(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

In fear of Nazi reprisals, the parents of a six-year-old boy send the youngster to a distant village. The parents lose touch with the man who had placed the child in the village, and when the boy’s foster mother dies, the young boy, left on his own, begins a series of travels from village to village. Considered to be either a Jew or a Roma (Gypsy) because of his dark hair and olive skin, the boy is treated horribly by the brutal and ignorant peasants he meets in his travels.

The young boy first lives in the hut of Marta, a disabled and superstitious old woman. When she dies of natural causes, the boy accidentally burns down her house. He is saved from villagers, who want to kill him, by Olga, a woman called “the Wise” for her knowledge of folk medicine. After being tossed into the river by the villagers and carried downstream on an inflated catfish bladder, the young boy lives with a miller and his wife, and witnesses a scene of unspeakable brutality. Jealous of a young farmhand’s attraction to his wife, the miller gouges out his eyes with a spoon. The boy runs away and finds refuge with Lekh, who traps and sells birds, and who is in love with Ludmila. When villagers kill Ludmila, Lekh is heartbroken, and the young boy is forced to flee again.

The boy next stays with a carpenter and his wife who are afraid that the boy’s black hair will attract lightning to their farm. Whenever there is as storm, the carpenter drags the boy out to a field and chains him to a heavy harness. When the carpenter threatens to kill him, the boy leads him to an abandoned bunker and pushes him into a sea of rats. Next, the young boy stays with a blacksmith who is helping the partisans; when the blacksmith is killed, the boy is turned over to German soldiers, but the one charged with his execution lets him escape into the woods. The young boy finds a horse with a broken leg and returns it to a farmer, who briefly shelters the boy, but he is forced to escape again when he witnesses a murder at a wedding celebration.

The terror is unrelenting. The boy is now staying with a giant farmer and first witnesses the trains carrying Jews to the death camps. A Jewish girl is found along the tracks. She is kept at...

(The entire section is 907 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Although Kosinski published two books before The Painted Bird, his achievement as a writer centers around this book. The unnamed boy of The Painted Bird narrates a story that is simultaneously a fable of the Holocaust and an imaginative record of the shaping forces of Kosinski’s early life—separation from his parents, wandering through Polish villages hostile to Jews and gypsies, dodging German soldiers, and eventually being rescued by Soviet soldiers and placed in a postwar orphanage.

Throughout the years of his abandonment, the boy is bereft of every form of protection except his own initiative, cunning, and duplicity. The novel charts the boy’s survival; it also epitomizes Kosinski’s values, which he demonstrated in all of his subsequent novels, namely, that the individual is alone, surrounded by systems of persecution and oppression, whether Nazi soldiers rounding up Jews in Poland for extermination or communist thought police monitoring helpless Polish or Russian citizens. Whatever the source of oppression, The Painted Bird (and Kosinski’s many novels after it) asserts that the duty of the individual is to seize the necessary power that would turn would-be persecutors into victims. Unless victimization is actively resisted, the individual will succumb and become a victim, and the surest way to avoid victimization is to become an oppressor.

The boy is beaten by Polish peasants, pushed into an ice-covered pond by cruel boys, forced to hang from a beam over a vicious dog, and tossed into...

(The entire section is 634 words.)