Theme of Survival in The Painted Bird, The Death of Dolgushov, and Slumdog Millionaire Compare and Contrast Essay

July 16, 2021 by Essay Writer

Updated: Jun 24th, 2019

According to Hal Lindsey: “Man can live about forty days without food, about three days without water, about eight minutes without air, but only for one second without hope”.

The reading of Jerzy Kosinski’s novel The Painted Bird (which tells the ‘survivalist’ story, on the part of a Jewish boy, stuck in Eastern Europe during the course of WW2), of Isaac Babel’s story The Death of Dolgushov (which provides readers with a better understanding of what accounted for the realities of Civil War in Russia), and the watching of 2008 film Slumdog Millionaire (which portrays two Indian boys trying to survive in the hostile poverty-stricken environment) do confirm the soundness of Linsey’s idea.

At the same time, however, there are good reasons to think that readers/viewers’ exposure to the earlier mentioned novel, the short story and the movie, helps them realize that people’s strive to survive, despite the impossible odds, does result in altering the very workings of their psyche.

This partially explains why; whereas, in the novel and the movie characters seem to be endowed with a strong desire to survive, the character of Dolgushev in Babel’s story is being presented as someone who had lost its will to live. Apparently, the very nature of Dolgushev’s injury did in fact deprive him of his sense of existential optimism.

People, who get to be exposed to the suffering of others for a long time, eventually come to realize a simple fact that, despite the claims of monotheistic religions, there is no ‘all-loving deity’ up in the sky. The reason for this is simple – it is not only that the God does not seem to care about executing his ‘divine duty’ of providing protection to the abused individuals, but he also appears to be always siding with the abusers.

Therefore, there is nothing odd about the fact that, throughout the entirety of The Painted Bird, the narrator never skips a chance of exposing readers to what appears to be his strongly defined hatred of God, as someone indistinguishable from Devil: “Above me, God Himself stretched, suspended in space, timing the horrendous spectacle with His perpetual clock” (58).

If God does not help a particular individual trying to survive, than it does not make any sense for such an individual to be continually invoking his name, as it would result in lessening his or her chances to survive in the hostile environment even further.

The realization of God’s absence also appears to define the existential mode of growing up Jamal and Salim in the Slumdog Millionaire. Apparently, as both characters were dealing with the realities of a Third World’s living, they were becoming increasingly aware of a simple fact that the best way to go about protecting themselves from abuses, on the part of immoral adults, is to act towards these adults in even less moral manner.

There is a memorable scene in the movie when Salim pulls out his gun, robs Maman of his money and shoots him: “Salim: Maman never forgets, isn’t it right? Maman: I can make an exception… Salim: Sorry (shoots)” (00.58.17). In his particular scene, Salim acted in full accordance with the foremost law of nature, which implies that it is absolutely natural for the living organisms to go about expanding their environmental niches at the expense of eliminating competitors.

In The Death of Dolgushov, the theme of atheism defines story’s semiotics, as well. After all, according to Christianity’s convention, one’s life represents a ‘sanctified value’. Nevertheless, during the time of war, the value of people’s lives drops considerably. After all, unlike what it is being the case with natural resources, ‘human resources’ are fully renewable: “Why all the proposals and marriages, and having fun at the weddings?”

In its turn, this explains the ease with which wounded Dolgushev asks to for a mercy-shot: “You’ll have to waste a cartridge on me” and the ease with which platoon commander shoots him: “Afonka hid the papers in his boot and shot Dolgushov in the mouth”.

Nevertheless, it would be inappropriate to discuss Dolgushev’s weakened desire to survive in regards to merely ideological considerations, on his part. He simply knew that the injury he had sustained was not compatible with life – pure and simple. In this respect, Dolgushev differs rather considerably from the survivalists in Kosinski’s novel and in Babel’s short story.

Another common psychological feature about the people, who deal with the impossible odds, while trying to survive physically, is their reduced sensitivity to pain. Apparently, while striving to survive, the mind ‘turns off’ a number of pain-receptors on survivalist’s body. This is the reason why, on many occasions, Kosinski novel’s narrator seems to have grown mentally adjusted to dealing with an acute physical pain: “The muscles of my arms became conditioned by the hanging and I could endure it for hours without much effort” (133).

The same applies to the character of Jamal in the Slumdog Millionaire. After all, despite the fact that in the film’s initial scene, police officers subject him to torturing, Jamal never ceases to act in a particularly stoic manner – hence, causing his tormenters to wonder about why Jamal’s exposure to the artificially induced sensation of an extreme physical pain did not cause him to come up with the ‘confession’: “Police Inspector: You’ve been here a whole bloody night, what have you been doing? Head Constable: He (Jamal) is a tough guy” (00.04.10). This once again points out to the fact that ‘suffering’ is an essentially relativist notion.

The earlier suggestion also pertains within the context of analyzing the scene in The Death of Dolgushov, in which Babel provides readers with the graphic details of Dolgushov’s injury: “He (Dolgushov) sat leaning against a tree… Without lowering his eyes from my gaze, he carefully pulled back his shirt.

His stomach had been ripped open, his intestines were hanging on his knees, and you could see the beating of his heart”. Even though that, given the nature of Dolgushov’s injury, he should have been unable to talk, due to experiencing an unbearable pain, he nevertheless addresses Red Army’s soldiers in a strikingly calm manner.

Nevertheless, unlike what it is being the case with novel and movie’s characters, Dolgushev’s lessened sensitivity to physical pain did not increase his chances to survive. It appears that the actual reason why Dolgushev’s mind had switched off pain-receptors on his body was to ease up the process of dying, on his part.

Given the fact that the majority of today’s Westerners never get to experience any real hardships in their lives, it does not come as a particular surprise that they often tend to adopt a morally-judgmental stance, when it comes to reflecting upon what they consider people’s ‘socially inappropriate’ behavior.

Yet, just as it is being the case with the value of human life, the value of a number of ethical conventions appears highly circumstantial. The reading of Babel’s novel substantiates the full validity of an earlier suggestion. The reason for this is apparent – in The Painted Bird, author does not refer to the notion of evil as something ‘intrinsic’ but rather as something ‘instrumental’: “I also began to understand the extraordinary suc­cess of the Germans…

They pre­ferred attacking other tribes and taking crops from them… That is why they were endowed with all their splendid abilities and talents” (153). Apparently, as time went on, it was becoming increasingly clear to novel’s narrator that ‘evil’ is being as much of an integral part of people’s lives as ‘good’ is – a rather ethically unconventional idea. In its turn, this helped the narrator to adequately assess the surrounding reality – hence, increasing his chances for survival.

Essentially the same idea defines the philosophical sounding of the Slumdog Millionaire movie. After all, in this particular movie, the director had made a point in exposing the acts of stealing, on the part of main characters, as being rather morally ambivalent.

In the scene where American tourists end up having their car ruined by the underage members of a street-gang, Jamal comes up with the statement: “You wanted to see the piece of real India? There it is!” (00.46.23) – hence, implying that there were no objective reasons for the perceptionally arrogant Westerners to think of emanations of India’s ‘cultural richness’ as something necessarily positive, in the first place. This, of course, helped the American tourists to snap out of their arrogance and consequently – to expand their intellectual horizons.

The theme of moral unconventionalness is being prominent in The Death of Dolgushev, as well. In the scene, following the mercy-killing of Dolgushev, platoon commander Afonka reflects upon the narrator’s unwillingness to finish off his wounded comrade in the following manner: “You guys in glasses have as much pity for our boys as a cat does for a mouse”.

Nevertheless, there is a substantial difference between how the motif of moral unconventionalness extrapolates itself in the novel/movie, on the one hand, and in Babel’s story, on the other. Whereas, by distancing themselves from the virtues of conventional morality, the character of ‘gypsy boy’ in Kosinski’s novel and the characters of Jamal and Salim from the film, were gaining an additional strength to survive, Dolgushev’s clearly defined moral unconventionalness resulted in speeding up his ultimate demise.

Apparently, one’s desire to survive weakens considerably when he or she gets to realize that the price for its temporal survival would be his or her deprivation of much of its ‘original’ humanity (in case with Dolgushev – due to physical incapacitation).

Despite the fact that the earlier mentioned novel, the short story and the film deal with spatially unrelated subject matters, they nevertheless do provide readers/viewers with the in-depth insight into the very essence of ‘survival’, as a mind-affecting process. This conclusion is being fully consistent with paper’s initial thesis.


Babel, Isaac. “The Death of Dolgushov.” Filesonic. 2010. Web.

Jerzy Kosinski. The Painted Bird. New York: Grove Press, 1976. Print. Slumdog Millionaire. Dir. Danny Boyle. Perfs. Dev Patel, Madhur Mittal, Irrfan.

Khan. Celador Films/Film4 Productions, 2008.

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