Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 730
The Painted Bird has emerged as one of the most powerful novels about World War II and about the Holocaust. Since it only obliquely deals with both events, the novel is a kind of allegory for the senseless cruelty and brutality of any war. Jerzy Kosinski claimed, falsely, that the novel was based on his own experiences. Kosinski was not averse to creating fiction in more than one realm; he was candid about this practice. The point of Kosinski’s claim, it may be argued, is that the book’s unspeakable brutalities are realistic—indeed, they are much less than what happened.
Characterization is notably thin in The Painted Bird, and even the narrator is two-dimensional. The scenes that he narrates are, however, often overwhelming, and the power of the novel comes in large part from its simple language and imagery. The point of view and sentence structure are remarkably simple. (Kosinski once claimed that he learned English writing the novel, which may explain some of its directness.) Such simple language only makes the horror greater: There is no complex linguistic shield that protects readers from the violence. What makes the events of the narrative even starker and more horrible is that there is no adult moral perspective to condemn the primitive or animalistic behavior of the characters. The narrator is a young boy with little understanding of what is happening to him, and Kosinski does not provide readers with an intermediary.
At one level, this short, episodic novel is an allegory. Kosinski has written that the novel is a fairy tale experienced by a child rather than told to him, and this is an apt description. Each incident in The Painted Bird can be considered as a stepping stone in an allegorical bildungsroman, or novel of education. In each encounter, the boy learns another lesson, only to discard it for a new lesson in the following chapter or incident—religion from the priest, politics from Gavrila, vengeance from Mitka and the Silent One, and so on. The final answer with which Kosinski leaves readers is ambiguous. At the end, the boy is losing the speechlessness that the horror of the world forced him into. There is evil in the world, surely, and, as the boy has seen, neither the religious nor the political solution negates it—in fact, they often exacerbate it. The only thing that is certain is the individual.
At another level the novel is about not merely an individual boy but also the Holocaust of World War II. The Painted Bird can be read as one of the most powerful indictments of the madness and terror of the Holocaust in literature. Although the horrors depicted in The Painted Bird are much less brutal than the actuality—no death camps or gas ovens are in the novel—they are horrible for their starkness and immediacy; they are the concrete and individual horrors of one alien child in a world gone mad.
The novel’s major thematic question is the one at the center of the book of Job and other classic pieces of literature: What is one to make of the evil of the world? Kosinski has no clear answer—except that the novel, with all its horror, is its own answer. The boy begins to speak again; the novel is testimony to what he has witnessed—the powerful communication is that The Painted Bird is.
For all its realistic detail, the novel also has a symbolic meaning. A number of incidents in the novel have this symbolic quality—the story to which the title makes reference, for example. The painted bird is an apt symbol for the boy himself. Lekh captures a bird, paints it, and releases it. The bird’s own flock, not recognizing it, pecks the bird to death. This bird also represents all of those who are marked as aliens and who thus are destroyed—including the millions in the death camps of World War II.
Animal imagery pervades the story. In chapter 1 alone, for example, there are stories of a pigeon among the chickens, a snake crawling out of its skin, and a squirrel set on fire by village boys. This imagery conveys the proximity of animal and human life. Kosinski’s novel, in language and theme, forces readers to confront the potential horror of human behavior, without recourse to easy answers.