Considered to be either a Jew or a Roma Gypsy because of his dark hair and olive skin, the boy is treated horribly by the brutal and ignorant peasants he meets in his travels. The young boy first lives in the hut of Marta, a disabled and superstitious old woman. When she dies of natural causes, the boy accidentally burns down her house.
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The book is largely metaphorical and deals with the brutality of human nature and how the horrors we perpetrate on each other become part of us.
Thematically, the novel deals with the conflation of human and animal, and the interplay of violence and control. The Painted Bird is told in the first-person from the point of view of an unnamed boy of unknown ethnicity.
It takes place in Eastern Europe during World War II, beginning inwhen the boy is six years old, and spanning six years. They arrange for their son to travel from their city to a village far away, in the countryside. The peasants there are isolated, poor, and superstitious, and without modern conveniences.
Marta passes away, and the boy accidentally burns down her hut. He escapes the fire and makes his way to another village, where he is beaten by the peasants. He is saved by Olga the Wise, the village healer, who teaches the boy how to mix ingredients and gives him elixirs to restrain the evil powers inside him.
Though Olga is kind to him, the peasants fear him. They eventually throw him in the river, and he floats away. From this point on, the boy wanders the countryside, finding shelter in villages when he can. At his next stop, the boy lives with a blacksmith, who is eventually murdered by Polish partisans.
The boy is then sent to a German outpost, where his life is spared by a German soldier who pretends to execute him and then sets him free. He stays in a village by the railroad tracks, where the peasants watch as trains full of Jewish prisoners head to concentration camps.
A Jewish girl is found along the tracks and is taken to the house of a peasant named Rainbow. She is raped by Rainbow and then killed by the village healer. He is taken to a German SS officer whose beauty and authority fascinate and inspire envy in the boy. The boy turns to prayer, which only earns him more beatings.
When the boy is thrown by churchgoers into a manure pit, he becomes mute. He next lives with the farmer Makar and his two grown children.
Ewka, the daughter, begins a sexual affair with him, and the boy leaves after discovering the family engaging in incest and bestiality. In the frozen landscape, he is beaten by village boys and saved by Labina, a widow who entertains men each night as the boy listens on in disgust.
Labina dies, and the boy flees to a new village.
The village is attacked by Kalmuks, who are then killed by Soviet soldiers. The soldiers set up camp in the field, and the boy, still mute, befriends them. He is cared for by Gavrila, an ardent member of the Communist Party, and Mitka, a sniper whose accomplishments are legendary.
He respects both men and takes a keen interest in the Red Army. When the German occupation is over, the boy reluctantly goes to an orphanage, where he fends off attacks by other orphans. He befriends an orphan called the Silent One, and the two sneak away to cause mischief in the city.
He sneaks out at night, spending his time with criminals and underground political dissenters; he breaks the arm of the four-year-old boy his parents have adopted, and he takes violent revenge on a cinema attendant who offends him. His parents then send him to the mountains to live with a ski instructor.
The boy is injured skiing and receives a phone call in the hospital. When he hears the voice on the other end, his own voice returns.
The Painted Bird, his first novel, is shrouded in controversy. Some believe the book was plagiarized from Polish folk stories unknown in the West.Summary of The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski. Below is a list of The Painted Bird Cliff Notes and The Painted Bird SparkNotes.
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The Painted Bird is a novel by Jerzy Kosiński which describes World War II as seen by a boy, considered a "Gypsy or Jewish stray," wandering about small villages scattered around an unspecified country in Eastern Europe.
The bird was a male Puerto Rican Spindalis, a colorful yellow-and-black island endemic that fills the highest treetops of its homeland with a sharp, melodious seet see seee seet see seee seet see seee.
Complete summary of Jerzy Kosinski's The Painted Bird. eNotes plot summaries cover all the significant action of The Painted Bird.