The Painted Bird is a novel by Jerzy Kosinski and the story is set during the Second World War and it takes place in Eastern Europe. The story follows a young boy who is either a gypsy or of Jewish descent as he travels from one village to another constantly being tormented and mistreated largely due to his social status. Although fictional, one cannot help but learn certain aspects of human behavior through the interaction of groups and communities with the main character. There is truth in the fictional words, scenes, and action, and one truth is how easy it is to behave cruelly towards another human being if that human being is looked at like an outsider.
One example of this is seen at the beginning of the novel, shortly after the boy leaves his initial village and enters a “foreign” community, where he is tired, terrified and starving, the boy lays down in the middle of the road. Instead of being helped, the villagers gather around him and slowly increase their rate of violence, first starting from simply poking the boy to then jabbing him with rakes to eventually hurling rocks at him. His relief comes when a villager stuffs the boy in a burlap sack and takes him to be his servant. The boy is viewed as an animal, perhaps even an object to use, instead of a person to be helped. Kosinski uses the word “mob” when he describes this scene, the mob mentality showing how cruelty towards a child in need can quickly come to be accepted.
Group psychology is often separated between ingroups and outgroups. An in-group is a group with which an individual feels a sense of membership, belonging and identity. Outgroup, on the other hand, are groups with which an individual does not feel a sense of membership, belonging, or identity. Acts of racism, prejudice, and discrimination are often associated with this view where an individual comes to see those out of their group as different, as an “other” and even less than human if one takes this concept to the extreme. In fact, people favor ingroups over outgroups in order to enhance their self-esteem, this is known as the social identity theory.
The idea of the mob or the group mentality is visited throughout the text. The title of the novel is explained in the fifth chapter where the story of the painted bird is told. The idea being, if there is a flock of birds of the same color and then you introduce the same type of bird but this one has its wings painted, the original flock will see it as a threat to their cohesiveness and ability to “blend together” and kill the bird rather than let it join the flock.
Essentially, one who stands out from the group gets killed.
Another truth of the novel is that although our own behavior, thought pattern, and action all play a role in developing our self-identity, this identity is also influenced by the opinions of others. The boy comes to believe that he is possessed by an evil spirit because others believe that he is and punish him for it. He also comes to see that everything bad that happens to him is because he is bad, that it is his fault because others constantly blame the boy for any mishap. Later on, the boy believes that the beatings he has suffered throughout his life were because he had not prayed enough. This idea is implanted in him by the priest he encounters.
This idea is later explored when the boy is saved from his misery by the Red Army. He views his saviors as gallant, brave, courageous, all the positive aspects he could think of and begins to identify himself with these people. Soon he starts to feel a sense of pride with his new group. When he wears his groups uniform he feels good, when he hears stories of his group winning, he feels as if he is winning. When the group does good, he does good.
Another aspect of human behavior that is explored in the text is the idea that a group needs someone to blame when bad things happen otherwise it will turn on itself. People always need someone to blame for their misfortune and when that someone is presented, all that hate is focused on them and this displaced attitude brings people relief for a moment. A scene that depicts this notion is that of the rats in the bunker. Alone, the rats eat each other but when a man falls into the bunker, the rats direct their hunger towards the man and begin to eat him for the time being.
Although the novel has a happy ending, the boy finds his family again, it is hard to consider the story to be a happy one. The damage suffered during his adolescent years will impact his cognitive and physical growth and also how he interacts with others. This aspect is not explored in the novel but one can infer that the boy will live a troubled life, which is another truth about human behavior. One cannot simply block out their experiences. The experiences build upon one another, intermingling with that individual’s genetics, to produce a human being’s psychological state. The boy will be damaged as were the real individuals who participated in the Second World War either voluntarily or involuntarily. The group dynamics impacting the war as it impacts much of societal makeup.