From a very young age, children are filled with stories. Their mothers will hush them to sleep with promises of a prince charming and a happily ever after. But how much of their tales are actually true? What if there really were carpets that could fly and fairy godmothers to grant our wishes? In Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, the two main characters, Mariam and Laila, are fed such stories as young girls. They are drugged with the lie that the world is simple. That they can be anything they want to be. That they will live and be happy. But the world doesn’t stand still. It doesn’t stop and wait for anyone to catch up. It twists and turns and gets confusing. It is not simple. The violence that Hosseini weaved into the book makes the reader see that women are treated harshly, it is hard to accomplish goals, and that life isn’t easy.
Often times in life, we do not realize that something is wrong until the water clears and we see the world for what it really is. In Mariam’s case, she saw the true way that women are treated in Afghanistan. Mariam, from an early age, is poisoned by the image that Jalil portrays. He is a succesful man, with three wives and nine children. But however busy he may be, he still finds time for her every Thursday. And because of this, she looks up to him. She believes that he is a dependable man because he doesn’t leave her alone and he sticks to his promises. For the first fifteen years of her life, she lives in the kolba, and has no idea what the outside world truly holds. Jalil is the only gateway to this unknown universe. Jalil who brings her presents. Jalil who “showed her how to draw an elephant in one stroke without ever lifting the pen off the paper” (Hosseini 22). Jalil who she holds her breath to spend another day with. Her mother, Nana, tries to explain to Mariam that her father isn’t what he seems. That men are all the same. That they treat women wrong. She tells Mariam to “learn this now and learn it well… like a compass needle that points north, a man’s accusing finger always finds a woman. Always” (Hosseini 7). Nana has no hope for Mariam’s future, because her own life was filled with pain and suffering. In the novel, Nana symbolizes the truth. She has seen the world, and knows the evil that it holds. Jalil, however, is a wonderful lie. He is Mariam’s window to the world– one that she wants to see. And through this, Hosseini sets up for the violence that takes over the chapters. When Mariam is casted out of her father’s life, she soon realizes “what it means to be a woman in this world” (Hosseini 7). She is forced to marry Rasheed, who she tries so hard to please. She knows her role as a wife, and she sticks to it. She makes dinner, cleans, and carries Rasheed’s child. After many miscarriages, though, she watched as her husband transforms into a vulgar, dirty, and abusive man. At the same time, she watches her life and any chance at happiness flutter away. With her marriage to Rasheed, she was also forced with the harsh realization that Jalil had filled her with lies. That the world was cruel. That, just as Nana claimed, men demean women. That she will have to suffer through Rasheed’s outbursts. The first of these outlashes, when he forced pebbles in Mariam’s teeth, symbolizes the world’s cruelty (Hosseini 104). With this first scene of violence, Hosseini wants the reader to see that even if we fill our lives with happy stories, that is not what the world is. He wants to shed light on the women that get treated brutally every day. The young Mariam was sedated with the image of her beloved father. Believing that every man was noble and kind just as he was. However, when Rasheed’s “upper lip curled in a sneer” as he watched her chew on hard pebbles, she realized what Nana told her was true.
Children are often told that they can be whatever they want to be, but they are almost never told how hard it is to achieve their goals or live up to certain expectations. Laila falls victim to this. She is told that she can be anything she wants. That she will stay in school. That she won’t marry at a young age. Everyone places her high up. They tell her that she will be on the front cover of the newspaper or that she will be successful. But no one told her that her brothers would never come back from the war. No one told her that her best friend would be hit by a stray rocket. No one told her that she would witness a “bloody chunk of [her father]” land next to her as a bomb struck her house and blew him and her mother to pieces (Hosseini 194). And no one told her that she would be forced into an abusive marriage to cover up her growing baby bump. With the violence in this section of the novel, the reader sees that Laila, like Mariam, was forced to give up her life. Everything suddenly caved in, and in a blink of an eye, she was no longer a child. She was thrust into a world of suffering. She knew that no one could know of the harami growing in her, so she was left with no other choice but to marry Rasheed. All at once, it seemed, she was a different person. She knew that everything she was told growing up was a lie. She knew that life comes with a price. Terrible events and tragedy rule the lives of so many. Hosseini, through Laila’s life, tells us that nothing is gained without pain or some amount of suffering. People told Laila that she was going to succeed, but they failed to mention that the war would bring about hardship. Hosseini wanted to teach the reader that setting goals is not the problem, it is the obstacles in between that hurt the chance at reaching them.
The violence depicted in the final sections of the book make the reader see that life isn’t easy. People suffer through hard times, and nothing is ever okay for very long. Laila and Mariam are an example of this. When Laila is taken in and marries Rasheed, Mariam despises her. However, once the first child is born, and Rasheed no longer sees Laila as a queen, the two wives are rooted in a new relationship. Mariam says that “two new flowers had unexpectedly sprouted in her life” (Hosseini 256). She, after hurting so much, got a chance to live again, through Laila. Mariam had lived for so long without a single spark of happiness. However, once she got this, it was soon taken away because of Rasheed’s reign of terror. This shows because when he was close to murdering Laila, “Mariam raised the shovel high… [and] turned it so the sharp edge was vertical, and, when she did, it occurred to her that this was the first time that she was deciding the course of her own life” (Hosseini 349). She was now giving up her life because she loved Laila. It was the first time that she made a choice for her. For Laila. For the life of a family. For peace. And when she let the shovel drop, she ultimately gave her life. Before she sacrificed her life, she came at peace with herself– with her life. Even though she was born unwanted, as a harami, “she was leaving the world as a woman who had loved and been loved back” (Hosseini 370). With Mariam’s final thoughts, the reader can really see that life comes with ups and downs. It is not simply good. And it is not simply bad. People are a mix of good and evil, and so is life. Laila learned this too, because even though she finally got her storybook ending, with her own prince charming, she had to lose so much to end up in a good place. It was not a simple “happily ever after” like in the fairytales. She had to give up her friends, her siblings, her parents and most of all, Mariam. That was the cost to a story with happy ending. When asked if she is okay at the end, she replies by saying she is very much alright (Hosseini 414). Because in the long run, she was. She was alright. Because Mariam gave Laila her life back.
When a child is told stories of a damsel in distress and a prince charming that comes to the rescue, she will compare her life to the beauty and passion in these stories. When hardship comes along, she will wonder why life couldn’t just be like the fairytales. When violence strikes, there will be no masked savior. No superhero or knight in shining armor. She will be left alone. In A Thousand Splendid Suns, Mariam and Laila band together because they know that the stories that they were told as children weren’t their reality. They had to suffer under Rasheed’s strong hand. Through their lives, Khaled Hosseini told a story that wasn’t just a story. He told of the harshness of the world. He told the truth.
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