It is, indeed, appropriate for the title of Jerzy Kosinski's powerful novel to be The Painted Bird, for it is symbolic of the narrator's character. At one point in the narrative, a person literally paints a bird; of course, when it is released and flies back to its flock, its flock rejects it, attacking and killing it. In a metaphorical blending of fact and fiction, Kosinski's narrator becomes a figurative "painted bird." But, unlike the bird, there is a resilience to man; for, he holds the means for self-authorship and self-determination. Thus, the dominant thesis of this novel is that the self must be formed and determined by the individual apart from others who would transform him from his own valid existence.
In the narrator's struggle to create and sustain his sense of self and his very existence, there are untold obstacles within the horrific setting of a war-torn Europe. Having been placed under the care of a villager in order to protect him from the Nazis, the young boy finds himself shifted in culture and place. Alienated because of his dark eyes and skin, the narrator often is a powerless victim; however, when he escapes the cruelty of villagers, he learns that he must rely solely upon himself, even if it involves cruelty upon his part. In one instance in which he takes religious instruction in the Catholicism, he serves as an acolyte at Mass; however, when it is his turn to transport the heavy missal around the altar, the boy falls backward. Superstitious parishioners take him and hurl him into a latrine from which he escapes only by pulling himself out of the muck by holding to a creeper. As the destitute victim, who has lost his voice as a consequence of the psychological trauma, walks through the forest, he observes the trees which have lost life because the sun does not reach them,
These stumps were now cripples unable to clothe their stunted mutilated bodies. They stood single and alone. Hunched and squat, they lacked the force to reach up toward the light and air. No power could change their condition: their sap would never rise up into limbs or foliage....They would never be torn or tossed by the winds, but would rot slowly, the broken victims of the dampness and decay of the forest floor.
This observation of the boy seems a metaphor of his recognition of his own state; he, too, can rot as a "broken victim." Yet, in this observation of the trees there is something inside the narrator which urges him that his existential state can be controlled and, therefore, improved because for the author, the Self is a willful creation. Kosinski believes that "It is the duty of the individual to seize the necessary power that would turn would-be persecutors into victims." Much like the old Russian proverb of "man is a wolf to man," the author is convinced that in order to avoid victimization, it may become necessary to assume the role of oppressor.
Another thesis of the novel is that man is essentially alone (alienated).
It mattered little if one was mute; people did not understand one another anyway. They collided with or charmed one another, hugged or trampled one another, but everyone knew only himself. His emotions, memory, and senses divided him from others as effectively as thick reeds screen the mainstream from the muddy bank.
For a while, the narrator believes that if his hair were light and his eyes blue, he would be more acceptable to others, but this is ineffective, too.