History–Historical Analysis of Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird The Painted Bird Recibio una ‘A plus’ para ese papel! An obscure village in Poland, sheltered from ideas and industrialization, seemed a safe place to store ones 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 Kosinskis 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 protagonists 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 backward 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 novels implications extend to all of us. Not only did Hitlers 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 Kosinskis work.
It is this sense of connectedness between cultures, people, and ideas that runs through the book continuously. While the backward nonindustrialized villages of Poland seem at first glance to contrast sharply with civilized 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 villagers 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 villagers behavior reads like a gruesome car accident on the side of the road at which one cannot help but crane ones neck. It is both repulsive and compelling; one reads in a state of disbelief and horror.
The cruelty, moreover, isnt 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 wifes lust interest, an otherwise innocuous 14-year-old plowboy whose only sin was in staring too fixedly at a womans bosom: And 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 boys eyes and twisted it. The eye sprang out of his face like a yolk from a broken egg and rolled down the millers hand onto the floor.
The plowboy howled and shrieked, but the millers 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 boys cheek as if uncertain what to do next; then it finally tumbled down his shirt onto the floor. The peasants 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 Marys, 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. Its a step in the right direction. Even if his prayers arent being answered immediately, at least hes 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 members compassion, is no different than medieval superstition.
There is no Christian love in this church. In the words of Nietzsche, God is dead. 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: Recalling some of the phrases in those prayers, I felt cheated. They were, as Gavrila said, filled only with meaningless words.
Why hadnt I realized it sooner? 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: The 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. In one scene the protagoni …