Historical Analysis of 'the Painted Bird'

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  • Topic: Jerzy Kosinski, The Painted Bird, Superstition
  • Pages : 6 (2575 words )
  • Download(s) : 107
  • Published : October 8, 1999
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An obscure village in Poland, sheltered from ideas and industrialization, seemed a safe place to store one's 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 Kosinski's 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 protagonist's 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 novel's implications extend to all of us. Not only did Hitler's 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 Kosinski's 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 one's neck. It is both repulsive and compelling; one reads in a state of disbelief and horror. The cruelty, moreover, isn't 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 wife's "lust interest," an otherwise innocuous 14-year-old plowboy whose only sin was in staring too fixedly at a woman's 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 boy's eyes and twisted it."The eye sprang out of his face like a yolk from a broken egg and rolled down the miller's hand onto the floor. The plowboy howled and...
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