A Thousand Splendid Suns

A Thousand Splendid Suns

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Themes and Colors
History and Memory in Afghanistan Theme Icon
Suffering and Perseverance Theme Icon
Shame and Reputation Theme Icon
Love, Loyalty, and Belonging Theme Icon
Gender Relations Theme Icon
Female Friendship Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in A Thousand Splendid Suns, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Shame and Reputation Theme Icon

A particular kind of suffering in the novel has to do with shame, which comes up again and again as both a pain to be endured and as a tool to inflict on others. In the first case, shame is linked to responsibility and ensuing guilt for an incident in a character’s past. Mariam’s mother’s suicide, after Mariam runs away to Jalil, is one example of such shame. Laila feels her own sense of shame for having survived the bombing that killed her parents, purely by luck.

Another type of shame is intimately linked to social standing and reputation, and that particular type of shame has the power to inflict deep psychological damage. As a harami (bastard), Mariam is made to feel deeply ashamed by her father Jalil’s family, by others in the village, and by her husband Rasheed. She becomes convinced as a result that she does not deserve to be loved, and will never find a place where she belongs. By beating both Mariam and Laila, Rasheed combines psychological and physical harm, making them feel pain but also shaming them and asserting his own power over them.

We see, then, how shame is both intimately personal and extremely political. Many of the Taliban’s laws, particularly regarding the status of women, consider women as shameful (though extraordinarily powerful) creatures that must be barred from the public sphere. These standards are often couched in terms of “protecting” a woman’s “honor,” though honor in the novel is quite often used as the counterpart to shame.

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Shame and Reputation Quotes in A Thousand Splendid Suns

Below you will find the important quotes in A Thousand Splendid Suns related to the theme of Shame and Reputation.
Part I: Chapter 1 Quotes

She understood then what Nana meant, that a harami was an unwanted thing: that she, Mariam, was an illegitimate person who would never have legitimate claim to the things other people had, things such as love, family, home, acceptance.

Related Characters: Mariam, Nana
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:

The first time Mariam hears the word "harami" is when she breaks a piece of Nana's beloved tea set—it is a way for Nana express her anger and condemn Mariam. As a five-year-old, Mariam could not grasp the full implications of the word, which means "bastard." But here Mariam claims that she understood the implications of the word even as a small child. "Harami," as a term of shame and judgment, carries with it a label that stigmatizes the person as unloved and unwanted. This is something that Mariam grasps almost immediately and deeply fears: it is why she will cling so closely to Jalil, who seems to offer a way to escape from such isolation. Nana's use of the word also underlines just how much even she, as someone who suffers from the rigid social structures in place, has internalized these structures herself, such that she has almost come to believe what they imply for her and her daughter.


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Part I: Chapter 6 Quotes

For the first time, Mariam could hear [Jalil] with Nana’s ears. She could hear so clearly now the insincerity that had always lurked beneath, the hollow, false assurances.

One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs,

Or the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls.”

Related Characters: Mariam (speaker), Jalil
Page Number: 38
Explanation and Analysis:

Mariam has returned to Jalil's house after Nana's funeral, and Jalil has told her that he will allow her to stay with him. There was a time when nothing would have made Mariam happier than to be able to live with Jalil. Now, however, Nana's suicide has changed everything. It is not that Jalil's character has been transformed by Nana's death: instead, Mariam simply recognizes the aspects of his character that she had been unable or unwilling to see all along.

Throughout Mariam's childhood, she had idolized Jalil, refusing to see him through Nana's eyes and instead remaining convinced that he was a kind, good father. Only now can she recognize that what she believed to be his goodness was only a pleasant façade concealing a deeper insincerity. After all, Jalil directly participated in keeping Mariam and Nana isolated and apart from his "true" family. Now Mariam's loyalty has shifted definitively to Nana. However, this change of heart comes too late for Nana, who did not live to see her daughter fully come to to terms with her father's true self. Mariam's belated realization will long haunt her.

Part I: Chapter 10 Quotes

“But I’m a different breed of man, Mariam. Where I come from, one wrong look, one improper word, and blood is spilled. Where I come from, a woman’s face is her husband’s business only. I want you to remember that. Do you understand?”

Related Characters: Rasheed (speaker), Mariam
Page Number: 70
Explanation and Analysis:

Rasheed is pleased with the dinner Mariam has cooked for him, and he offers to show her around Kabul the next day. But he will require her to wear a floor-length burqa: as he hands it to her, he scornfully talks about the more modern men in the neighborhood, who allow their wives to walk around in short skirts. Like Mariam, Rasheed is from a more rural part of Afghanistan, where more modern, Western customs are not only looked down upon but are often unthinkable.

It is not so much that Mariam is bothered by these customs of dress, but rather by what these customs symbolize in Rasheed's mind. For him, the burqa is meant to proclaim that Mariam is his property, that she belongs to him alone. Even her face cannot be seen by others for risk of allowing other men to have so much as a glimpse of this property. Mariam feels suffocated, not to mention intimidated, by these assumptions, which seem to rely on a code of violent patriarchal honor and reputation.

Part I: Chapter 15 Quotes

It wasn’t easy tolerating him talking this way to her, to bear his scorn, his ridicule, his insults, his walking past her like she was nothing but a house cat. But after four years of marriage, Mariam saw clearly how much a woman could tolerate when she was afraid.

Related Characters: Mariam, Rasheed
Page Number: 98
Explanation and Analysis:

Mariam has had multiple miscarriages in the years since she first married Rasheed, and she knows that her husband is furious at her for not giving him a son, a prized and crucial possession among traditional families. Rasheed has lost any minor tenderness that he once may have shown Mariam, and now in addition to feeling scorned and ridiculed Mariam also has to deal with being frightened by Rasheed's unpredictable moods and tendency to beat her. 

Rasheed treats Mariam not as a fellow human being, much less his own wife, but as an animal or a possession, something hardly worthy of attention. Mariam had hoped that she would find long-sought love with her new husband, but now that hope seems wildly naive and optimistic. Instead, Mariam begins to espouse some of the same beliefs that Nana had tried to equip her with when Mariam was a child. She has learned to "tolerate" all that Rasheed hurls at her, rather than fight or challenge him. Fear, rather than preventing her from persevering through the shameful way he treats her, is what ensures that she will be able to accept what happens to her.

Part III: Chapter 27 Quotes

She was remembering the day the man from Panjshir had come to deliver the news of Ahmad’s and Noor’s deaths. She remembered Babi, white-faced, slumping on the couch, and Mammy, her hand flying to her mouth when she heard. Laila had watched Mammy come undone that day and it had scared her, but she hadn’t felt any true sorrow. She hadn’t understood the awfulness of her mother’s loss. Now another stranger bringing news of another death. Now she was the one sitting on the chair. Was this her penalty, then, her punishment for being aloof to her own mother’s suffering?

Related Characters: Laila, Tariq, Fariba (Mammy), Hakim (Babi), Ahmad, Noor
Page Number: 210
Explanation and Analysis:

As Laila struggles to react to the news of Tariq’s death, her mind returns to an earlier moment of another person’s suffering, in another reaction to horrific news. As readers, we too can recall that moment and remember how Laila struggled to feel a real sense of loss at the death of her brothers, even as her own mother broke down in grief at the news. Now Laila can finally recognize what Mammy was feeling at that long-ago moment, but she also feels that she is being made to pay, in some cosmic way, for her lack of grief when Ahmad and Noor died. At that moment in time, she had contrasted the abstract figures of her brothers to the real, visceral presence of Tariq. Here, that comparison is tragically fulfilled, as Laila learns that the person who has always seemed most real and true to her has died. In a tragically ironic twist, Laila can only fully understand her own mother’s suffering when she is made to experience something just as painful herself.

Part III: Chapter 41 Quotes

Mariam regretted her foolish, youthful pride now. She wished now that she had let him in. what would have been the harm to let him in, sit with him, let him say what he’d come to say? He was her father. He’d not been a good father, it was true, but how ordinary his faults seemed now how forgivable, when compared to Rasheed’s malice, or to the brutality and violence that she had seen men inflict on one another.

Related Characters: Mariam, Rasheed, Jalil
Page Number: 309
Explanation and Analysis:

Mariam has gone to the Intercontinental Hotel with Rasheed to attempt to call Jalil. They want to ask if he can help the family, as the children are going hungry and they are in a desperate situation. Mariam has not seen Jalil for thirteen years, since he came to see her at Rasheed’s house, and she had refused to go out to meet him. Thinking back on that moment, Mariam decides she was wrong to stubbornly refuse to see her father. She does not argue that Jalil was blameless, or that she should forgive him for his behavior with her and Nana. But having lived longer and having seen greater suffering and greater evil, Mariam now acknowledges that Jalil’s sins are not on the same level as those of the Taliban, for instance, or even of Rasheed.

Mariam has developed a more nuanced understanding of the way that love and loyalty can function in families. She does not expect love to mean that families will be perfect, or that family members will not hurt each other, but she has come to accept that she can still acknowledge her father and respect him without forgetting about the pain he caused her.

Part III: Chapter 47 Quotes

Though there had been moments of beauty in it. Mariam knew that life for the most part had been unkind to her. But as she walked the final twenty paces, she could not help but wish for more of it. […] Yet as she closed her eyes, it was not regret any longer but a sensation of abundant peace that washed over her. She thought of her entry into this world, the harami daughter of a lowly villager, an unintended thing, a pitiable, regrettable accident. A weed. And yet she was leaving the world as a woman who had loved and been loved back.

Related Characters: Mariam
Page Number: 370
Explanation and Analysis:

In the final moments of Mariam’s life, as she walks out into the stadium and prepares to be executed, she once again considers her life in her mind as if going through film reels. Mariam compares the difficulties and acute suffering she has experienced to the “moments of beauty” that she remembers with Laila and Aziza. These moments were fleeting and rare compared to the regular pain, and yet for Mariam they are worth much more—and it would even be worth living longer and suffering more in order to also live through more of such moments.

Although Mariam does wish she could live longer, she ends her life with a feeling of contentment rather than regret. After yearning for love and belonging at the beginning of her life, she had pushed those hopes away, only to have them offered to her when she least expected it—not through the love of a father or of a husband but through that of a female friend. She clings to this love, which to her means more than the shame of being a harami or the isolation of being continually unwanted and considered low in the hierarchy of her society, as a kind of solace even in the midst of the final violent act that will end her life.