Characters Discussed

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 627

The young boy

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The young boy, an unnamed war refugee whose wanderings through Eastern Europe (from ages six to twelve) constitute whatever plot the novel can be said to contain. He has no history when his parents, fearful of Nazi reprisals, send him to the country for safekeeping. His first contact is soon lost. As the boy wanders from village to village, as slave or indentured servant to various peasant families, he witnesses scenes of increasing violence and cruelty. His own education follows from these episodes, as he tries to figure out how the world operates and what laws, if any, govern it. When the brutality becomes too much, the boy loses his voice and becomes mute; there is apparently nothing to be said in response to the cruelty here. At the end, reunited with his parents, the boy begins to speak; there is perhaps hope after all. The only real development in what seems a meaningless and disconnected series of cruel and violent incidents in the novel is, in fact, the quest the child makes for some kind of meaningful value system for himself. His selfishness at the beginning—clearly necessary for survival in this world of fear and ignorance—gives way by the end of the novel to a kind of personal self-determination.


Marta, a crippled, superstitious old woman with whom the young boy first lives. After Marta dies of natural causes, the boy accidentally sets fire to her house and burns her body in the conflagration.


Olga, a wise old woman who saves the young boy from other sadistic villagers. Olga is a medicine woman and has folk cures for a variety of ailments. When the boy catches a plaguelike fever, for example, she buries him up to his neck in a field, and the sickness soon leaves him.


Lekh, a peasant who traps birds and sells them to villagers. Lekh is in love with “Stupid Ludmila,” and when jealous villagers kill her, Lekh is heartbroken. It is with Lekh that the boy witnesses the title story, of the painted bird destroyed by its own flock because it is different (a metaphor for the boy himself).


Ewka, a young woman who introduces the young boy to sex. He feels secure and happy with Ewka—for one of the first times in the novel—and his sexual initiation is thus a happy one. Makar, Ewka’s father, forces the girl into unnatural sexual acts, and the young boy loses his love for her as he begins to understand the nature of evil in the world.

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Gavrila, a Soviet political officer who teaches the young boy how to read. Gavrila also gives him a political education, teaching him not only about socialism but also about the Marxist view of history and religion. The boy idolizes Gavrila and tries to model himself on the officer’s behavior.


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Latest answer posted February 2, 2011, 8:16 am (UTC)

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Mitka, a crack sniper in the Russian army who teaches the boy self-respect and—in contrast to the political education that Gavrila is giving him—introduces him to poetry and song as well. He also teaches the narrator the importance of vengeance. When several Soviet soldiers are killed by drunken villagers, Mitka enacts his own silent revenge through the scope of his high-powered rifle.

The Silent One

The Silent One, who, like the young narrator, is a resident of an orphanage at the end of the war. It is the children who are the greatest victims of the war’s violence and cruelty, the novel shows, and they bear the scars. The Silent One has his own sense of the world and causes a terrible train wreck as a means of getting back at a peasant merchant he thinks has humiliated the young boy.


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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 625

Although Kosinski has drawn to some extent upon his own experiences as a child in wartime Europe in creating The Painted Bird, Cameron Northouse rightly suggests that the author used such autobiographical material "as representations of collective experience in a world society or at least a Western one." Kosinski himself protested against reading the book as an autobiography; he saw his characters, particularly the nameless boy, as archetypes. This archetypal dimension is underscored by the hero's anonymity, along with the generality of the settings. In his Notes of the Author, Kosinski links his representation with Jung's comments on the paradoxical nature of the child myth: the child is helpless and faced with constant threats to his existence; yet he is also "a total incarnation of the urge for self-realization and self-preservation . . . equipped only with those powers of nature and instinct which further his ability to survive."

Thus the symbol of the child becomes the most appropriate vehicle for showing the person threatened rather than sustained by society yet struggling to maintain his freedom as an individual. The boy as outcast is also associated symbolically with Letka's painted bird. Having been captured and painted in bright colors, the bird when freed eagerly seeks to rejoin the flock. However, the other birds do not recognize it as belonging because it looks so different from the rest; instead, they peck it to death.

One of the major achievements of the book is Kosinski's portrayal of how the character developed from a naive, innocent child of six to a young adolescent radically transformed by his wartime odyssey. His initial trust in others and instinctive desire to belong to the flock give way to intense alienation, even to a vision of the whole of humanity as isolated units divided from one another and incapable of understanding one another. The child's natural curiosity about the workings of the world becomes escalated to a search for some key to understanding the universe and thus gaining some needed power over his destiny. Applying the lessons he learned from others, he vainly tries magic and religion; however, on the basis of his own experiences, he finally concludes that evil is the active force in the universe and that the way to succeed is to form an alliance with the "Evil Ones" and outdo even the Germans in the active pursuit of evil. Compassion, love, and friendship now appear to him as weaknesses. Although he never fully loses his capacity for pity, he becomes aware of a deep and active hatred toward those who have wronged him — the hatred that Kosinski shows remaining with the survivors of such nightmares as the bitter fruit of their experiences. The desire to belong is still there; the boy responds to the protection and companionship of Gavrila, although he expresses some apprehensions about how the collective judgment may impinge on his individual life. However, Mitka's philosophy of individualism and revenge wins his fuller allegiance.

After the war the boy who had become The Painted Bird finds it difficult to rejoin the flock. He is reunited with his family but finds their love smothering; he actively pursues a philosophy of revenge; he is more comfortable with night people on the fringes of society than with ordinary people. The recovery of his voice at the end signifies his moving back into communication with others, yet it is an ambivalent movement, for The Painted Bird will never again feel fully at home among the flock.

The other characters are seen principally in terms of their impact upon the child at the particular stage of his wanderings — protector, foe, embodiment of power, victim. Or otherwise, they form part of the grim scenarios he has observed, such as Jealous the Miller and the plowboy.

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