Places Discussed

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Villages. Much of the horror encountered by the Jewish boy takes place in remote and underdeveloped Eastern European villages. Isolated for centuries, the villages appear almost medieval and lack all modern amenities. Primitive living conditions in these places, the novel suggests, have given rise to a population of genetically similar, hostile, superstitious, and brutal peasants. The peasants’ huts, farms, and workplaces are rough and meager, corresponding to the mean and vicious streaks of their owners. For example, on the barren floor planks of a mill, the jealous owner stamps on the eyes he has gouged out of the face of a man he suspects of having committed adultery with his wife. When lightning hits the barn of a carpenter, he blames the black hair of the boy for the strike and tries to kill him.

Germany’s occupation of the country lies like a plague on the land, which yields little even in good times. Demanding food and trying to hunt down the last Jewish refugees, the Germans treat the inhabitants harshly and add to the fugitive boy’s dread. He must periodically flee from one village to another. One village’s peasants eject him by throwing him in a river, on which he lands on the inflated swim bladder of a giant catfish, which carries him downriver.

All the villages the boy encounters come to resemble one another. His ordeal living among callous people ends only when the Soviet Army occupies the land, inflicting yet more violence on its sullen inhabitants.


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Cesspit. Pool of human excrement into which the boy is thrown. While staying in a village in which a Roman Catholic priest is protecting him, the Jewish boy accidentally drops a Bible during Sunday services. The enraged villagers then throw him in a large open cesspit, which they have dug close to their church to relieve themselves. After sinking below the surface of the pool of excrement, the boy manages to escape but becomes mute. This is clearly a psychological reaction to the horror of the place. He recovers his speech after the war at a skiing resort deep in the mountains, in a room filled with spring sunlight, among caring people.

Railway tracks

Railway tracks. Tracks cutting through the isolated landscape are closely associated with the misery brought to the country by the German occupation. Harbingers of death, the tracks add yet another vicious ingredient to an already infernal landscape. German trains passing over the tracks carry Jews and others to death camps. Peasants living near the tracks loot corpses of prisoners who die trying to escape; they gather the prisoners’ photos and mementos, regarding them with boorish fascination. In one savage incident, peasants kill a Jewish woman who survives her jump from a train. Ironically, however, when the unnamed boy is captured by Germans and taken to a railroad outpost, he tries to entertain a would-be executioner by comically trying to walk on a rail while still tied to the soldier’s leg. Inexplicably, the man lets him escape.

Soviet army camp

Soviet army camp. Camp of the Soviet occupying force. Erected on the banks of a river bordering the last village of the boy’s ordeal, the encampment offers him safety, education, and two soldiers who serve as his father figures. After driving away the German troops, the Soviets adopt the boy as a mascot, and their encampment becomes the first place where he feels free, loved, and welcome.

Industrial city

Industrial city. Unnamed city resembling the Polish city of Lodz, in which Jerzy Kosinski grew up before the war and later attended the local university. There, his fictional boy is reunited with his parents. He has difficulty readapting to normal life. As the city itself is also not yet back to normal either, he finds release prowling it at night. Meanwhile, outcast people begin appearing; the ruins of the city shelter rapists, and its parks offer places for illicit behavior. Soon the authorities intervene, and the boy is sent to a mountain resort to gain health. There, the novel ends in a serene landscape.

Historical Context

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World War II
The world experienced a decade of aggression in the 1930s that culminated in World War II. This Second World War resulted from the rise of totalitarian regimes in Germany, Italy, and Japan. These militaristic regimes gained control as a result of the Great Depression experienced by most of the world in the early 1930s and from the conditions created by the peace settlements following World War I. The dictatorships established in each country encouraged expansion into neighboring countries. In Germany, Hitler strengthened the army during the 1930s. In 1936, Benito Mussolini's Italian troops took Ethiopia. From 1936 to 1939, Spain was engaged in civil war involving Francisco Franco's fascist army, aided by Germany and Italy. In March of 1938, Germany annexed Austria, and in March of 1939, occupied Czechoslovakia. Italy took Albania in April of that same year. On September 1, 1939, one week after Nazi Germany and the USSR signed the Treaty of Nonaggression, Germany invaded Poland and World War II began.

The Polish people suffered greatly during the war. A large part of the population of Poland was massacred or starved or placed in concentration camps. Polish Jews were almost eliminated from the country. Before the war there were more than 3 million Jews; after the war, there were only about one hundred thousand left.

German troops completed their withdrawal from Poland in early 1945. The socialization of Poland would soon begin. In 1947, Boleslaw Beirut, a Communist Pole and citizen of the USSR, was elected president by the Polish parliament. Soviet Marshall Konstantin Rokossovsky became minister of defense and commander in chief of the Polish army. In 1952, the constitution made Poland a model Soviet republic with an identical foreign policy to that of the USSR. The government cut off relations with the Vatican and religious leaders became chief targets of persecution.

The Holocaust
The Holocaust is the period during World War II when European Jews were persecuted and exterminated by Nazi Germany. The impetus for this persecution came before the war, in the early 1930s, when Adolf Hitler came into power in Germany. In the years before the war, many European Jews immigrated to other countries in an effort to save themselves. After the war started, however, those who did not escape were sent to concentration camps. The persecution stemmed from Hitler's determination to exterminate Jews in every country invaded by Germany during the war years. Six million Jews were killed during the Holocaust.

The Cold War
Soon after World War II, when Russian leader Joseph Stalin set up satellite communist states in Eastern Europe and Asia, the "cold war" began, ushering in a new age of warfare and fear triggered by several circumstances: the United States' and the USSR's emergence as superpowers; each country's ability to use the atomic bomb; and communist expansion and the United States' determination to check it. Each side amassed stockpiles of nuclear weapons that could not only annihilate each country, but also the world. Both sides declared the other the enemy and redoubled their commitment to fight for their own ideology and political and economic dominance. As China fell to the Communists in 1949, Russia crushed the Hungarian revolution in 1956, and the United States adopted the role of world policeman, the Cold War accelerated.

The Cold War induced anxiety among Americans, who feared both annihilation by Russians and the spread of communism at home. Americans were encouraged to stereotype all Russians as barbarians and atheists who were plotting to overthrow the United States government and brainwash its citizens. The fear that communism would spread to the United States led to suspicion and paranoia, and the lives of many suspected communists or communist sympathizers were ruined. This "Red Scare" was heightened by the indictment of ex-government official Alger Hiss and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for passing defense secrets to the Russians. Soon, the country engaged in a determined and often hysterical witch-hunt for communists, led by Senator Joe McCarthy and the House of Representatives' Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). (In 1954, McCarthy was censured by the Senate for his unethical behavior during the Committee sessions.) By the time of McCarthy's death in 1957, almost six million Americans had been investigated by government agencies because of their suspected communist sympathies, yet only a few had been indicted.

This paranoid atmosphere provided Americans with an impetus for conformity. Many felt safety could be ensured only by submitting to the traditional values of church, home, and country. Yet, during this time, voices of protest began to emerge. Some refused to succumb to the anti-communist fervor and thus would not cooperate with the Senate hearings despite the threat of prison or exile from the United States. Others rebelled against a system that they thought encouraged discrimination and social and economic inequality.

Literary Style

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Point of View
The main character narrates The Painted Bird from his point of view, which enables readers to more fully gain insight into the devastating consequences his nightmarish experiences have on him. The structure of the work creates a "Bildungsroman," which is a novel that focuses on the development of a young person, often symbolized as a movement from innocence to experience. Through the episodic structure of The Painted Bird, Kosinski plots the boy's development from a young, naïve, essentially helpless young boy to a mature, capable teenager who can survive on his own—and who has been forced to see the dark side of human nature within others as well as within himself.

The title The Painted Bird refers to a ritual practiced by Lekh, one of the villagers with whom the boy lives for a time. When Stupid Ludmila, the woman Lekh loves, does not come to him for several weeks, he becomes "possessed by a silent rage." He then tortures one bird at a time by painting it bright colors and returning it to the flock. The other birds reject the brightly colored one and attack it until it dies. This cruel game provides the novel's dominant metaphor in its relationship to the boy's tormenting experiences during World War II. Like the painted bird, the boy is considered different when he is thrown in with his fellow human beings. Since he has dark eyes, complexion, and hair, the villagers, typically blue-eyed blondes, consider him an outsider. Their superstitious nature compounds their stereotype of the boy because they regard him as either a Jew or a gypsy with "evil powers."

The villagers treat the boy with the same cruelty as the flock that persecutes the bird. Because the villagers perceive him as different, they feel justified in harassing and ostracizing him. Some of the more cruel villagers consider it their right to beat and torture him.

Norman Lavers, in his article on Kosinski, argues that the boy's comet, a can filled with slow burning materials that provide a constant heat source, becomes a symbol of his developing strength and independence. Lavers writes that the comet is:

a manifestation of the inner spark. It is the outward glow of the boy's determination to survive. But it is still more, it is his apartness itself, his individuality, that which is essential to survival "without human help." It is his essential aloneness, which is his independence and freedom....With the comet to fend off the dark, the animals, the other humans, he "felt perfectly safe."

Literary Techniques

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Kosinski makes extremely skillful use of the boy wanderer as a narrator of his wartime odyssey. His account consists of a series of detached episodes — a structure Kosinski deliberately chose to mirror the processes of the boy's mind as he relived the events in memory. The author speaks of organizing the novel "in little dramas, in spurts of experience, with links largely omitted, as is the case with memory. The extremity of the situations, through heightened actions and imagery, reproduces also the action of our thoughts and our dreams," Although the boy narrator is now removed by a certain physical and psychological distance from these experiences, he vividly remembers how he viewed these events and reacted to them at the time they occurred. Thus the narrative reflects the change in thought and attitude of the child as he became educated in the harsh realities of his world.

The various stages in the child's intellectual and emotional odyssey provide a thread of continuity worked through the episodic structure while showing the boy as both victim of the wartime society and survivor, Kosinski invests the language of the boy with a certain poetic quality that makes many passages an unforgettable blend of beauty and terror or horror.

In his Notes of the Author, Kosinski discusses some of the other techniques that he consciously employed in writing the novel, techniques analyzed by a number of critics as well. He mentions his use of animal images as a "natural subplot," reproducing and underscoring the human activity. For example, the Miller brings together cats in heat to build up sexual tension during the meal with his wife and the plowboy whom he suspects to be her lover; the animal activity intensifies the scene for the reader as well. The most striking illustration is Kosinski's application of The Painted Bird image, which becomes the central symbol of the book. The author also states that the characters' "most real image is an animal"; for example, Garbos is a wolfhound. In his attempt to make the readers see "reality without the gloss," Kosinski creates the distinctive atmosphere of The Painted Bird with elementary, archetypal images and motifs connected with the metaphor of childhood, "images we have learned to associate with fairy tales." These are designed "to lead back to the primitive, tap the roots of the unconscious in all of us."

He even states that "The Painted Bird can be considered as fairy tales experienced by the child rather than told to him." Figures, settings, motifs from fairy tales reappear here in forms befitting the harsh wartime world. For example, the demented, promiscuous Ludmila is the maiden in the woods; the powerful S.S. officer becomes a superhuman hero to the powerless child; the protagonist journeys through dark, threatening forests in his wanderings. Kosinski employs symbolism based upon the ancient elements of earth, air, fire, and water as well. The author also inverts some common fictive structures as another means of underscoring the grim realities of the boy's existence: the "magic" seemingly offered by folklore and religious indulgences does not rescue him from danger; the recognition scene between the boy and his parents is troublesome rather than joyous for him, and the wanderings of the Silent One and the boy are "no boyhood idyll."

Compare and Contrast

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1926: Joseph Stalin becomes dictator of the Soviet Union. His reign of terror lasts for close to three decades.

1991: On December 17, President Mikhail Gorbachev orders the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and a new Commonwealth of Independent States is formed by the countries that formerly made up the USSR.

1939: Germany invades Poland and World War II begins.

1947: The socialization of Poland begins with the election of Boleslaw Beirut, a Communist Pole and citizen of the USSR.

1989: Lech Walesa is one of the architects of Solidarity, the first independent trade union in a Communist country. After months of labor unrest that threaten the stabilization of Poland's economy, the Polish government does not block the creation of Solidarity.

Literary Precedents

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Besides its association with the fairy tale discussed in the previous section, The Painted Bird can be connected with the picaresque novel, which first took its distinctive form in the sixteenth-century Spanish novel Lazarillo de Tormes. In structure, this type of novel is loosely episodic, unified only by the central character whose adventures it tells, often in the first person. The protagonist is a rogue or picaro usually of the lower class, surviving on the margins of society by his wits and any devious means required. His wanderings often bring him in contact with a variety of social classes; thus the form can become a vehicle for satire. Adaptations of the picaresque novel can be seen in such diverse novels as Cervantes' Don Quixote (1605, 1615), Defoe's Moll Flanders (1722), and Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March (1953). Norman Lavers believes that Kosinski was not consciously adapting a literary type made familiar to him in his wide reading, but rather developed a picaresque structure as the best way of presenting his story. Yet the boy does become a modern picaro, made an outcast by superstition and hate, learning to survive by his wits, applying the lessons taught to him in a perverse and cruel world; the scenes he describes in his wanderings present a scathing picture of humanity at its worst.

In one sense, the novel has more structure than the typical picaresque novel since it shows the different stages in the intellectual odyssey of the child in his struggles for survival. Thus, The Painted Bird has also been described as a bildungsroman, a novel concerned with a young person's education and initiation into life, such as Dickens's David Copperfield (1849-1850) or Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916). One of the deepest horrors in the book, of course, is the type of education that his wanderings among his fellow man provide for the boy; it has aptly been called an initiation into evil.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Corry, John, "The Most Considerate of Men," in American Spectator, Vol. 24, No. 7, July 1991, pp. 17-18.

Field, Andrew, Review in Book Week, October 17, 1965, p. 2.

Gladsky, Thomas S., "Jerzy Kosinski's East European Self," in Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, Vol. XXIX, No. 2, Winter 1988, pp. 121-32.

Halley, Anne, Review of The Painted Bird in Nation, Vol. 201, November 29, 1965, p. 424.

Howe, Irving, Review of The Painted Bird in Harpers, October 1965.

Ivsky, Oleg, Review of The Painted Bird in Library Journal, Vol. 90, October 1, 1965, p. 4109.

Kosinski, Jerzy, "Afterward," in The Painted Bird Grove Press, 1975, pp. ix-xxvi.

Lavers, Norman, "Jerzy Kosinski," in Literary Review, G. K. Hall, 1999.

Lilly, Paul R., Jr., "Vision and Violence in the Fiction of Jerzy Kosinski," in Twayne's United States Authors Series Online, Vol. 25, No. 3, Spring 1982, pp. 389–400.

Northouse, Cameron, "Jerzy Kosinski," in Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 2: American Novelists Since World War II First Series, edited by Jeffrey Helterman, Gale Research, 1978, pp. 266-75.

For Further Study
Sheehy, Gail, "The Psychological Novelist as Portable Man," in Psychology Today, December 11, 1977, pp. 126, 128, 130. Sheehy explores the novel's psychological themes and includes an interview with Kosinski.

Sloan, James Park, Jerzy Kosinski: A Biography, Dutton, 1996. Sloan provides details of Kosinski's life that parallel the boy's experiences in the novel.

Teicholz, Tom, ed., Conversations with Jerzy Kosinski, University Press of Mississippi, 1993. In this collection of interviews, Kosinski talks about his life in Poland, the themes in his novels, and his writing style.


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Everman, Welch D. Jerzy Kosinski: The Literature of Violation. San Bernardino, Calif.: Borgo Press, 1991. “The author’s point is that the boy’s experience is not unique; what happened to him also happened to many others and could happen again to anyone.”

Kosinski, Jerzy. Notes of the Author on “The Painted Bird.” 3d ed. New York: Scientia-Factum, 1967. In this pamphlet, Kosinski explains the novel as “fairy tales experienced by the child, rather than told to him.”

Lavers, Norman. Jerzy Kosinski. Boston: Twayne, 1982. Lavers identifies the themes of freedom, revenge, and education, identifying the novel as a picaresque Bildungsroman.

Lilly, Paul R. Words in Search of Victims: The Achievement of Jerzy Kosinski. Kent, Ohio: The Kent State University Press, 1988. Kosinski’s fiction “is about the art of writing fiction”; The Painted Bird is “primarily a book about language testing.”

Sherwin, Byron L. Jerzy Kosinski: Literary Alarmclock. Chicago: Cabala Press, 1981. “Kosinski prefers to convey the horror of the Holocaust by shocking us into feeling the terror of a single individual rather than by asking us to try abstractly to comprehend the pain, death and suffering of . . . millions.”

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