illustration of two women standing in burkas with two overlapping circles between them and the title A Thousand Splendid Suns written above them

A Thousand Splendid Suns

by Khaled Hosseini

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A Thousand Splendid Suns Summary

A Thousand Splendid Suns is a novel by Khaled Hosseini in which Mariam and Laila bond over their shared hardships as the wives of an abusive husband.

  • Mariam is forced to marry Rasheed, an abusive older man.
  • Years later, Laila becomes Rasheed’s second wife to hide her pregnancy, as she believes that her child’s real father, Tariq, is dead.
  • Laila’s child is a girl, much to Rasheed’s disappointment. She later has a son.
  • Tariq returns and begins meeting with Laila. Rasheed finds out and attacks Laila. Mariam intervenes and kills Rasheed, sacrificing her life so that Laila and Tariq can escape with the children.


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Last Updated on July 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2423

In A Thousand Splendid Suns, author Khaled Hosseini explores the lives of two women in Afghanistan in the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century. The novel opens with the story of Mariam, who at five years old first heard the word harami—bastard. Her father, Jalil, had always called her his little flower, but on this occasion, he mouthed the truth of her birth. Nana, Mariam’s mother, had been one of Jalil’s housekeepers until she became pregnant with his child and was cast out of the house. Jalil had three wives and nine legitimate children, all heirs to his fortune in Herat and its neighboring lands. Jalil did not have enough strength to do the honorable thing and stand up to his wives, so Mariam was sent to live in a kolba, a hut, in the countryside on the outskirts of Gul Daman with her baby. And although Jalil visited, Mariam was never able to escape the circumstances of her birth.

One day, Bibi jo, an old woman who is a friend of Nana, comes to the kolba and says that two of Jalil’s daughters are being allowed to attend school. Mariam immediately wants the same privilege, but her mother tells her that the only life lesson that she is meant to learn is that of endurance. Mariam resolves to tell her father of her wish—she wants to live in his house in Herat as one of his children. But Mariam keeps this wish to herself, and in the spring of 1974, on her fifteenth birthday, she tells Jalil that as her gift, she wants to go see Pinocchio at the cinema. Both her parents try to persuade her otherwise, but Jalil finally consents to her wish. On the day that Jalil is supposed to take Mariam into town, he never arrives, and Mariam sits waiting until her legs are stiff. Then, she does what she has never done before—she crosses the stream and walks to Herat.

Once in town, a driver offers Mariam a ride to Jalil’s house. She is not welcomed into the home and is told that Jalil is away on business. Mariam spends the night sleeping outside the house. The next day, she forces herself into the open gates of the garden. Jalil’s driver catches her and takes her home. But Mariam has already seen Jalil’s shocked face in an upstairs window, and on the drive home, she cries, understanding that her father has betrayed her and that she has disgraced herself. When they arrive at the hut, Mariam finds Nana hanging from a branch of the weeping willow tree.

Because her mother is now dead, Jalil takes Mariam into his home, but she spends most of her time alone in her room. A week later, Afsoon, one of Jalil’s wives, summons Mariam. The family tells Mariam that she will be married off to a suitor named Rasheed who is much older than Mariam. She does not want to get married and pleads with Jalil, but the marriage is arranged anyway.

The couple take a bus to Rasheed’s home in Deh-Mazang in Kabul. Mariam must pay close attention while speaking with Rasheed because she is not accustomed to his dialect and accent. Once at the home, Mariam cries because the houses are so close together and the space is small. Rasheed insists that Mariam will like her new home, but for the next few days, Mariam stays locked away in her room. Soon, Rasheed insists that Mariam assume her responsibilities as housewife and that she have sex with him. Mariam wonders how so many women could have such an unlucky fate to end up married. Mariam’s life gets even harder when she learns that Rasheed does not believe in contemporary manners of social etiquette and forces her to wear a burqa when in public. Rather than resent Rasheed’s impositions, Mariam believes that her husband wants to protect her honor and the sanctity of their marriage. But Mariam soon changes her mind when she finds a gun and a stash of pornographic magazines in Rasheed’s drawer. From then on, Mariam dreads hearing Rasheed’s keys in the door and thinks with regret on her failed attempts to conceive a child.

In April 1978, military planes zoom over Kabul. Rebels attack the Presidential Palace, and executions of those connected to Daoud Khan’s regime are held. And in the midst of the mounting violence in the city, the violence in Mariam and Rasheed’s home begins: Rasheed forces Mariam to chew pebbles while he berates her cooking and her partnership.

Later, in the spring of 1987, nine-year-old Laila awakes, wanting to see the face of her friend Tariq. But Tariq has gone south with his parents and will be away for nearly two weeks. But Laila must maintain her daily routines in Tariq’s absence, and on her way to school, she sees Rasheed and his wife on the street. When she asks her father, Babi, who they are, Babi tells her that it is none of her business. At school, Laila has a difficult time paying attention to her teacher, who normally calls her “Inquilabi Girl,” or “Revolutionary Girl.” Laila recalls that Babi has told her from a young age that marriage can wait but that education cannot. As a result, Laila is proud of her father and his views.

That afternoon, Laila’s mother does not arrive to pick her up from school, and one of the neighborhood boys sprays urine on her from a water pistol. When Laila gets home, she finds her mother in bed, the curtains drawn and the room smelling of sweat and unwashed linen. Her mother taps her chest and tells her daughter that she is ailing.

Weeks pass, and in Tariq’s absence, Laila dreams of the many disasters that may have befallen him. Then one night, she sees a small, flashing yellow light from down the street, indicating that Tariq has returned. Apparently, Tariq’s uncle was sick, causing his delay. Laila stays for dinner, loving the easy conversation around his family’s dinner table which is so unlike that of her own family. Babi once told Laila that there is tension between their people—the Tajiks, who are Laila’s people, and the Pashtuns, Tariq’s. But Laila never feels any of it at Tariq’s house.

Back at her own house over a dinner between only herself and Babi, Laila listens to her father tell her about the hardships that women face in Afghanistan. While Kabul has remained relatively progressive, Babi says that in the larger part of the country, women are forced to wear the burqa, are only allowed on the street when accompanied by a male, and are married off to suitors as young teenagers. Just then, a messenger arrives to tell the family that their sons Ahmad and Noor were killed in a battle for Afghanistan’s freedom. Later, Babi admits to Laila that at times he considers leaving Afghanistan for a better life in either Pakistan or America. But both know that Mammy will never leave behind the land for which her sons lost their lives. Six months later in April 1988, Babi learns that a treaty has been signed in Geneva, ending Soviet influence in Afghanistan. Mammy, however, does not believe that peace will come to the country.

In 1992, the jihad ends, and Mammy rises from her bed as a new woman, proud of her sons who died as heroes. The family even throws a party. But peace does not last long—the government has been prematurely organized and much tension mounts between ethnic groups. When rockets begin to fly over Kabul, everyone heads for cover. Laila hates the whistling of the rockets, and soldiers are on patrol through all the streets. When the streets become unsafe, Babi pulls Laila out of school. Later that month, Giti, one of Laila’s friends, is hit by a stray rocket. Tariq tells Laila that he and his family are fleeing to Pakistan, and in a frenzy of love and sadness, the two make love. Tariq asks Laila to go with him, but she cannot leave her father behind, and Tariq is forced to honor Laila’s sense of obligation.

Soon after, Mammy is convinced to leave Afghanistan, and the family makes plans to flee to Peshawar. The taxis arrive, and Laila goes outside while her parents fill last-minute boxes. Suddenly, a rocket crashes down on the house, and Laila is thrown into the street. She falls unconscious, and when she wakes, Laila faintly sees images of lights and people. She cannot hear out of one ear. Laila has been taken in by Rasheed, who found her under the rubble. Mariam cares for her, but Mariam has little to say to comfort the girl.

One month later, a man named Abdul Sharif comes looking for Laila. He claims to have met Tariq at a hospital in Peshawar. Tariq had been in a lorry full of refugees that was caught in crossfire near the border; he lost his leg and was badly burned. Abdul tells Laila that all Tariq could talk about was her. Afterward, Rasheed expresses sympathy for Laila and changes his crude habits when in her presence. Mariam notices these changes and realizes that her husband is attempting to court Laila. Mariam begs Rasheed not to marry the girl, but Rasheed insists that he needs to legitimize their living situation. Seeing no alternative, Laila consents to the marriage. The two women keep their distance in the house, and when Laila finally approaches Mariam, Mariam clearly states that she refuses to take any orders from Laila even though Rasheed favors her. Laila apologizes for having caused Mariam trouble. As the days pass, Laila helps Mariam with the household chores and suffers the criticism of the older woman.

Laila soon shows her pregnancy, and when the time comes for her delivery, Rasheed excitedly and cautiously helps her into the taxi to take her to the hospital. But when they return the next day, Rasheed is obviously upset by the birth of a girl, whom Laila names Aziza. The crying baby drives Rasheed mad, and Mariam watches as Laila’s life becomes consumed by motherhood. Over time, Mariam’s heart softens to Aziza, and she sews a bundle of clothes for the baby, which she gives as a gift to Laila. When Rasheed begins to speak harshly to Laila, his suspicions over whether or not Aziza is really his child mounting, Mariam and Laila exchange knowing looks that suggest that the animosity between them is over.

The fighting in Kabul grows worse. Rasheed is on edge every day—he even fires his gun into the street claiming that he saw someone trying to climb over the wall into their compound. Laila tells Mariam that in the spring, she plans to run away with Aziza and that she wants Mariam to join them. Mariam wonders if she should just stay put, but when the time arrives, she gets into the taxi with Laila and Aziza. The women fear that they will see Rasheed somewhere and remain on constant alert. When they reach the border, Laila bribes a man named Wakil to buy tickets for her, Mariam, and Aziza; however, the authorities do not allow the women to board, and they are taken to the police station. The police call Rasheed, and Laila and Mariam are taken home. Rasheed punches Laila, and he boards up all the windows in the home, treating his wives as prisoners.

Two years later, the Taliban arrive in Kabul. Strict rules limiting people’s freedom are enforced by the Taliban, and cultural and entertainment centers are dismantled. In the midst of this turmoil, Laila finds that she is pregnant and considers attempting to abort the baby. However, Laila reasons that the baby is blameless and that there has already been enough killing. But when the time comes for Laila to give birth, the local hospital will not accept her, claiming that now the doctors will treat only men. The family is sent to Rabia Balkhi, an unsanitary hospital that will treat women. The hospital has no anesthetic, so Laila must endure the knife, and Mariam is impressed by the pain that Laila tolerates to birth her son Zalmai.

Zalmai loves his father, and Rasheed dotes on the boy. Later, a fire decimates Rasheed’s workshop, and because he is home, Rasheed becomes increasingly violent toward Mariam and Laila. Rasheed sells all their belongings, and when the money runs out, hunger sets in. Rasheed wants to put the children in the street to beg, but Laila will not allow her children to become beggars. Rasheed then forces Laila to put her daughter in an orphanage.

One day after Rasheed takes Laila and Mariam to visit Aziza, Laila sees Tariq standing nearby. Tariq tells Laila about his hardships in Pakistan, and Rasheed finds out through Zalmai that Laila has been speaking to a “new friend.” Enraged, Rasheed takes his belt and beats Laila mercilessly. Then Rasheed goes at Laila with his bare hands, and Mariam tries to stop his attack. Mariam runs to the toolshed and gets the shovel. She smashes the shovel onto Rasheed’s head, killing him. The two drag Rasheed’s body into the toolshed. Laila wants the family to run away; however, Mariam knows that eventually they would all be caught and punished. Mariam remains behind to accept the punishment for the murder and tells Laila that she has made this sacrifice for her and the children.

Mariam spends ten days in the Walayat women’s prison before her execution. Laila takes Aziza from the orphanage and goes to meet Tariq. The two marry and move into a small bungalow in Murree. Back home in Afghanistan, bombs continue to fall as the American military strikes the country. One day, Laila tells Tariq that she wants to take a trip to Herat, Mariam’s birthplace. Once there, Laila visits the home of one of Mariam’s familial friends and asks to be taken to Mariam’s old home. The kolba is still there, and Laila pays her respects. In the end, Tariq and Laila return to work at the orphanage, and Tariq helps the director, Zaman, make repairs to the building while Laila teaches in the school. Laila learns that she is pregnant and knows what she will name the child if it is a girl.

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