The Familiar and Maus – Cats

Art Spiegelman’s Maus is a graphic novel outlining his father’s experience as a Jew during the terror of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. One of the major functioning tools is the use of animals instead of nationalities. The Jews are represented by mice, but the Germans are represented as cats. On an obvious layer, Spiegelman uses the classic cat vs. mouse chase. Vladek, Art’s father, describes his fear of the Germans and their hatred of Jews saying, “International laws protected us a little as Polish war prisoners. But a Jew of the Reich, anyone could kill in the streets” (Spiegelman 63). Valued considered himself safer as a war prisoner than as being a free Jew because of the German’s hatred of the Jews. Their representation goes beyond a cutesy Tom and Jerry cartoon and attacks the core of human nature and compassion. What the Germans were doing was killing like wild animals do, randomly and without thought. Perhaps, on the deeper level, Spiegelman chose cats because cats are the only domesticated animals that frequently kill their prey for fun and toy with them, emphasizing the meaninglessness of the German’s killings as well.

Antithetically, the cat in The Familiar is actual what brings peace to Xanther’s life. It is what makes everything “answerable” for the girl who gets stuck in her questions (Danielewski 839). The cat is a source of empowerment for Jingling’s aunt, and when she is passed on, she empowers Xanther, too (though, not in the same mystic way). Unlike Spiegelman’s Maus, the emphasis of the cat in this novel seems to be its mysterious nature instead of its violent nature. It is also mysterious as it is able to attract Xanther, half blind, running through a downpour, towards itself. This ability paired with the healing that occurs once back in the car gives even more complexity to the mysterious nature of the cat. Danielewski is playing on his theme of the number 9 with the cat, which, according to legend, has nine lives. He does an interesting thing by bringing in a creature with so much legend surrounding it, thus engaging readers instead of repulsing them.

The contrast between the mysterious, peace-bringing cat in The Familiar and the violent, malicious cats in Maus highlights how two wildly different uses of the same commonly used character. In literature and pop culture, there are often evil cats, but almost as often cats function as warm comforters. Perhaps these two novels simple present a well-balanced contrast between the most common depictions of the animal.

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