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The Swastika in MAUS

The Swastika in MAUS

The image of the swastika pervades Arthur Spiegelman’s graphic novel MAUS. In a work where so much of the Holocaust has been changed in some way – after all, there are no humans in this version, only cats, mice, dogs, and pigs – we must wonder why Spiegelman chooses to retain this well-known emblem. To remove it entirely or replace it with another, invented symbol would completely disorient the reader; but some might claim that this is the effect at which Spiegelman is aiming. I believe it is not. Rather, Spiegelman uses the swastika to subtly remind the reader that while the guise in which events are presented may be somewhat unfamiliar, the novel is still a narrative of the Holocaust.

The swastika, it has been pointed out, has always been a powerful symbol. Before Hitler’s time, it was used across the world, often with the symbolic meaning of the sun, power, life force, or other superlatives – especially as a symbol for the Buddha. The Nazis co-opted this symbol only after much deliberation, and perhaps the Nazi regime never could have come into existence without the use of ideograms such as the swastika. The Nazis perverted this symbol by rotating it into a diagonal position and making it bolder than it traditionally was, therefore giving it more aggressiveness. Given the innate power of this symbol, Spiegelman would be hard-pressed to find an “alternative” for his depiction of the Nazis that could evoke the same response.

The image found on the front cover of the book is clearly a Nazi swastika – the traditional, pre-Nazi swastika uses horizontal and vertical, not diagonal lines. However, to clarify who exactly is being identified with the Nazis, we must look to the stylized, angular cat’s fa…

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…entation of his father’s Holocaust experience, it would be dishonest and unfair to do anything else. But then why is the swastika not only seen in places where it would have historically appeared – on Nazi flags, on the sides of Nazi vehicles – but also as a background image for a particularly gruesome event in the book and as a pattern formed by roads? It seems that this is intended to remind us that this is the Holocaust we are reading about. The blurb on the inside front flap states “Its form, the cartoon… succeeds perfectly in shocking us out of any lingering sense of familiarity with the events described.” But this is not entirely true – by using the swastika, we are reminded that even though the characters are animals, this is still Holocaust history. The familiarity of the swastika still lingers in our minds and colors our perception of the entire story.

Killing as a Moral Barometer in Macbeth

Killing as a Moral Barometer in Macbeth

In William Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, the title character is a killer. Through the course of the play, he kills five different people or groups of people, one in each act. These are, respectively, Macdonwald, Duncan, Banquo, Macduff’s family, and Young Siward. These five killings are different. In the beginning, Macbeth kills for his king. He then suffers a fall from grace before finally becoming a noble figure again in the end. But more interesting than this process is the way in which Shakespeare shows us the changes in Macbeth’s character. Shakespeare uses the killings as a sort of “barometer” to illustrate these changes.

Before the play begins, Macbeth’s Scotland and Norway fight a war. In this war, Macbeth is a hero, admired for his courage and strength:

But all’s too weak;

For brave Macbeth (well he deserves that name)

Disdaining Fortune, with his brandished steel,

Which smoked like bloody execution,

Like valor’s minion, carved out his passage

Till he faced the slave;

Which ne’er shook hands, nor bade farewell to him

Till he unseamed him from the nave to th’ chops

And fixed his head upon our battlements. (Captain, 1.2.17-25)

The killing that the Captain describes here is Macbeth’s most heroic killing. The Captain admires him for his remarkable bravery. The other members of the Scottish court continue in praising him. Macbeth’s motive for killing here is, unlike all his later murders, not a personal reason. It is a selfless, courageous, heroic deed that is thought to be able to save Scotland from utter destruction. Shakespeare uses this killing to introduce the audience to Macbeth. Here, we see Macbeth as a hero. This is possibly the most potent way in which Shakespeare could introduce Macbeth’s heroism to us. What could be more heroic than killing for one’s king?

Similarly, what could be so evil as killing one’s king? Macbeth, thanks to his bravery in the war, is made the Thane of Cawdor, part of a three-part prophecy given him by the Weird Sisters. Macbeth yearns to complete the prophecy and become King. Yet at this point, Macbeth is torn between killing and not killing. He is loyal to Duncan: “He’s here in double trust:/First, as I am his kinsman and his subject,/Strong both against the deed; then, as his host,/Who should against his murderer shut the door,/Not bear the knife myself.

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