The Thorn Birds Questions and Answers
by Colleen McCullough

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What do Mary Carson, Luke O'Neil, and Fiona Clery in The Thorn Birds, Aseef in The Kite Runner, and Rasheed in A Thousand Splendid Suns all have in common?

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The characters of Mary Carson, Fiona Cleary and Luke O’Neil in The Thorn Birds have some similarities to Aseef in The Kite Runner and Rasheed in A Thousand Splendid Suns. They all exhibit a certain amount of cruelty, but their reasons vary.

Mary Carson is all about vengeance. She pines for Father Ralph de Bricassart and tries to seduce him with her money. She smothers him with lavish gifts, including a car, but Ralph is devoted to his ambition to attain a position of power in the church. When a woman finally turns his head, it’s Mary’s niece Meggy. This rejection stirs Mary’s ire, and she devises a brilliantly vicious revenge. After leaving her massive sheep ranch to her brother, whom she lured to come with the promise of inheriting it, she writes a second will. The new will leaves everything to the Church, with the stipulation that Ralph must be the custodian, handing him the power he has been craving. Ralph is the only one who knows about the will, so he needs to choose between his love for Meggy and his ambition. Mary knew Ralph would choose power and thereby condemn himself to a life of searing guilt over what he did to the woman he loved.

Ralph’s choice left Meggy without financial security, so she married Luke O’Neil. Luke exhibits cruelty as well, but his actions seem to stem from a lack of awareness of anyone else’s perspective. When he marries Meggy, he books their travel in a cheap, sitting upright train car to save money and has no idea why his new wife is unhappy. When they consummate their marriage, he ignores the fact that she is young and inexperienced and pursues his own pleasure while brutally hurting her. He does not expect that Meggy would have a problem with him hiring her out as a maid while he goes off to another farm to work for months at a time. He thinks of himself and his desire to accumulate money (but not to spend it) but not of his wife. He is cruel, but unlike Mary’s vindictiveness, it is a thoughtless cruelty.

Meggy did not experience tenderness from her husband, and she had never known it from her mother, either. Fiona Cleary was a cold woman who only showed affection to her oldest son, Frank. She is described as always silent. She eventually tells Meggy the secret source of her unhappiness: she had an affair with a married politician who got her pregnant. He could not acknowledge Frank or marry Fee, so her father paid Paddy Cleary to marry her and raise Frank as his own. She therefore loved Frank best and snubbed the rest of her children and even her husband. But her cruelty is a reaction to the disappointment in her life.

In The Kite Runner, Aseef did not have a disappointing life. As a child, he lived in relative privilege and security, but he was a racist bully. He looked down on Hassan because Hassan is a member of the minority native group the Hazaras. As a boy, his limitless cruelty is displayed when he rapes Hassan while the boy is held down. As an adult, he finds an outlet for his violent urges by joining the Taliban to cleanse the country of Hazaras. However, he sees this as a mission given to him by God. He had been a captive of the Taliban who tortured him by kicking him repeatedly. One blow found his kidney, dislodging a painful stone. He took that as a sign that he belonged with the Taliban: it became his justification for a life of satisfying his malicious appetites.

The character of Rasheed in A Thousand Splendid Suns is cruel to both his wives. His first wife, Mariam, “disappoints” him when she miscarries repeatedly. He psychologically abuses her by ignoring her, ridiculing her when she asks questions, and attacking her cooking to the point where she finds it hard to function in the kitchen. Finally, he takes a younger second wife, Laila, into the house. He adds to the last humiliation by making Laila “queen” of the house and demanding Mariam act as her servant. But Laila disappoints Rashid eventually, arguing with him about his support for the Taliban. Rasheed believes Mariam has corrupted her, and now he ignores them both. His abuse escalates to kicking, punching, and choking them, and even breaking Mariam’s teeth. When they try to run away and fail, he severely beats them. For Rasheed, it seems to be about power. Wives are meant to be submissive and fertile, and when they fail at this, he believes they must be punished. His vindictiveness probably makes him the most like Mary Carson.

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