Places: The Painted Bird

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1965

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social morality

Time of work: 1939-1945

Places DiscussedVillages

Villages. Painted Bird, TheMuch 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.


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.

BibliographyEverman, 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.”
Categories: Places