Patriarchy in the Relationship of Vladek and Anja in Mouse Trap, a Chapter in the Maus by Art Spiegelman

In Art Spiegelman’s, “Mouse Trap” (an excerpt from Maus), the married characters Vladek and Anja display a patriarchal relationship in which Anja (and later after Anja’s death, Mala) is dominated by her husband Vladek. The two characters, along with many of the supporting characters, demonstrate the qualities, and ideology, of a traditional patriarchy.

Anja, and many of the other female characters, are portrayed as being emotional or irrational, submissive, weak, and stereotypically nurturing (even to children that are not her own). These are all qualities of the “typical” woman in a patriarchal society. Vladek also displays the “typical” male patriarchal qualities in that he is protective, rational, decisive, and “strong”. It is safe to say with all these qualities the two characters (and many of the supporting characters) embody the traits that make up a traditional patriarchal society.

In the very first few pages of Art Spiegelman’s work, “Mouse Trap” (an excerpt from Maus) the reader is introduced to the characters Vladek and Mala (whom is his second wife); this section of the work is set in present day. From the very get go Vladek is shown complaining about his wife, loudly, to his son. The text reads, ” [Vladek speaks] Come. We’ll all of us go to the garden…[Mala speaks] You go I’ve got to get ready…I have an appointment at the hairdresser’s… [Vladek speaks] She sees more often the hairdresser than see sees me!…[Mala speaks] You see how it is? Anytime I want to go out a few minutes he tries to make me feel GUILTY…” (Baym 1059)

Within this text it is obvious that Mala is being shamed for going out and doing something for herself. Mala is being represented here as the “deviant woman”; Josephine Donovan has the following to say about this topic, ” Under the category of the good- woman stereotypes, that is, those who serve the interest of the hero, are the patient wife, the mother/martyr, and the lady. In the bad or evil category are deviants who reject or do not properly serve man or his interest: the old maid/ career woman, the witch/ lesbian, the shrew or domineering mother/ wife. Several works, considered archetypal masterpieces of the Western tradition, rely upon these simplistic stereotypes of woman…” (Newton 214). It is safe to safe that Vladek considered Mala to be a disobedient wife, as well as a domineering one.

The fact that Mala is shown, in the beginning, worrying about her hair so much shows the reader that Mala is the “typical” woman. She is shown conforming to the idea, that to be accepted a woman must “keep up her looks”. At one point Vladek even remarks that Mala had been to the hairdresser the week before. Again, the reader is displayed the same picture of patriarchal femininity. Mala not only conforms to this traditional norm, but also to the norm that she must have a man (Vladek) to be happy.

In the text Mala can clearly be seen as unhappy with her marriage, however she does not leave. Vladek only serves to strengthen this unwillingness to depart; in the text Vladek responds, ” She says she wants to leave me! I tell her: so? Here is the door. But, remember, it’s only one way…If you go out, you can’t come back!” (Baym 1059). In this statement it is clear that Vladek is not only trying to scare Mala, but also assert his dominance over her. He asserts this dominance in the way he takes her concern to heart; he seems to be unfazed by her claims, and tells her, basically, oh well if you leave, there’s the door. Such a statement surely contributes to her false consciousness, and lowers Mala’s self esteem.

False consciousness can be described (from a feminist point-of-view) as the state of a woman who has been mislead by the patriarchy as to the source of her experiences as a woman. So, she think now, well he is the best husband I can’t find another so easily; so I have to stay. Even though Mala should know, as a woman, she is more than capable of finding another suitable (possibly even more so than Vladek) man. This is the false conscious state that she would be in as a result of Vladek’s selfish remarks. Vladek’s statement could be considered his own display of his “typical” patriarchal masculinity.

It is quite ironic that Vladek is playing up this image of, may the “proud man”, when in reality his statements are childish and self-centered. Vladek should be asking Mala why she feels she wants to leave rather than, basically, making fun of her. An attitude such as this will only end up damaging the marriage in the long run. The fact that Vladek refuses to dip into his own (and Mala’s) emotions can be viewed as a typical characteristic of the “strong”, decisive, male gender role.

As the text goes on Vladek continues to discredit Mala. Vladek goes on to say, “To a lawyer I talked years ago…and right away he warned to me: ‘Vladek- watch out. I see that this woman is money-conscious!” (Baym 1060). Again Vladek exhibits concerns that Mala might be the “deviant” wife. However, there are no other signs that Mala is money “hungry” within the text. Vladek is pulling out issues where there, more than likely, are none. As the lawyer (who is a man) brings up this issue to Vladek it validates, not only Vladek’s stance, but also the lawyer’s own opinion on the traditional male role, and the traditional female role. This lawyer is really feeding the flames in Vladek and Mala’s marriage, and causes Vladek to have more doubts about Mala.

The fact that the lawyer shows his support of Vladek’s claims shows a common social “norm” between the two. A quote by Jackson reveals a common idea about women in society (which can also be mirrored in the lawyers opinion) Jackson can be quoted as saying, “…woman’s subordination could be seen as social in origin, as neither given by nature nor accidental feature of relations between men and women” (Jackson 12). From this statement a simple conclusion can be drawn; that typical gender role are determined by the whole of society, and not by a select few. It can be concluded that if a large percentage of citizens believe in the male oriented patriarchy, then that will be the norm for that specific society.

The opposite can also be said within a society, as in if a large percent abandon the now “typical” patriarchy then a switch to the latter would occur. Who controls this public opinion/ ideology can be described under Marxist theory; Marxism is a worldwide view that analyzes and focuses on class relations and class conflict. It is an acceptable statement to concluded that the higher classes controls the opinions of the lower classes (whether they want them to or not). Feminist theory and Marxism have similar groundings in that in each there is some type of hierarchy that controls the lower level.

Josephine Donovan had this to say in regards to Feminism and Marxism, “The feminist critique is essentially political and polemical, with theoretical affiliations to Marxist sociology…” (Donovan 216). So, it is safe to compare the bourgeois class to that of the role of the traditional man, in that the man, like the higher class, is traditionally “in control” of the woman (which can be compared to the lower classes).

In the following pages of the text Vladek starts to rely a tale about himself, and his wife at the time, Anja. The story flashes back to 1944 Poland and relies the struggle the couple faced as Jews in Nazi Poland. The author, Art Spiegelman, chose to depict the characters throughout the work as animals; he drew the Germans as Cats (the predators), the Jews as mice (victims of cats, Vladek and Anja), and the Polish as pigs (a dietary contrast from jews, as well as a calculated insult).

Both Vladek and Anja were forced (in the comic) to wear pig masks to hide the fact that they were jews/ mice. In the last box of the third page the author chose to depict Anja with an extremely long mouse tail, and Vladek with no tail (as far as the reader can tell). This is an interesting choice by the author and possibly sheds to light a portion of his own ideology. It is safe to draw the conclusion that traditional women patriarchal society is expected be feminine, and many agree there is nothing more feminine than long hair on a woman. The long tail that Anja sported can be compared to the long hair of women in this type of society. It also shows that possibly the author, like his father, takes certain aspects away from the traditional patriarchy and adapts it, possible unknowling, into the appearance of Anja.

The visualization of woman in this way is a common occurrence for men in a traditional male mindset; An anti feminist had this to say in regards to female appearance, “It is indeed vain to deny the obvious. Woman is not identical with man, either in body, mind or feelings. As Havelock Ellis testifies: “The whole organism of the average woman, physical and psychic, is fundamentally unlike that of the average man. The differences may be often slight or subtle character, but they are none the less real and they extend to the smallest details of organic composition.’ ‘A man is a man to his very thumbs, and a woman is a woman down to her little toes.’ “(Wekesser 41). By this standard woman should have long hair and men short, and that can be summed up as a portion of the perspective of the patriarchal male pertaining to female/male appearance.

As the author drives on the reader is exposed to more of Vladek’s “typical” male attitude. In the following text Vladek express his concern for Anja, “I was a little safe. I had a coat and boots, so like a gestapo wore when he was not in service. but Anja–her appearance–You could see more easy she was Jewish. I was afraid for her.” (Baym 1061). This shows a typical aspect (though not necessarily bad) of the male patriarchy. Men want to protect their women, and ensure their safety and well being. It is clear that is the intent of Vladek, which is an honorable trait.

However, often times the “protection” of the woman can be taken over board and fall into the realm of the possessive; though not necessarily in the case of Vladek. The protection/ possession debacle can be interpreted as the traditional male idea that the woman is his property, which until the last century or so was the law. Donovan had this to say about women as objects/ possessions,” Women in Literature written by men for the most part seen as Other, as objects, of interest only insofar as they serve or detract from the goals of the male protagonist. Such literature is alien from a female point of view because it denies her essential selfhood…” (Newton 212). If the male perspective departs from protection and finds itself in possession the female will then be considered no more than an object.

The idea of the “deviant woman” can be viewed several times in Art Spiegelman’s work. At the start the second wife Mala is depicted as this type of woman. However, she is not alone; as seen in the following text, “…An old witch recognized Anja from her window…I don’t think anyone heard her…she’s a little senile anyway.” (Baym 1062). The fact that the author chose to describe the old woman as a witch is a classic example of the patriarchal idea of the deviant woman who lives alone (and thus serves no man). The character also goes on to discredit the woman’s intellect calling her senile (even though the nasty woman was correct about Anja).

The character chose to ease Vladek and Anja nerves by down playing the woman’s mental capacity. It is an off handed comment that comes from the man smoothly, and without thought; this shows the character has the same attitude as Vladek about traditional patriarchal gender roles. E.L. Rose had the following to say in regards to the equality of intellect among men and women,” Will you tell us, that women have no Newtons, Shakespeares, and Byrons? Greater natural powers than even those possessed may have been destroyed in woman for want of proper culture, a just appreciation, reward for merit as an incentive to exertion, and freedom of action…; and yet, amid all blighting, crushing trampled upon by prejudice and injustice, from her education and position forced to occupy herself almost exclusively with the most trivial affairs–in spite of all these difficulties, her intellect is as good as his.” (Rose 66).

It is a common occurrence in the patriarchal ideology to downplay the common woman’s intellect. The fact is even more clear here in the text as the man resorts to discrediting the woman’s intellect in order to ease the tension.

The woman in this work are often portrayed as being submissive and weak (aside from the elderly “witch”). At several points in the text Vladek makes Anja stay hidden while he does the “mans work”; as shown in the following except, ” [Vladek speaks] It’s almost dawn- when Mrs. Kawka comes to milk her cow, she’ll bring you some coffee. [Anja speaks] Where are you going? [Vladek] To Dekerta. [Anja] Don’t leave me alone again. I’m terrified while you’re gone!” (Baym 1065). From the text the conclusion can be drawn that Anja is excluded from many decision making processes and is to stay alone, hidden and protected like a child. This is the case for many of the woman in the text.

Motonowa (the next owner of their shelter) herself has been left at home by her husband who is off at war. This is, yet again, another example of the “traditional” gender roles that are pushed upon the female characters in the work. In a traditional male patriarchy woman would never assume the role of the soldier and leave their “womanly” duties at home. This separation of the genders is not exclusive for the Polish soldiers and wives. A separation of gender within Anja and Vladek’s own Jewish religion also exists. Lerner had the following to say about woman in the Jewish religion,” the extent of the participation of women in these [religious] movements is a matter of dispute among experts.

Gershom Sholem, a religious historian of the movement, says: ‘The long history of jewish mysticism shows no trace of feminine influence. There have been no women Kabbalists.’ …women’s contribution to both theory and practice of the movement were rejected.” (Lerner 113). This separation at the religious level would surely ingrain even more so the ideology of the patriarchal male, and traditional gender stereotypes. This realization might be an explanation the traditional gender role that Vladek upholds.

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