In And the Mountains Echoed—a novel about the interconnectedness of all human beings—it’s no surprise that compassion is among the most important themes. At times, the characters makes choices aiming to benefit only themselves, but at many other points they choose to help other people. Hosseini poses some complicated questions related to this theme: for which people do we feel the most compassion? for how long are we obligated to help these people? and at what point does compassion become a kind of selfishness—a way to fight one’s own sense of guilt?
Because And the Mountains Echoed is a novel with dozens of main characters, it’s difficult to take away any single “big point” about compassion. In each of the novel’s nine chapters, the characters are confronted with different kinds of moral dilemmas, some of which have different solutions, and some of which don’t really have “solutions” at all. At the same time, the novel suggests many important points about compassion, selfishness, and human nature.
One of the most important conclusions the novel reaches is that compassion is, fundamentally, a free choice. The characters who feel the greatest compassion for others aren’t “obligated” to feel this way in any sense. Hosseini emphasizes this point by showing how characters often feel more compassion for strangers than they do for their own families. Dr. Markos, for example, struggles to show his compassion for his own mother, Odelia—a person whom, one might say, he’s obligated by society and blood ties to love—but he has few reservations about devoting his adult life to helping the victims of war in Kabul, Afghanistan. Although one often hears about one’s “duty to your family/fellow man” in politics and literature, And the Mountains Echoed never suggests that caring about other people is a duty—either you choose to do so, or you don’t.
One strange side effect of the fact that compassion is a choice is that compassionate acts are also, at times, selfishly motivated. Characters choose to devote their time and money to helping other people, but they do so in large part because they themselves want to feel happier. Indeed, the characters in And the Mountains Echoed who are most compassionate toward others are often the characters who are most selfish in other respects, suggesting that their compassion is itself a kind of selfishness. Dr. Markos, to continue the earlier example, helps war victims in Kabul, but Hosseini makes it clear that he’s doing so in large part because he’s unsure about his place in the world and because he’s always felt unloved. For Markos, compassion is a kind of therapeutic transaction—by showing love and respect for others, he gains the love and respect that he’s been searching for. In another chapter, Hosseini studies the fine line between compassion and selfishness by showing the rivalry between Idris and his cousin, Timur. Although Timur appears to be a selfish and arrogant person, he also devotes large amounts of his own time and money to helping the poor and unfortunate, and at the end of the chapter, he saves the life of a young Afghan girl, Roshana.
As befits a novel about many characters and settings, And the Mountains Echoed never portrays a single or “correct” form of compassion—people express their love for each other in all kinds of ways, and for all kinds of reasons. And yet all these forms of compassion are united in the sense that they’re impactful: their effects echo and amplify over time. In the end, the novel suggests that compassion is most powerful when it takes the form of action, not thought: Markos and Timur’s “selfish selflessness” in Kabul, Nabi’s care for Mr. Wahdati, etc. It’s because compassion must be expressed through action that it has so many far-reaching consequences, and takes so many different shapes.
Compassion and Selfishness ThemeTracker
Compassion and Selfishness Quotes in And the Mountains Echoed
Your son does not remember you, the div continued. This is his life now, and you saw for yourself his happiness. He is provided here with the finest food and clothes, with friendship and affection. He receives tutoring in the arts and languages and in the sciences, and in the ways of wisdom and charity. He wants for nothing. Someday, when he is a man, he may choose to leave, and he shall be free to do so. I suspect he will touch many lives with his kindness and bring happiness to those trapped in sorrow.
“You are a cruel beast,” Baba Ayub said.
When you have lived as long as I have, the div replied, you find that cruelty and benevolence are but shades of the same color.
He didn’t understand why he should hear such a noise, alone in the dark, all the sheep and goats sleeping. Sometimes he told himself he had heard no such thing, and sometimes he was so convinced to the contrary that he called out into the darkness, “Is someone out there? Who is there? Show yourself.” But no reply ever came. Baba Ayub didn’t understand. Just as he didn’t understand why a wave of something, something like the tail end of a sad dream, always swept through him whenever he heard the jingling, surprising him each time like an unexpected gust of wind. But then it passed, as all things do. It passed.
He wished he could love his new mother in the same way. And perhaps Parwana, he thought, secretly wished the same, that she could love him. The way she did Iqbal, her one-year-old son, whose face she always kissed, whose every cough and sneeze she fretted over. Or the way she had loved her first baby, Omar. She had adored him.
Father sat down by the remains of the fire. “Where did you go?” “Go to sleep, boy.” “You wouldn’t leave us. You wouldn’t do that, Father.” Father looked at him, but in the dark his face dissolved into an expression Abdullah couldn’t make out. “You’re going to wake your sister.” “Don’t leave us.” “That’s enough of that now.”
She hunkered down beside him now, her glasses pushed up on her hair. There was wetness in her eyes too, and when she dabbed at them with the handkerchief, it came away with black smudges. “I don’t blame you if you hate me. It’s your right. But—and I don’t expect you to understand, not now—this is for the best. It really is, Abdullah. It’s for the best. One day you’ll see.”
Then she pulled close and embraced me, her cheek against mine. My nose filled with the scent of her hair, her perfume. “It was you, Nabi,” she said in my ear. “It was always you. Didn’t you know?”
I said nothing even though he had it wrong. I was not joking that time. My staying was no longer for him. It had been at first. I had stayed initially because Suleiman needed me, because he was wholly dependent on me. I had run once before from someone who needed me, and the remorse I still feel I will take with me to the grave. I could not do it again. But slowly, imperceptibly, my reasons for staying changed. I cannot tell you when or how the change occurred, Mr. Markos, only that I was staying for me now. Suleiman said I should marry. But the fact is, I looked at my life and realized I already had what people sought in marriage. I had comfort, and companionship, and a home where I was always welcomed, loved, and needed. The physical urges I had as a man—and I still had them, of course, though less frequent and less pressing now that I was older—could still be managed, as I explained earlier. As for children, though I had always liked them I had never felt a tug of paternal impulse in myself.
As you can see enclosed in the envelope along with this letter is my will, in which I leave the house, the money, and my few belongings to her. I ask that you give her both this letter and the will. And please tell her, tell her that I cannot know the myriad consequences of what I set into motion. Tell her I took solace only in hope. Hope that perhaps, wherever she is now, she has found as much peace, grace, love, and happiness as this world allows.
It’s true. Timur has embarrassed him. He has behaved like the quintessential ugly Afghan-American, Idris thinks. Tearing through the war-torn city like he belongs here, backslapping locals with great bonhomie and calling them brother, sister, uncle, making a show of handing money to beggars from what he calls the Bakhsheesh bundle, joking with old women he calls mother and talking them into telling their story into his camcorder as he strikes a woebegone expression, pretending he is one of them, like he’s been here all along, like he wasn’t lifting at Gold’s in San Jose, working on his pecs and abs, when these people were getting shelled, murdered, raped. It is hypocritical, and distasteful. And it astonishes Idris that no one seems to see through this act.
“We leave in a week, bro. You don’t want to get her too attached to you.” Idris nods. He wonders if Timur may not be slightly jealous of his relationship with Roshi, perhaps even resentful that he, Idris, may have robbed him of a spectacular opportunity to play hero. Timur, emerging in slow motion from the blazing building, holding a baby. The crowd exploding in a cheer. Idris is determined not to let Timur parade Roshi in that way.
He is not a criminal. Everything he owns he has earned. In the nineties, while half the guys he knew were out clubbing and chasing women, he had been buried in study, dragging himself through hospital corridors at two in the morning, forgoing leisure, comfort, sleep. He had given his twenties to medicine. He has paid his dues. Why should he feel badly? This is his family. This is his life.
In the last month, Roshi has become something abstract to him, like a character in a play. Their connection has frayed. The unexpected intimacy he had stumbled upon in that hospital, so urgent and acute, has eroded into something dull. The experience has lost its power. He recognizes the fierce determination that had seized him for what it really was, an illusion, a mirage.
“My father is not a thief!” Adel shot back. “Ask anyone in Shadbagh-e-Nau, ask them what he’s done for this town.” He thought of how Baba jan received people at the town mosque, reclined on the floor, teacup before him, prayer beads in hand. A solemn line of people, stretching from his cushion to the front entrance, men with muddy hands, toothless old women, young widows with children, every one of them in need, each waiting for his or her turn to ask for a favor, a job, a small loan to repair a roof or an irrigation ditch or buy milk formula.
“You’ve made me proud, Markos.”
I am fifty-five years old. I have waited all my life to hear those words. Is it too late now for this? For us? Have we squandered too much for too long, Mamá and I? Part of me thinks it is better to go on as we have, to act as though we don’t know how ill suited we have been for each other. Less painful that way. Perhaps better than this belated offering. This fragile, trembling little glimpse of how it could have been between us. All it will beget is regret, I tell myself, and what good is regret? It brings back nothing. What we have lost is irretrievable.
I hold the note tightly against the blustering wind. I read for Pari the three scribbled sentences. They tell me I must wade into waters, where I will soon drown. Before I march in, I leave this on the shore for you. I pray you find it, sister, so you will know what was in my heart as I went under. There is a date too. August 2007.
“August of 2007,” I say. “That’s when he was first diagnosed.” Three years before I had even heard from Pari.
She turns her face to look at him, her big brother, her ally in all things, but his face is too close and she can’t see the whole of it. Only the dip of his brow, the rise of his nose, the curve of his eyelashes. But she doesn’t mind. She is happy enough to be near him, with him—her brother—and as a nap slowly steals her away, she feels herself engulfed in a wave of absolute calm.