A Thousand Splendid Suns starts with a term of abuse thrown at one of the protagonists — Mariam — by her mother: "harami." The word means illegitimate and would be deeply hurtful to someone from a culture that prizes patriarchy. To be without her father's name and patronage is Mariam's curse. It shapes her character and her destiny. What is interesting is that despite Jalil Khan's rejection and Nana's warnings, Mariam worships her father. Her feelings for Nana are more ambivalent. Nana's depression and epilepsy make her a difficult parent but she tries to forearm Mariam by telling her, " ... a man's accusing finger always finds a woman. Always." Mariam will remember this all her life.
- What does the location (on the outskirts of Gul Daman) of the hut that Nana and Mariam live in tell us about their position in Jalil's life and in the community?
- What kind of a mother is Nana? Do you believe Nana's account of Mariam's birth?
- Can we understand Jalil's refusal to see his daughter when she comes to Herat? Could he have been thinking of her welfare by arranging her marriage to Rasheed?
- What is your take on Mullah Faizullah explanation of Nana's behavior? Is Nana a sympathetic character?
Describe the focus on legitimacy and illegitimacy in the novel. Include the stories of individual characters and the political climate in Afghanistan.
Mariam's birth was considered illegitimate by those around her during her childhood, yet as an adult she provided the ultimate sacrifice in saving Laila, Tariq and their children. Rasheed, on the other hand, was considered legitimate by his peers in Kabul and by Jalil, yet his actions in his home were atrocious, unjustified, and what could be called illegitimate. In terms of the Afghan power struggle, all groups which gained power, the Soviets, the Mujahideen, and the Taliban did so with the people of Afghanistan questioning the legitimacy of their rule.
Mariam and Laila were brought together due to circumstances they could not control. Describe how and when both women were able to regain power over their own lives and who was essential for them to gain this personal power.
Mariam did not gain control over her own life until she attempted to leave Rasheed with Laila. Though Mariam had run away from Nana with a tragic outcome, she had never really made a determination that was as defiant as her running away. This event, however, was only the beginning of her regain of power. The ultimate event which solidified her personal power was when she killed Rasheed.
Laila came into her relationship with Rasheed with the decision to marry him in order to save her baby. She too, began to find power in her run away attempt, but was shut down. Laila only found her true power of self when she was able to live contently with Tariq, able to speak her mind and act freely.
Mariam needed Laila to gain personal power, and Laila needed Tariq.
The two times in the book in which Mariam needs to sign a contract are during her marriage and before her execution. Discuss how these two events mirror each other and what they symbolize.
In both events, Mariam is placed before a Mullah. She is also surrounded by mostly strangers, and is held to a charge that she objects. Her offense in each case is determined by her gender. In both scenarios, Mariam does her best to make her case (either by remaining silent or by presenting her side of the argument) but in both cases, she is ultimately overruled by the greater authority.
Nana tells Mariam that a man always finds a way to blame a woman. Discuss examples throughout the book in which Nana's statement rings true.
First, when Mariam moves in with Jalil, he blames her for combating her marriage arrangement, acting as if Mariam was a burden to him. Rasheed continues to blame Mariam profusely for her lost pregnancies and bad food. Rasheed blames Mariam when Laila withholds sex. Rasheed blames Aziza for the way that she smells and sounds. When Rasheed spends too much money on luxuries for Zalmai, Aziza is seen as the extra mouth to feed and is sent to the orphanage.
Many characters in the novel have troubled pasts. Discuss how these characters' past experiences affect their decisions and interactions.
Nana has a troubled past revolving around a jinn and Jalil's abandonment of her, causing her to influence Mariam's upbringing harshly. Mariam's past experience as a "harami" does not prepare her to have any self-confidence. Soon after her marriage to Rasheed, she feels that he is gentle and sweet, but after he becomes abusive, Mariam can not defend herself. Rasheed lost his first son and wife, and for this he is obviously resentful, abusive towards the women in his life, and in constant hope for another son. Laila's troubled past revolves around her loss of Tariq, which influences her hope in Aziza and her negativity towards Rasheed even before she really gets to know him.
Discuss how the positions held by women and the rights that they are afforded change in Afghanistan as the political environment changes.
The position of women changed not only by the leader of the nation, but also by geographic region. The most consistent city in which the reader can experience change in a woman's status is within Kabul. When Mariam first moves to Kabul, she is astonished by the "modern women", though most women do not seem to act in this manner. These women wear makeup, drive, and hold professional positions. When communists rule, there is a reference to more gender equality in education. When the Taliban comes to power, women are caged in their homes and their basic human rights are violated. When the Taliban falls and the coalition comes to power, women are given back their legal human rights, but it is a slow move to equality.
Discuss the various reasons why characters decided to stay in or return to Afghanistan, despite difficult political times.
Fariba stays in Afghanistan because she wishes to see the fight that killed her sons end in their favor. Hakim will not leave Afghanistan without her, and Laila for most of her life, was too young to decide otherwise. After Tariq leaves for Afghanistan, Laila decides to stay to please her father. Mariam remained in Afghanistan after killing Rasheed in order to spare the lives of Laila, Tariq, and their children. Laila and Tariq return to Afghanistan to contribute to the rebuilding of their home nation.
Laila and Mariam have very different strengths and weaknesses. Discuss how they begin to learn from one another.
Mariam is very quiet and subdued, and she learns to "endure" as Nana has taught her. Laila, however, is restless and tries to make her situation better by changing it. Laila (when she has her first child) has little sense when it comes to caring for a child, so Mariam subtly helps. Mariam learns from Laila to summon inner strength to combat the difficulty in her life. Laila learns from Mariam's wisdom and finds comfort in her endurance.
Discuss the way that poetic justice is executed throughout the book (characters getting what they deserve). Also discuss which characters did not get what they deserved.
Rasheed is the character whose end seemed the most suitable, as he did very little except for torment and abuse his family. Jalil also suffered a sad end which seemed deserved for his abandonment of Mariam. Laila and Tariq had suffered through war and separation, and ultimately got rewarded with a life of love and contentment. Mariam, however, did nothing egregious to deserve execution,as she acted in self-defense and the defense of Laila. Yet, she suffered her end due to the government under which she lived.
Why do so many of the characters refuse to leave Afghanistan, even in times of danger?
Because the characters are deeply tied to their homeland - and their identities are inextricable from their hope for the rejuvenation of Afghanistan. Even when all logic tells them that they should go, they still believe that they cannot leave their homes without compromising their souls.