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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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Hosseini best develops the themes and characterization in his novel through the book’s organization. The novel’s structure first highlights Mariam’s narrative and then Laila’s. The first two parts of the text, on Mariam and Laila respectively, introduce readers to each character but also establish key contrasts between the two girls’ upbringing and sense of self. For example, Mariam is an illegitimate child with no access to formal education. Her mother prepares her for a life of hardship, which she sees as their “lot in life” as women. Laila, on the other hand, grows up in a nuclear family with liberal ideas about women and education. While Mariam grows up in rural Herat and lives in a small hut, Laila lives in Kabul, a more progressive city center. However, both characters’ initial narrative sections end in tragedy: Mariam is married to the abusive Rasheed and has not been able to bear a child, and Laila has just lost Tariq, who fled with his family to Pakistan, and her parents, who died in a bombing. This is the event that brings Mariam and Laila together, when Rasheed finds Laila injured in the streets and brings her home so Mariam can nurse her back to health. 

Once the characters are both married to Rasheed and living in the same home, the chapters alternate between Mariam and Laila, but the women also appear in each other’s chapters. This reflects both their physical proximity and change in circumstances but also thematically represents their growing bond and sense of family. Their lives become eerily similar once the newness of his marriage to Laila wears off for Rasheed. When Laila hears Rasheed beating Mariam, she thinks “the sounds she heard were those of a methodical, familiar proceeding . . . only the systematic business of beating and being beaten.” Physical abuse is so ubiquitous in the household, particularly when Mariam is the victim, that it seems merely routine. Laila also suffers beatings at the hands of Rasheed, but she is more likely to fight back or talk back to defend herself. When Rasheed begins hitting Laila, it comes as a surprise: “It was as if a car had hit her at full speed.” The women’s contrasting reactions to Rasheed’s violence stem from their different upbringings and their expectations for their own lives. Mariam has always been disrespected and thought of as lesser due to her “illegitimate” status; she is accustomed to being treated as such. Laila, though, was reared to be ambitious and to think highly of her own potential. Her parents certainly never imagined her as a second wife and victim of domestic abuse, whereas Mariam’s mother would have expected nothing else for her daughter. 

Hosseini does not end their story there, though. Each character develops as a result of her interaction with the other woman, and the two become great allies. Mariam is most changed by her relationship with Laila, as watching the younger woman teaches Mariam to stand up for herself, as highlighted in the scene where she saves Laila’s life. In the moment, Mariam realizes that Rasheed will not relent, that “in [his] eyes she saw murder for them both.” Knowing that their husband will likely kill them both, Mariam decides to act against Rasheed for the first time. She thinks, “this was the first time that she was deciding the course of her own life.” By taking her and Laila’s lives into her hands, Mariam illustrates how much she has developed; she has become more assertive and is strongly motivated by her own sense of justice in this scene. For a woman who has been treated unfairly her entire life and who has come to accept it as just her “lot in life,” Mariam’s actions serve as a poignant example of character evolution.

Though the novel depicts intense violence and injustice, Hosseini ultimately highlights how the women’s relationship with each other lends each a sense of hope and accomplishment. For Mariam, even though she loses her life, she dies believing that she has gained more than she or her mother ever expected. She thinks of herself as “a person of consequence at last,” and it is particularly significant that this woman who had been taught merely to endure and developed such a low sense of self-worth views herself through this lens by the novel’s end. Despite the loss of Laila’s close friend, Laila’s story also ends on a note of hope. She mourns that there is no gravesite where she can visit Mariam but realizes that “Mariam is never very far”; Laila feels her presence everywhere and decides to name her next daughter after her. Laila has returned to Kabul with Tariq and the children and is working to improve the city by teaching at the orphanage. Hosseini brings his novel full circle by having Laila visit Mariam’s childhood kolba and bear witness to how far Mariam came to leave such a strong mark on Laila and her family. She thinks about how Mariam would become her own “salvation” years after leaving this small, humble hut. Ultimately, the novel does not paint Mariam as a victim but as someone who “neither Rasheed nor the Taliban will be able to break.” It is through the way she lives on in Laila and Aziza in particular that Mariam’s legacy becomes so much more than the pain she endured.

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