Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird

July 2014

Situational Irony and Turning Identity Inside Out: A review of The Painted Bird

Kosinski’s Holocaust fiction novel, The Painted Bird, was first published in 1965. A well-known scandal between the Village Voice and The New York Times ripped apart its authenticity in 1982; the former accusing Kosinski of literary fraud and the latter defending his credibility (Treadmill). Although Kosinski declared that The Painted Bird is fiction (Plimpton, Landesma), critics continue to refer to it as an autobiography (Finkelstein 55), or autobiographical fiction (Richter 3; Vice 67). It is described as being a “mixture of allegory and historical specificity” (Vice 68), but this paper takes a closer look at the parallels used in the underlying situational irony: the distant, outer reality of the Second World War alongside the inner reality of the protagonist’s passage through a medieval-esque nightmare of unrelenting abuse. This is signified further in the zoomorphism in the book, whereby the boy struggles with his identity with the outer world which is often full of animals and insects.

Critics claim that Kosinski’s novel was autobiographical (Finkelstein 55; Vice 67). Kosiniski himself perpetually insisted it was a work of fiction, and he proclaimed during an interview, “to say that any novel is autobiographical may be convenient for classification, but it’s not easily justified” (Plimpton, Landesma). Kosinski argued that our memory of events “lacks the hard edge of fact” (Plimpton, Landesma). From a more poetic perspective, narrative is the metaphor of memory (Hacking 250), and memory is not something we possess but something that possesses us (Eaglestone 79). Some critics prefer to call The Painted Bird a work of autobiographical fiction (Vice 67). Although the skeletons of Kosinski’s traumatic childhood experiences haunt scenes in The Painted Bird—such as when he was “pushed under the ice while ice-skating on a lake in Poland as a prank by village kids,” (Treadwell) which correlates to the scene when the boy in the novel is throw into the ice hole[1] (Kosinski 142-144)—it does not define the book as autobiographical.

Regardless of its classification as fiction or autobiography or autobiographical fiction, situational irony laces the entire book together. Assuming that a child who escaped being captured by the Nazis and thrown into a concentration camp should have good fortune is not far-fetched, but it’s not the reality of the novel. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. It is irrefutably ironic that the main character’s journey after escaping the death camps is still full of torture, humiliation, starvation, and death. After reading about the endless superstitions promulgating abuse, the incessant torture and bestial rape, there’s an inconceivably horrific invisible heteroglossia[2] implying that enduring the hells of a concentration camp would be better, maybe even death would be better, than the turmoil that follows the boy. Kosinski himself said that he saw “no difference between war and any other traumatic experience” and that he didn’t believe that “human experience can be graded, from less brutal to extremely brutal” (Plimpton, Landesma). The relentless torment the boy endures form superstitious, and bigoted, peasants is not less traumatic than if the setting were in the Warsaw ghetto and the abuse was carried out by Nazis.

The Painted Bird alludes to two coexisting wars: World War II led by the Nazis, which is a peripheral backdrop for the story, and the one in the rural towns where “an invisible force divided people, split families, addled brains” (Kosinski 155). The reader is left with sorrow for the boy and how he is faced with the Dark-Ages actions of the peasants: His keeper Garbos forces him to swing from the ceiling while the veracious dog Judas waits for an opportunity to rip out his throat, and this goes on until the boy’s limbs are stretched like taffy (Kosinski 114-119). Few passages mention the Holocaust victims, but when they are mentioned it is still brutal for the reader. The prosecuted threw their children form the trains and “their mutilated trunks rolled down the embankment,” (Kosinski 86). One of the children was a boy who had a “large bloody bubble” in his mouth, and the peasants robbed him as he died (Kosinski 87).  The archetypal figures of the elderly in Holocaust fiction often attack the story’s protagonists instead of helping them (Neile 408). This is almost entirely the case in The Painted Bird. In the above scenes, which represent the parallel worlds in the novel, one in the foreground and the other in the background, the elderly figures maliciously administer harm or neglect.

This parallel between the boy’s sufferings and the war in the background is signified in the scene about the rabbit waking up half-dead as its skin is pulled half-of: The rabbit is literally inside-out[3]. It alludes to the violence and death between the trials the boy faces outside of the camps and the implied horrors the Holocaust victims face inside the camps. The rabbit[4] scene also assists in threatening the boy’s “efforts to construct a selfhood of his own”; the rabbit is “not one thing or another…she is not fur but a suffering subject, and thus an image for the boy of his own fragile state,” it is a “reminder that the inside is and outside are very distinct in the symbolic order, and seeing both” is traumatic for “the victim and the viewer” (Vice 87).

The Painted Bird uses situational irony to validate the trauma endured by victims of bigotry outside of the concentration camps. It’s theme of disconnectedness between the boy and the outside world alludes to the struggle of prejudiced identification for Holocaust survivors (and victims). The boy himself is the painted bird, painted with the markings of either what the antagonists perceive with abhorrent racism and violent discrimination as Gypsy or Jew: “olive-skinned, dark-haired, and black-eyed” (Kosinski 1). He tries to return to the community, any community, just to be shunned and battered. And in the end, after he regains his speech, he realizes that “it matters little if one is mute; people did not understand one another anyway” because whether they “collided with or charmed one another, hugged or trampled one another” it didn’t matter because “everyone thought of only himself” (Kosinski 212). That realization is the point of the entire book.


Works Cited

Eaglestone, Robert. The Holocaust and the Postmodern Oxford: Oxford University Press,2004, Print.

Finkelstien, Norman G. The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering. London: Verso, 2000, Print.

Kosinski, Jerzy. Interview by George Plimton and Rocco Landesman. Jerzy Kosiniski, The Art of Fiction No. 46. The Paris Review, n.d. Web. 5 June 2014.

—. The Painted Bird. Ontario: Simon & Schuster, 1970, Print.

Neile, Caren S. “Poetry After Auschwitz: Emotion and Culture in Fictional Representations of the Holocaust.” Innovation: the European Journal of Social Science Research. 10.4 (1997): 405-417. Print.

Richter, David H. “The Three Denouements of Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird.” Contemporary Literature. 15.3 (1974): 370-385. JSTOR. Web. 5 June 2014.

Treadwell, David. “Novelist Jerzy Kosinski, 57, Kills Himself in N.Y. Home: Literature: Works by the Polish native include ‘The Painted Bird’ and ‘Being There.’ He had been ill.” Los Angeles Times 4 May 1991, Web. 5 June 2014.

Vice, Sue. Holocaust Fiction. London: Routledge, 2000, Print.

[1] Since irony will be discussed as the main theme of the novel next, it is notable to mention how it is sadly ironic that Kosinski killed himself in a bathtub of water despite his lifelong fear of water, a fear which resulted from the time he was thrown into the ice hole in Poland as a child (Treadwell).

[2] “’Dialogized heteroglossia’” or double-voicing happens when two or more perspectives compete for the reader’s attention; it’s “constructed not by authorial fiat but by the clash of discourses” (Vice 8).

[3] This metaphor of something being inside-out was also used in the film Everything Is Illuminated, when Jonathan suggests to Alex that his shirt being inside-out is a metaphor for him being a Jewish man living in an anti-Semitic culture.

[4] The zoomorphic motifs throughout the text signify the metamorphosis of the boy turning inside-out, struggling with identity—he doesn’t even know if he is Jewish or a Gypsy, and he is often with animals or insects.


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