Social Concerns / Themes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 593

Kosinski's story of an unprotected child's wanderings through remote villages in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe presents an individual's desperate struggle to survive in a harsh world made even more threatening and violent by the horrors of war, the Nazi ideology, and the Holocaust.

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Among the bleakest features in the moral landscape of this universe is the capacity for evil in nearly all its inhabitants. The peasants in the village can match the Germans in savagery, although Kosinski shows them as uneducated and superstitious people, brutalized by the harsh, unhappy conditions under which they eked out a meager existence; the domination of the stronger over the weaker had become the basic law in their society. The peasants' own superstitions about the Jews as God-killers and about "enemies with dark hair and eyes" kept them from questioning the Nazi theories of genocide — theories that along with the war itself were the product of a supposedly advanced people.

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Kosinski also saw in the boy's story a powerful metaphor for examining one of his central themes: the individual in relation to society, which victimizes each of its members in some ways, even though it supposedly exists for protection and support. In The Painted Bird, he commented, "man would be portrayed in his most vulnerable state, as a child, and society in its most deadly form, in a state of war. I hoped the confrontation between the defenseless individual, and the overpowering society, between the child and war, would represent the essential anti-human condition,"

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The state of alienation from the group is vividly represented in the boy's situation. Separated from his family and judged by his physical appearance alone as a dark-eyed Gypsy with diabolical powers or a Jew, he is regarded with fear and active hostility by the peasants; he also becomes a potential victim of the Holocaust. During his wanderings, he is subjected to numerous cruelties and atrocities, narrowly escaping death on several occasions at the hands of both peasants and Nazis. The psychosomatic loss of his voice provides a dramatic symbolization of how totally isolated he feels, how futile are his efforts to communicate with fellow humans and with God.

The survival of the self in the face of these overwhelming odds becomes a major theme; closely connected with this are the lessons that he learns as he confronts the hostile universe. He perceives the importance of relying upon oneself alone. As powerless victim, he further comes to realize the necessity of obtaining power over one's circumstances by whatever means possible. Moreover, his wartime experiences have convinced him that hatred and vengeance are essential for survival.

Vengeance serves as another key motif of the book; the boy witnesses it everywhere in his environment, from the women's sadistic killing of Ludmila to Mitka's philosophy that a man is responsible for getting a proportionate revenge for any wrong done to him, if he wishes to preserve his self-respect. The horror is that such a philosophy of vengeance seems all too plausible a choice to a boy, given the world he has encountered.

Freedom becomes another important theme in the book. In his very isolation, the boy discovers the satisfaction of being completely on his own. As Norman Lavers comments, "When he is most alone, most independent, most directly engaged in the pure act of survival, he is also — no matter how hostile the environment — most free and happy, most alive." Kosinski vividly represents the tension the boy later experiences between the condition of such freedom and the counterclaims of family and society, which no longer bind him strongly.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 857

Coming of Age
The main focus of this semi-autobiographical novel is the tracing of the main character's coming of age in an Eastern European country during World War II. After the war begins and he is separated from his parents, he spends the remainder of the book trying to survive the brutal conditions he faces in various villages in which he lives. During this journey, he learns important lessons about himself and human nature in general.

Change and Transformation
As Kosinski unfolds this coming-of-age process, he reveals the changes and transformations the boy experiences. The biggest change occurs when the boy is wrenched from his parents and his comfortable life in a large city before the war and forced to live, as do many of the villagers, with deprivation and the constant threat of death. The boy also experiences internal transformations as he discovers necessary survival skills.

Alienation and Loneliness
One thing the boy learns to cope with is the alienation and loneliness that result when he is separated from his parents. He bonds to some degree with Marta, the first woman he stays with, but she soon dies, leaving him alone again. After that, the boy can only occasionally find a comforting relationship in his chaotic and dangerous world. Most of the comfort he finds is through women, but that comfort is always short-lived, as some outside force disrupts it. Olga the Wise teaches him valuable survival skills, including how to build and use a "comet." The boy soon becomes separated from her, however, and again must find new shelter. Ewka provides him with physical comfort and introduces him to the mysteries of sexual love, but his time with her is cut short by her sexually deviant father, who forces Ewka to have sex with animals and with her brother. The Russian soldiers who take the boy in provide the most prolonged respite from his feelings of loneliness and alienation. He finds himself becoming part of a group and so begins to establish a sense of self.

In "Jerzy Kosinski's East European Self," Thomas S. Gladsky argues that the novel indicts Poland "for its part in the Holocaust" through the boy's lack of connection to his homeland. Gladsky comments, "So alienated is Kosinski's young narrator that he will not identify his own cultural-religious background, refer to his ethnic traditions, or even mention the name of the country despite the obvious Polish setting."

Strength and Weakness
The boy's ability to cope with his harsh surroundings reveals his strength of character and the nature of human adaptability. To survive, he learns how to fend for himself in his harrowing environment and to win over the villagers. When he cannot turn a villager into an ally, he learns to avoid him or her. Cameron Northouse, in his article on Kosinski for the Dictionary of Literary Biography, notes that the boy also learns that "merely to react to the world is to be at its mercy," and that "the only important service is the service of survival."

Norman Lavers, in his article on Kosinski for Twayne's United States Authors Series Online concurs with this point, insisting that the boy survives by his wits rather than relying on "pure chance" to save him. He also adds that when the boy finds himself "in a situation of unremitting violence and deprivation," his strength and his need to carry on saves him. Lavers notes that the boy never allows himself to wallow in self-pity. He instead tries to adapt to his world and "continually tries to learn its rules, its central principles, so that he can function effectively in it."

One example of the boy's adaptability occurs when he is traveling to another village in order to find shelter and food. At one point he comes across a wounded horse and decides to bring him back to his owner, hoping to be rewarded with food or shelter for returning the man's property. When the owner decides the horse is no longer any use to him, the boy is able to shift gears and to convince the man that he is not Jewish or a Gypsy and is an "obedient worker," and so he is given a place to stay.

Violence and Cruelty
Through his experiences, the boy learns about the capacity for violence and cruelty in others as well as himself. He observes and endures constant brutality and horror as he struggles to survive. In his search for some measure of control over his life in this atmosphere, he discovers his own ability for cruelty. He comes to the realization that to survive in his harsh environment, he must become as vulgar as the others in his world. Paul R. Lilly, Jr., in his article for The Literary Review, notes that like most of Kosinski's characters, the boy's natural impulse is:

to transform [himself] from victim to oppressor....In the world of Kosinski, there are no other options open to the victim: he must seize power through deception or remain powerless.

The boy has transformed himself by the end of the novel into the oppressor as evidenced when he breaks his stepbrother's arm.

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