In Spiegelman's Maus, how does death inevitably affect Vladek's relationships throughout the years?  

Expert Answers
tinicraw eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Many people who survive traumatizing events that involve death wind up experiencing survivor's guilt. Not only does everyone closest to Vladek die, but six million of his brothers and sisters die while he is lucky enough to survive. This knowledge holds Vladek back from truly moving forward in life because he clings to old habits that he needed from during the war to survive. It's as if Vladek is always in survival mode rather than focusing on the people around him who could bring joy to his life. In chapter two of the second part of Maus, Artie is talking with the therapist about his father. Artie complains of his father's behaviors which caused many people to become frustrated with him during his life. The therapist says something that makes Artie think of his father in a more profound light:

"Maybe your father needed to show that he was always right--that he could always survive--because he felt guilty about surviving" (204).

The opposite of survival is death; therefore, Vladek subconsciously needs to maintain his survival behavior in order to justify avoiding death after so many died.

Another example of how death affects Vladek is through the survival skills he acquires during the war. For example, his strong desire to survive leads him to be aware of his surroundings and how to fit in where work was needed. Those who could work, or who had special skills, lived because they showed Poles and Germans their value. After the war, he also used these resourceful skills to get a job in Sweden and eventually to get to America. Vladek's life is all about survival, whether he is in the war, a prison camp, or in America. The fear of death at almost every stage of his life drives him to be continually saving, moving, becoming more so that he can see another day.

Artie sees this growing up, but he doesn't understand his father's behavior because he's never experienced fear of dying every day of his life. For example, when Artie and Vladek are walking to the bank, Vladek finds some telephone wire and picks it up to save for later. This is a habit from Auschwitz because anything saved could probably be used to trade for food or services later. Artie tells his father to throw the wire away and go buy what he needs, Vladek's reply is as follows:

"Why always you want to buy when you can find!? Anyway, this wire they don't have it in any stores" (118).

Whether its matches or wire, old cereal or bread, if something isn't useful to him, he trades it away. Anything Vladek has is either used to help him in some way or to save money--or he trades it away for something that does. This behavior drives his son and second wife crazy, but they don't understand that he is just doing the only thing he knows how to do, and that is to survive in his own way. It got him through the war, why not do what seems to work? Vladek just never comes to grip that once in America, the war is over, Hitler is gone, and he doesn't just have to survive each day; he can finally live.

Vladek never seems to grasp the concept that he is completely free from the threat of death. As a result, his second wife leaves him, his son doesn't want to take care of him, and he never truly moves on to create better relationships in his life. In fact, he pushes people away unknowingly. Therefore, death affects Vladek's life because of the survivor's guilt and behaviors that he carries with him after the war.