The Kite Runner Themes
The main themes in The Kite Runner are fathers and sons, the presence of the past, and atonement and redemption.
- Fathers and sons: Amir has a complicated relationship with his father, who he learns was also Hassan’s biological father. Eventually, Amir becomes an adoptive father to Hassan’s son.
- The presence of the past: Amir is haunted by his childhood memories, especially by his betrayal of Hassan. In returning to Afghanistan, he is finally able to reckon with the past.
- Atonement and redemption: Amir’s desire to find redemption and atone for his mistakes motivates him to risk his life in order to rescue Sohrab.
Fathers and Sons
The complex relationship between fathers and sons is an overarching force, shaping Amir’s actions throughout the novel. Amir is constantly driven to seek his father’s favor but often feels shut out of his father’s world. He finds more of a father figure in Baba’s friend Rahim Khan, who encourages his love of writing. It is also Rahim Khan who reveals the truth about Hassan’s parentage, enabling Amir to fully understand the past and come to terms with reality. Baba’s philosophy, including his belief that the only sin is that of theft, acts as a blueprint for much of Amir’s life, blinding him to the reality of Hassan’s parentage and his father’s affair.
Learning the truth about Baba angers Amir because Baba had insisted on the abhorrence of “robb[ing] . . . children of a father,” yet Baba not only robbed Hassan of the knowledge of his parentage but also stole Amir’s right to a brother.
The event at the heart of The Kite Runner, the kite tournament, is also shaped by Amir’s desire to make Baba proud. His singular focus on winning the tournament is motivated by a need to be accepted so that his “life as a ghost in this house would finally be over.” When Amir wins the tournament, he finally sees evidence of his father’s pride, and it is partially this longing to retain his father’s admiration that stops Amir from intervening when Hassan is raped. Baba’s relationship with Amir remains problematic because it is always contingent on Amir’s achievements.
Baba feels that there is something “lacking” in Amir, as Amir appears to be utterly unlike Baba and is often lost in a world of books and stories. While Baba may feel shame that his legitimate son does not resemble him, his illegitimate son, Hassan, is perhaps more like Baba. Amir’s stark differences to his father therefore threaten to expose Baba’s infidelity. Rahim Khan tells Baba that “Children aren’t coloring books. You don’t get to fill them with your favorite colors.” But this is precisely Baba’s wish, and its impossibility is the cause of the tension in his relationship with Amir.
Later in the novel, Amir realizes that Baba carried shame with him his whole life and projected this onto Amir, which impacted Amir’s sense of self. If Amir had admitted to witnessing Hassan’s rape and doing nothing, he would have admitted to being as his father views him: lacking courage and conviction.
The insidious pattern of behavior between Amir and Baba is in sharp contrast to the relationship between Hassan and his son, Sohrab. Sohrab spends time playing with his son and appreciates his son’s individuality. When Amir invites Sohrab into his own family unit following Hassan’s death, the cycle of lies and deceit is ended. Amir admits openly that his nephew is a Hazara and that Hassan was the result of an affair between Baba and Sanaubar. By bringing Sohrab into his family, Amir also has the opportunity to become a father and begin to heal the wounds of his past.
The Presence of the Past
History and the past are constantly intruding on the present in The Kite Runner. In the opening chapter, Amir reflects on how the events of his past have defined him, as he remains haunted by the memory of the “deserted alleyway.” Amir admits that you cannot “bury” the past, as it always “claws its way out.” Amir later reveals that the alleyway was the scene of Hassan’s rape. Amir cannot escape the past, partially because of external influences, such as Rahim Khan reaching out to him...
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years later, but also because the events of the past have become part of Amir. His mind is constantly replaying the event he witnessed twenty-six years ago, leaving him with no escape from the mental torture induced by his failure to act.
There are countless occasions when Amir could have admitted to his mistake, and each time he fails to do so, Baba’s self-fulfilling prophecy that Amir will become “a man who can’t stand up to anything” is reinforced. Amir imagines how he could have changed the course of events on the day Ali and Hassan left: “this is the part where I’d run outside, my bare feet splashing rainwater. I’d chase the car, screaming for it to stop.” In moments like this, Amir vividly imagines atoning for his past mistakes, but it is only when he commits to taking care of Sohrab and reclaiming his past that he can begin to atone in reality.
History frequently repeats itself in the novel, but it is also rewritten. When Amir returns to Afghanistan, he finds that its once resplendent beauty has gone to ruin. Amir’s childhood home is unrecognizable, with its sagging roof and “ghostly grey” exterior. When Amir climbs the hill behind Baba’s old house, he finds another relic of his past, the engraving reading “Amir and Hassan. The Sultans of Kabul” on a pomegranate tree. Finding the faded engraving gives Amir the resolve to complete the last part of his mission and rescue Sohrab.
When the Taliban official reveals himself to be Assef, Amir again concedes that his past is “like a bad penny, always turning up.” When Hassan was raped, he was described by Amir as having “the look of the lamb,” and Hassan’s own son, Sohrab, has “slaughtered sheep’s eyes.” Just as his father was sexually abused nearly three decades earlier, Sohrab has been forced into child prostitution by the same abuser, in a sinister example of history repeating itself. When Assef tells Amir that the time has come to settle their unfinished business, Amir is determined to fight to save Sohrab. Amir’s decisive move risks the life he has built for himself, but it also marks the beginning of a better future.
Atonement and Redemption
The search for atonement and redemption is at the heart of The Kite Runner and motivates Amir in his quest to save Sohrab. Amir is aware of the idea of atonement from an early age, and his desire to win the kite tournament is motivated by a need to “finally be pardoned for killing my mother” and reclaim Baba’s love. Later in the novel, when Amir and Soraya fail to conceive a child of their own, Amir believes that this is a form of “punishment” for his past wrongs. Part of why Amir struggles to forgive himself is that he sees his inaction during Hassan’s rape as leading to many other wrongs: the murder of Hassan and his wife by the Taliban, Assef’s persistent tyranny, and Sohrab’s sexual abuse.
When Amir discovers that he is not the only “sinner” in the family, and that Baba and Rahim Khan have committed the worst sin of all by “stealing” the truth, he is finally able to consider forgiving himself. For years, he has believed that Sohrab embodied goodness, while he, Amir, embodied sin. But when he learns that his male heroes, Baba and Rahim Khan, were not faultless, he can see that good and evil are not binary concepts, but a spectrum. Rahim Khan reminds him that “A man who has no conscience, no goodness, does not suffer.” Amir has spent twenty-six years atoning for his actions. The realization that he can forgive Baba and Rahim Khan for their sins is the first step to realizing that he can forgive himself and that there is, as Rahim Khan says, “a way to be good again.”