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In a deliberate shift from Khaled Hosseini’s debut novel Kite Runner (2003), A Thousand Splendid Suns (2007) transports readers to war-torn Afghanistan, where two women from vastly different backgrounds are forced to come together and endure unspeakable hardships. As their lives become intertwined, they form a bond that is both heart-wrenching and inspiring, and which offers a glimpse into the…
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In a deliberate shift from Khaled Hosseini’s debut novel Kite Runner (2003), A Thousand Splendid Suns (2007) transports readers to war-torn Afghanistan, where two women from vastly different backgrounds are forced to come together and endure unspeakable hardships. As their lives become intertwined, they form a bond that is both heart-wrenching and inspiring, and which offers a glimpse into the resilience of the human spirit in the face of unimaginable adversity. Through his masterful storytelling, Hosseini paints a vivid portrait of a country and a people struggling to survive amidst the chaos of war.
A Thousand Splendid Suns is Hosseini’s second novel. At the time of writing, Khaled Hosseini was a full-time writer and was also involved in humanitarian work for the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees). His inspiration for this novel was a trip he undertook with the UNHCR, where he saw all the adult women wearing burqas. This was not the case when he was a young child in Kabul. A Thousand Splendid Suns weaves an explanation of the complex political and social changes in Afghanistan into an engaging narrative.
A Thousand Splendid Suns is a work of historical fiction. Real historical events run throughout this fictional narrative. The main characters are fictitious, but in the backdrop, there are real historical figures, organisations, and regimes. Examples of these include King Zahir Shah, Daud Khan, the Soviets, Mujahideen fighters, and the Taliban.
One of the key contributions A Thousand Splendid Suns has made to English literature is shining a light on the ongoing refugee crisis in Afghanistan. This novel is a bestseller. It sold over a million copies in the first week of its release alone. It has made a global readership more aware of the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, with a particular focus on gender-based violence and discrimination.
Historical Fiction: a work of fiction that blends real historical events in a set time period with fictional narratives. It can include both fictional and historical characters and events.
Overview: A Thousand Splendid Suns
|Author of A Thousand Splendid Suns||Khaled Hosseini|
|Genre||Historical fiction, war literature|
|Brief summary of A Thousand Splendid Suns||The novel tells the story of two Afghan women, Mariam and Laila, who are brought together by fate and become unlikely allies in the face of brutal oppression. Mariam, a harami or illegitimate child, is forced into marriage with a much older man, Rasheed, while Laila, a young girl from a privileged family, finds herself trapped in a loveless marriage with the same man after losing everything in the war.|
|List of main characters||Mariam, Laila, Rasheed|
|Themes||Misogyny, parental relationships, conflict and change|
|Setting||Afghanistan between the early 1960s to the early 2000s|
|Analysis||Through the experiences of Mariam and Laila, Hosseini provides a powerful critique of the systemic oppression of women in Afghanistan, as well as the devastating impact of war on civilians, particularly women and children.|
The novel opens with the recounting of a bad memory from Mariam’s childhood. She had accidentally broken an heirloom, and her mother, Nana, had sworn at her, calling her a harami (bastard). From there, it launches into an explanation of her family and upbringing as the illegitimate child of a wealthy local businessman (Jalil) and his former maid (Nana).
Jalil provides basic accommodation and necessities to Nana and Mariam. It is through Jalil that young Mariam learns that Afghanistan is no longer a monarchy but a republic, the first in a series of regime changes that run throughout the novel.
Mariam adores her father, Jalil, and wants to be treated like his other children. She asks him to take her to his cinema for her fifteenth birthday and to invite her half-siblings. However, despite loving her, Jalil is ashamed of having an illegitimate child and refuses to be seen with her in public.
Despite her mother warning against it, Mariam goes to Jalil’s house. He instructs his staff to bar her entry, and she eventually returns home, where she finds her mother has committed suicide by hanging.
This circumstance forces Jalil to take her into his family home. His wives resent the presence of their husband’s illegitimate child. They arrange for Mariam to be married to Rasheed, a shoemaker with his own business in distant Kabul. He is a 45-year-old widower who has also lost his infant son to drowning. He is looking for a young wife who will provide him with children. She appeals to her father to stop the wedding, but although it saddens him, he agrees with his wives’ plans.
Mariam slowly adjusts to both marriage and life in the capital city. Her husband initially treats her with kindness. In one of the first hints of his deep misogyny, he shows a strong preference for having a boy child that makes Mariam feel uneasy. Mariam’s first pregnancy ends in miscarriage. They are both deeply distressed by this loss, but Rasheed is emotionally unsupportive. Mariam suffers six more miscarriages, and Rasheed becomes abusive towards her.
The radio brings news of political upheavals and conflicts into Mariam’s home. It is through the radio that Rasheed and Mariam learn about the bloody coup that has overthrown Doud Khan’s government and replaced it with a communist regime. Mariam worries for her estranged father, a wealthy businessman, and his sons.
The narrative briefly shifts to the birth of their neighbour’s child on the night of the coup. The parents and brothers are overjoyed at the birth of the newborn and name her Laila, which means ‘night beauty’.
The narrative leaps forward in time to the spring of 1987. Many changes have taken place, and Laila is shown as an energetic nine-year-old who is best friends with Tariq. Tariq is a neighbourhood boy who lost a leg to a Soviet landmine. Her two big brothers are away fighting the Soviets as part of the Mujahideen. Laila’s mother has depressive episodes and is consumed with worry for her sons.
Soon Laila’s family receive news of her brother’s death. This plunges her mother into a deeper depression. With the war making life increasingly dangerous in Kabul, Laila’s father wants the family to move to America. Then the Soviets are expelled from Afghanistan, and there is a brief period of peace. Tariq and Laila enter adolescence and begin to develop romantic feelings for each other.
The Muhadajeen splinters into different factions, which begin fighting. They have a huge arsenal of weapons that they were given by western powers keen to prevent the spread of Soviet power. Kabul is again unsafe, and one of Laila’s friends is killed by a stray rocket. Tariq’s family plans to flee to Pakistan and Laila’s to America. Alarmed at the prospect of being separated, the two have sex.
On the very day Laila’s family are to leave Kabul, a rocket lands on their house, killing her parents. Her neighbours, Rasheed and Mariam, take her in. A friend of Rasheed visits Laila and tells her that Tariq is dead, which is a lie. She knows she is pregnant and thinks she is all alone in the world. She agrees to marry Rasheed for security.
She finds life in Rasheed’s household very different, and when the Taliban take over, she finds life changed again. The Taliban impose a range of restrictions on all Afghans, but women and girls are particularly affected. They cannot go out without a male relative and must wear a burqa.
Rasheed initially favours Laila but begins to mistreat her after she gives birth to a daughter, Aziza. In contrast, he dotes on her second child, their son Zalmai. After initial hostilities, Mariam and Laila become allies in a household dominated by domestic abuse.
Rasheed’s shoe shop burns down, plunging the family into poverty. The family barely has enough to eat. Laila refuses to let Aziza be sent to beg on the streets, so she is sent to an orphanage instead. Here, Aziza is fed, and the orphanage director also secretly educates the children.
Tariq returns to Kabul and finds Laila, who is shocked that he is alive. Rasheed is furious when he finds out the two have talked and spent time together alone. He tries to strangle Laila, but Mariam intervenes, killing him and saving Laila. She is sentenced to death by a Taliban judge who refuses to accept Laila’s witness testimony. This is because, under Taliban rule, the testimony of a woman only has half the legal value of a man’s.
Afterwards, Laila is reunited with Aziza. She marries Tariq. He is a good father to both his daughter, Aziza, and his step-son Zalmai.
The story of A Thousand Splendid Suns is told by an unnamed omniscient third-person narrator. This allows the reader to gain an understanding of the perspectives of different characters.
An omniscient third-person narrator is an all-knowing narrator without a personal identity of their own. You might like to think of them as having a ‘fly on the wall’ style insight into all the action of the story. They also know the thoughts and feelings of all the characters.1
The narrative shifts between its two female protagonists, Mariam and Laila, until their lives fully intersect when Laila joins Mariam’s household.
The novel’s main characters include Mariam, Laila, and Rasheed.
Mariam is one of the two female protagonists of the novel. She endures many hardships but remains brave and kind-hearted. Although she only receives a very basic education from the local mullah, she is inquisitive and emotionally intelligent. Moving from rural Herat to the capital city is a culture shock for Mariam. She is in awe of the women she sees in the streets of Kabul during the Soviet occupation, wearing make-up and miniskirts, working and socialising freely. Despite living in the capital, Mariam does not enjoy the same freedoms. She is the hero of the novel, saving Laila’s life at the expense of her own.
Laila is the second female protagonist. She is a brave woman and a devoted mother. She was born on the same night that Doud Khan’s government was overthrown. Laila grows up only knowing the Soviet regime, which encourages female education and gender equality. She is also the daughter of a schoolteacher who fiercely encourages her education. As a teenager, tragedy compels Laila to marry Rasheed. She tries her best to protect Mariam from domestic violence, but Rasheed soon turns on her, too. She finds the Taliban regime more difficult to adjust to than Mariam.
Rasheed is presented as a well-rounded villain. He is a product of his time and place in history. He grew up in a rural valley where honour culture is practised. Reputation is highly valued within communities that practise honour culture. The husband is considered the head of his family, and the conduct of his wife and children reflects his personal sense of honour.
Rasheed’s upbringing influences his relationship with his wives, whose conduct he sees as an extension of his honour. He is a good father to his son, Zalmai, showing him a tenderness that contrasts with the abuse he shows his wives.
The following quotes from the novel reflect Mariam and Laila’s childhood.
A man’s heart is a wretched, wretched thing, Mariam. It isn’t like a mother’s womb. It won’t bleed, it won’t stretch to make room for you. I’m the only one who loves you (Chapter 5).
Nana’s experiences of misogyny have made her bitter and fearful for her daughter. She has a possessive, jealous love for her and hates sharing her affections with Jalil.
Her own band was a little tight, but Rasheed had no trouble forcing it over her knuckles (Chapter 1).
Consider how Rasheed’s action in forcing the symbol of their marriage over her finger can be seen as an allegory for the way in which this marriage was forced upon her.
She said women and men were equal in every way and there was no reason women should cover if men didn’t. She said that the Soviet Union was the best nation in the world, along with Afghanistan. It was kind to its workers, and its people were all equal (Chapter 16).
Laila goes to school during the Soviet occupation. Her teacher presents the regime as a benevolent force for good.
I know you’re still young, but I want you to understand and learn this now, he said. Marriage can wait, education cannot. You’re a very, very bright girl. Truly, you are. You can be anything you want, Laila (Chapter 16).
Consider how different Laila and Mariam’s childhoods are. Laila’s education is prioritised, and she is encouraged to dream big. Mariam was prevented from accessing education and denied the opportunity to work outside of the home by her mother. Nana feared the social stigma her daughter would face as an illegitimate child.
The important themes in A Thousand Splendid Suns include misogyny, parental relationships, and conflict and change.
Misogyny is a key theme in this novel. It takes on many different forms, from Rasheed’s marked preference for sons to violence against women and the variety of restrictions placed on women by the Taliban.
Their mothers walked in groups of three or four, some in burqas, others not. Mariam could hear their high pitched chatter, their spiraling laughs (Chapter 10).
Before the Taliban regime imposed its restrictions, women in Kabul had freedom of movement unaccompanied by males, and wearing the burqa was a personal choice. During Taliban rule, wearing the burqa was compulsory, and even wearing nail varnish was punishable by the amputation of a finger.
Misogyny: hatred for and prejudice against women and girls. Both individuals and societies can be misogynistic.2
Can you think of any examples of misogyny in your own society?
Parental relationships are a key factor throughout this novel, shaping the characters’ lives. It features neglectful parents, loving parents, grieving parents, and protective parents. It also explores the topics of child loss and infertility.
How might Mariam’s life have been different if Jalil had been a better father?
These themes run throughout the novel. Conflict and regime changes affect the lives of ordinary people and the wider culture around them. In big metropolitan cities, such as Kabul, social reforms were more readily accepted than in rural areas. Here, during Soviet rule, many women attended universities, worked, and wore western clothes.
Those regions where men who lived by ancient tribal laws had rebelled against the communists and their decrees to liberate women, to abolish forced marriage, to raise the minimum marriage age to sixteen for girls. There, men saw it as an insult to their centuries-old tradition (Chapter 18).
Here, Hakim’s father explains to Laila the root causes of conflict between rural communities and the occupying Soviet forces.
A Thousand Splendid Suns is Khaled Hosseini’s second novel that was published in 2007.
A Thousand Splendid Suns focuses on the experiences of women and girls in Afghanistan.
The two key protagonists are Mariam and Laila.
The reader learns how the lives of women and girls change dramatically under the hands of different regimes.
A Thousand Splendid Suns provides a global readership with a deeper insight into the lives of ordinary Afghan people during times of conflict and change.
1 Collins Dictionary (Collins, 2022).
Some of the key themes in A Thousand Splendid Suns are misogyny, parental relationships, conflict, and change.
A Thousand Splendid Suns (2007) is about the female experience in Afghanistan during tumultuous times of conflict and social and political upheaval.
A Thousand Splendid Suns is not a true story. It is a work of historical fiction.
The moral lesson of A Thousand Splendid Suns is that of the importance of protecting your loved ones and trying to provide them with the best possible life.
The novel sends an important message about the importance of women’s rights to an education, work, choice of partner, and full participation in wider society.
Who is Azziza’s father?
Who is Zalmai’s father?
How old is Rasheed when Mariam marries him?
Rasheed desperately wants a daughter.
What kills Laila’s parents?
Under the Taliban regime women cannot go out without a male guardian.
What does the word ‘harami’ mean?
A child born outside of marriage.
Which best describes the reason that Laila’s witness testimony is not accepted by the Taliban judge?
Witness testimony is only accepted from one man or two women.
How old was Mariam when she married Rasheed?
During the Soviet Occupation of Afghanistan women could get a University education and enter the workforce.
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