Women as Protagonists in A Thousand Splendid Suns

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Khaled Hosseini’s first novel, The Kite Runner (2003), was also the first novel by an Afghan American writer, and it became a runaway success. It remained for more than two years on American best-seller lists, sold 8 million copies worldwide, and was made into a film, released in December, 2007. When Hosseini revisited Afghanistan after its publication, he had been living in political asylum in California for almost twenty years. On that visit, as he wandered his bombed-out boyhood haunts in Kabul and conversed with its war-scarred people, he felt impelled to tell an Afghan story different from The Kite Runner’s. That book had been about menfathers and sons, male friendship, male treachery. Hosseini now felt drawn to tell a contemporaneous story about Afghanistan’s women. The brilliant result is A Thousand Splendid Suns, a novel about two women protagonists, Mariam and Laila. The trajectory of their lives forms the double plot of the book, and although the narrative is in the third person, the point of view itself shifts to that of the character whose plotline is being developed. One is reminded of Leo Tolstoy’s management of the double plot in Anna Karenina (1875-1877).

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Indeed, the two women’s narrative points of view structure the novel with intricately wrought symmetry. Part 1 is told entirely through Mariam’s point of view, part 2 wholly through Laila’s. In part 3, however, the viewpoint alternates between the women with each chapter. Then, just as Mariam’s part 1 begins the novel, the concluding part 4 of the novel is told through Laila’s point of view.

A Thousand Splendid Suns can also be read as a female bildungsroman, and the growth of these two girls into maturity, marriage, and maternity aptly illustrates the travail of Afghani women. Hosseini’s two women are strategic contrasts physically, socially, and psychologically. Socially, Mariam is from the rural lower class; Laila, the urban middle class. Psychologically, Mariam is accustomed to humiliation; Laila, to consideration. Physically, Mariam’s features are “unshapely,” “flat,” “unmemorable,” “coarse,” while Laila is a green-eyed blond beauty.

Their common fate is to become co-wives of the same misogynistic, brutal man. As Hosseini spins out their fate, their sharp individual differences only serve to demonstrate the breadth of commonalty among Muslim women in Afghani society during the drastic political upheavals of the 1970’s to 2003a king deposed, a communist coup, a Soviet invasion, a civil war, a faith-based Taliban dictatorship, an invasion by American and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces.

In Mariam, Hosseini presents a being at the lowest link of the Afghan social chain. She is poor, female, and illegitimate. She lives in a shack (kolba) beyond the pale of Hert, itself a city on the border with Iran, far from the center, Kabul. Clearly Hosseini locates Mariam on the periphery of society. Mariam’s mother, Nana, is an unmarriageable epileptic. She works as a maid until impregnated by her wealthy employer, Jalil. It is rather unaccountable that Jalil, proprietor of the town’s cinema, owner of a Mercedes, husband to three wives, and father to nine children, would dally with the unlovely Nana. To assuage his Muslim conscience, Jalil sets up Mariam and Nana in their shack, provides for Qur՚nic instruction from Mullah Faizullah (the sanest and most positive influence in Mariam’s young life), and visits her every week, regaling Mariam with stories of what her life might be if she were legitimate. Mariam idolizes Jalil. For her fifteenth birthday, Mariam asks Jalil to take her to his cinema to see Pinocchio (1940) and eat ice cream with her siblings. She is in fact asking for legitimation and distancing herself from her mother. Jalil sighs ambiguously.

Nana pleads with Mariam...

(The entire section contains 1664 words.)

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