman presentation of himself continues).
Final Image: With his story all told and documented, Vladek says to Art, “I’m tired from talking, Richieu. Enough stories for now.” Calling Art by the wrong name – the name of his dead, golden-boy brother – is an ironic and tragic end to their love story. Art wanted to see his father’s humanity and he did. Vladek was not a superhuman, he was just a man which is clear by the final image: his tombstone, next to Anja’s.