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Essay/Term paper: History--historical analysis of jerzy kosinski's the painted bird

Essay, term paper, research paper:  Literary Analysis Papers

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The Painted Bird

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An obscure village in Poland, sheltered from ideas and

industrialization, seemed a safe place to store one¹s most precious

valuable: a 6-year-old boy. Or so it seemed to the parents who

abandoned their only son to protect him from the Nazis in the

beginning of Jerzy Kosinski¹s provocative 1965 novel The Painted Bird.

After his guardian Marta dies and her decaying corpse and hut are

accidentally engulfed in flames, the innocent young dark-haired,

dark-eyed outcast is obliged to trek from village to village in search

of food, shelter, and companionship. Beaten and caressed, chastised

and ignored, the unnamed protagonist survives the abuse inflicted by

men, women, children and beasts to be reclaimed by his parents 7 years

later--a cold, indifferent, and callous individual.

The protagonist¹s experiences and observations demonstrate that the

Holocaust was far too encompassing to be contained within the capsule

of Germany with its sordid concentration camps and sociopolitical

upheaval. Even remote and ³backward² villages of Poland were exposed

and sucked into the maelstrom of conflict. The significance of this

point is that it leads to another logical progression: Reaching

further than the Polish villages of 1939, the novel¹s implications

extend to all of us. Not only did Hitler¹s stain seep into even the

smallest crannies of the world at that time, it also spread beyond

limits of time and culture. Modern readers, likewise, are implicated

because of our humanity. The conscientious reader feels a sense of

shame at what we, as humans, are capable of through our cultural

mentalities. That is one of the more profound aspects of Kosinski¹s


It is this sense of connectedness between cultures, people, and ideas

that runs through the book continuously. While the ³backward²

nonindustrialized villages of Poland seem at first glance to contrast

sharply with ³civilized² Nazi Germany, Kosinski shows that the two

were actually linked by arteries of brutality and bigotry. Both

cultures used some form of religious ideology to enforce a doctrine of

hate upon selected groups whom they perceived to be inferior.

Totalitarian rhetoric and Nietzschian existentialism replace a hybrid

of Catholicism, which in turn replaces medieval superstition as the

protagonist is carried from the innards of village life to the heart

of totalitarian power.

In the first several chapters of the novel the little protagonist is

firmly convinced that demons and devils are part of the tangible,

physical world. He actually sees them. They are not mythological

imaginings confined to a fuzzy spiritual world. They are real, and he

believes the villagers¹ insistences that he is possessed by them. The

peasants use these superstitious beliefs to enforce a doctrine of hate

upon the boy. Even their dogs seem to believe in this credo, chasing,

biting, and barking at him as if a viciousness towards dark-haired

boys is programmed into their genetic makeup.

The text of the villagers¹ behavior reads like a gruesome car

accident on the side of the road at which one cannot help but crane

one¹s neck. It is both repulsive and compelling; one reads in a state

of disbelief and horror. The cruelty, moreover, isn¹t limited to Jews

and Gypsies. Anyone getting in the way is targeted. The rule of weak

over strong prevails and justifies any actions taken against those

unfortunate enough to incite anger.

A stirring example of this phenomenon is when the protagonist

witnesses a jealous miller gouging out the eyes of his wife¹s ³lust

interest,² an otherwise innocuous 14-year-old plowboy whose only sin

was in staring too fixedly at a woman¹s bosom:

³And with a rapid movement such as women used to gouge out the rotten

spots while peeling potatoes, he plunged the spoon into one of the

boy¹s eyes and twisted it.

³The eye sprang out of his face like a yolk from a broken egg and

rolled down the miller¹s hand onto the floor. The plowboy howled and

shrieked, but the miller¹s hold kept him pinned against the wall.

Then the blood-covered spoon plunged into the other eye, which sprang

out even faster. For a moment the eye rested on the boy¹s cheek as if

uncertain what to do next; then it finally tumbled down his shirt onto

the floor.²

The peasants¹ behavior demonstrates that Hitler simply harnessed

preexisting attitudes. Even Poland, seemingly neutral and exploited as

it was, absorbed distrustful attitudes toward Jews and Gypsies and

felt no qualms about taking aggressions out violently on weaker

people. Everyone, to a certain extent, bought into this bigotry. It

left not even the most remote areas untouched.

As the novel progresses, the protagonist changes environments and

subsequently alters his religious beliefs. He realizes (during the

intervals when he is not being ravaged by a savage dog unleashed upon

him by the man he is staying with) that prayer--Catholicism--is the

answer to all his troubles. If he can only say enough Hail Mary¹s,

all his misfortunes will disappear. Surely the Lord will hear him as

he stores up indulgences in heaven as in a bank, guaranteeing himself

both literal and spiritual salvation. But his prayers never save him

from cruelty and brutality. The more he prays, in fact, the worse

things seem to get. But, he reasons, Catholicism is a much more

rational religion than those silly superstitions with their foul

magical potions that never seem to work. It¹s a step in the right

direction. Even if his prayers aren¹t being answered immediately, at

least he¹s assured a space in heaven.

Catholicism, likewise, was used by the peasants to persecute the

protagonist. He is chased out of the church by an angry mob after he

accidentally drops a sacred book during his short-lived stint as an

altar boy. Clearly, they use the accident as an excuse to exercise

hate towards him. He is accused of being possessed by the devil, and

the fact that his small frame staggers under the weight of the massive

book is proof. Catholicism, with respect to its members¹ compassion,

is no different than medieval superstition. There is no Christian

love in this church. In the words of Nietzsche, ³God is dead.²

Finally the protagonist is taken up by the Red Army, exposed to books

and new ideas, and convinced that God and devils, demons and heaven

and hell are all simply figments of the imagination, used by people

with power to get masses of people to do what they want. He reacts

against Catholicism with the same violent revulsion with which he

reacted against superstition. He feels incredibly foolish for having

believed such groundless ideas that had nothing to do with facts:

³Recalling some of the phrases in those prayers, I felt cheated. They

were, as Gavrila said, filled only with meaningless words. Why hadn¹t

I realized it sooner?²

With no God, there are no stone tablets from which to derive

morality. The protagonist comes to the realization that each man

makes his own morality, and whatever actions he commits within that

reality are justified because he is carrying out his own system of

values, ideals, beliefs. The best reality is that of the Communist

Party, he learns, who alone are capable of knowing what is best for

the masses: ³The Party members stood at that social summit from which

human actions could be seen not as meaningless jumbles, but as part of

a definite pattern.²

In one scene the protagonist¹s kindly mentor and role model, Mitka--a

grandfather figure--calmly fires a high powered machine gun at a

distant villager who is sleepily stretching his arms in the

sunlight-strewn hours of early morning. The admiring protagonist is

amazed. He understands that Mitka¹s action is justified because he is

superior, a member of the Party. Revenge is justified. We see from

this that cruelty still exists: it has simply changed form. What ties

the villagers¹ superstitions together with totalitarianism is best

stated in the prologue of The Painted Bird: ³The only law [in the

villages] was the traditional right of the stronger and wealthier over

the weaker and poorer.² .

One can¹t help but question the progress of the protagonist¹s moral

character at the conclusion of the novel. He is cruel and indifferent

to other people¹s suffering. Even as his parents finally come for

him, he breaks the fingers of his newly adopted four year old brother

without feeling the least bit of sympathy or remorse for his action.

Clearly, his philosophy has become a kind of social Darwinism: eat or

be eaten. Survival of the fittest.

What makes this book so complex is that no morals seem to be

propounded. The reader, along with the protagonist, is left sprawling

on a gigantic icy slab of chaotic relativism, his moral knees knocked

out from under him. He must rely on others to teach him, but everyone

has something different to tell him. We find that cruelty is made

understandable, love is perverted. Even sex is reduced to the basest

elements: animals copulating are no more base, no more beautiful than

humans. There is no distinction between man and beast. The two, in

fact, are often fused together and/or confused, each taking on the

qualities of the other.

In a Never Ending Storyish kind of way, the reader often finds

him/herself transplanted into the innocent mind and young helpless

body of the protagonist: through his suffering, his joys, his

bitterness and ambivalence. It is this transplantation that makes the

book so difficult to endure, and so irresistibly lucid and compelling.

I felt terrible and sad, angry at the world and at the cruelty that

one human being will do to another. I found myself questioning the

meaning of things right along with the protagonist. Kosinski achieves

the difficult task of inspiring sympathy without thrusting dogmatic

ideals into the reader¹s head.

It is understandable to take a depressing view of the world from the

circumstances presented in the novel. Reality is turned upside down

and inside out, its guts laid bare for all to see, and finally

casually gotten used to and embraced by the main character. One

critic puts forth this nihilistic interpretation of the Painted Bird.

Poore states in his review:

³[The protagonist] grew in his bitter wisdom immeasurably. The blows

he could not escape he endured. These were the cost-sheets of

survival in a senselessly brutal world. And when his turn came to

take some unfair advantage, he took it.

³That, Mr. Kosinski seems to be telling us, is how things are in our

world. People who are treated unjustly do not invariably treat others

justly. People who are discriminated against in turn may be found

discriminating against others.²

Unlike a Stephen King novel, however, the book avoids being cast into

the genre of cheap horror thrills because at the same time it creates

a deep sense of beauty and social responsibility while paradoxically

indicting the reader as being not much different than the murderous

villagers. One critic writes of this phenomenon by ascribing to

Kosinski the ability to create open-ended symbols which achieve the

difficult effect of mirroring whatever attitudes the reader brings

into the book. That, he explains, is why people have such differing

views on the novel, ranging from horror filled to awe-inspired. This

critic went on to say that, because each viewer makes the work his/her

own, he/she therefore is held accountable to his/her own

interpretation of the work. He states, ³For them, in fact, these

texts become a test of courage--whether or not they can recognize

themselves as not only the victims of language but also as the


Several other critics emphasized the book¹s concentration on grim and

grotesque realities. Bauke repeatedly stresses the author¹s mastery

over painting the black tones of the protagonist¹s harsh existence.

³It is a book of terrifying impact, replete with scenes of sadism

rarely matched in contemporary writing,² he writes. ³Mr. Kosinski

evokes with the grim precision of a dream a world of Gothic


While suffering and cruelty are, indeed, major recurring themes

throughout the book, beauty in its purity and innocence is also

depicted generously and with great texture. Sometimes the beauty is

even interwoven with what many would otherwise see as ugly. This is

evident in the protagonists¹ first guardian, Marta. Marta is an

ambivalent figure, at best. She is ugly, foul smelling, and often

ignorant of the protagonist¹s suffering. On the other hand, she

occasionally expresses an endearing sort of sentimentality toward him,

raking her long scraggly nails along his head affectionately. She also

attempts to heal him when he is ill, mixing vile treatments for him to

drink such as ³the juice of a squeezed onion, the bile of a billygoat

or rabbit, and a dash of raw vodka.² Despite her odd, vomit-inducing

ways, the reader still gets a sense of her dedication: she cares.

The Painted Bird¹s historical contributions lie not in the realm of

factual, unbiased, detail-laden information, but in giving us a new

way of thinking about the facts that we already have. Most history

books tend to focus only on the external aspects of Hitler¹s Nazi

party¹s rise to power, focusing on each country as if it was an entity

of itself, individualizing the nations as if they were so many

bickering ten-year-olds in the playground of the world. Few books

focus on the internal orders of such countries as Poland. Peasants

played a major role in ethnic extermination as well by condoning, and

often perpetuating, Hitler¹s hate. More than that, however, the

book¹s slow panorama of superstition, Catholicism, and existentialism

give us a three-dimensional understanding of all the myriad of ideas

that were floating around at that time. We understand them from the

mind of a child, we apply them to the experiences we see him having.

And if we closely examine them, we¹ll find that such ideas are still

in the air today--that it is possible for something like the Holocaust

to happen again if circumstances are arranged just so. Bosnia, for

example, resounds with the echo of the Nazis¹ boots.

One of the greatest aspects of fiction is that, in many senses, it is

always alive. It changes just as history and the people who write it

change. As each generation comes of age, they are able to write

history--and also fiction--according to their cultural values and

beliefs. The beauty of Kosinski¹s work is that he allows us to do

this. Through his loosely constructed symbolism, readers can

continually apply his fiction to modern interpretations. At the same

time, however, Kosinski holds us accountable through his graphic,

disturbing realistic depiction of what humans are capable of and have,

in fact, done. Perhaps if enough people are touched, they can,

indeed, prevent scenes like these from occurring again. In this

sense, Kosinski¹s work is a gift to humanity. It is a gift to the



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