Does this novel characterize evil? What is the nature of evil from the point of view of the book? In The Painted Bird, Jerzy Kosinski’s hero, a Jewish orphan during WWII, pays witness to atrocities seen while roaming through rural, backwards towns in Nazi occupied Poland, which happen to be populated by antiquated, superstitious pagan-like townspeople. Innocence in a 6 year old hero juxtaposed against evil brutality in villainous townspeople makes the story unusually disturbing and gripping.
Typical WWII tales understandably reveal the German Nazis as the true criminals and mass murderers of the time but in the story we see Polish villagers playing a similar role. The evil depicted in this book stems from a fear of the unknown or “the other”. The townspeople want nothing to do with this mysterious young Jewish boy who they characterize as an evil Gypsy and see as a threat. He is not to be trusted as they believe he carries curses that lead to death, disease and misfortune.
Any young Jew’s ultimate fate during WWII, however, would typically be death in a Nazi gas chamber or by a gunshot wound to the head. The Polish villagers who hid Jews during WWII were put to death as well. The reality of this story is that the villagers are quite simply evil. Most of the people who are meant to care for the boy keep him usually only for slave work or simply make him their scapegoat to blame misfortunes on.
By characterizing him as evil, “the other” threatening their way of life, they effectively relinquish themselves from the blame of their own bad behavior against anything that they deem evil. Making themselves the heroes in truly disgusting situations, which they are in fact the perpetrators of, seems to be a metaphor for what went on in Nazi Germany at the time. The Jews acted as Germany’s scapegoat.
The story sadly exposes the theme that, to the tribe, “The Other” is a dangerous invader, the element of an antagonistic species that must be destroyed. During his flight from the Nazis the boy is witness and subject to acts of brutality and inhuman horror, much like the flight of the poor painted bird that is destroyed by his own flock due to superficial differences. The metaphor points out that mankind will similarly annihilate differences that appear threatening.