The Breadwinner

by

Deborah Ellis

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The Breadwinner: Chapter 1 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Under her breath, Parvana whispers that she can read the letter almost as well as Father can. She says it quietly because no one in the Kabul market wants to hear her say something like this; she’s just in the market to help Father walk there and back. Really, she shouldn’t be outside at all. The Taliban order all girls and women to stay in their homes, and girls can’t even attend school. Mother was fired from her job as a writer for a radio station. The family has been stuck in a one-room apartment for over a year now. Because Parvana is a small girl, though, she can get away with being outside. This is why she helps Father walk. If a Talib ever asks, Father points to his missing lower leg while Parvana tries to make herself look small and invisible. She’s seen the way the Taliban beats women.
Parvana’s fear in the marketplace paints a picture of life in Kabul that’s terrifying for girls and women. They have no agency and aren’t even technically allowed to do things that help their families—such as Parvana helping Father walk to and from the market. Parvana’s muttering that she can read the letter speaks to the fact that she’s educated, something that may be a liability to her now that the Taliban have forbidden women from going to school. Her education might give her more freedom in other circumstances, but not as a woman in Kabul living under the Taliban.
Themes
Afghanistan, History, and Pride Theme Icon
Gender Relations Theme Icon
The customer asks Father to read his letter one more time. Parvana muses that she’d love to receive a letter. There’s mail service in Afghanistan again, but most of her friends left the country to Pakistan or elsewhere. Parvana’s family has moved so often to escape bombing that none of Parvana’s friends know where she lives. The customer thanks Father and walks away. Parvana is lucky. Most people in Afghanistan can’t read or write, but both her parents have college degrees and believe that everyone, even girls, should be educated. Throughout the afternoon, Parvana listens to Father and customers speak Dari (her first language) and Pashtu, Afghanistan’s other official language, which she doesn’t know as well. Her parents also speak English.
The way that Parvana describes her scattered friend group suggests that Afghanistan is no longer a safe place to live. The constant conflict and danger may be part of the reason why so few people are educated in Parvana’s community—they have more immediate needs, like mere survival, to think about. It’s significant that Parvana’s family believes in educating and respecting women’s intellect. Her family values women first for their intellectual capabilities and what they can bring to the world in that regard, something the narration implies isn’t widespread.
Themes
Afghanistan, History, and Pride Theme Icon
Gender Relations Theme Icon
In the market, men shop and vendors sell their wares and services. Parvana pays special attention to the tea shop. It employs boys to run through the marketplace taking cups of tea to customers who can’t leave their own shops. Parvana whispers that she could perform that job, and she’d love to get to know the market. Father hears her and grouses that he’d rather Parvana run around at school, which makes Parvana frown. She’d also rather be at school. She misses her uniform, her friends, and her favorite subject, Afghan history. Seemingly everyone has come to Afghanistan over the years—the Persians, Alexander the Great, the British, the Greeks, the Turks—and the Afghans expelled all of them. Now, the Taliban rules. They’re Afghans, but they have very specific ideas about how life should be lived.
Parvana’s pride in Afghanistan’s history shines through when she lists all the former conquerors who came to Afghanistan and who were expelled. For her, attending school is a way to meaningfully connect with this history. The Taliban have not only denied Parvana the ability to go to school, but they’ve taken over Afghanistan from within. They’re Afghans, which makes it harder for Parvana to figure out how to think of them. In her mind, Afghans are all brave and proud, but the Taliban forces her to question this assessment.
Themes
Afghanistan, History, and Pride Theme Icon
Related Quotes
When the Taliban first took Kabul, they shut down the schools. Parvana wasn’t sad then, because she didn’t want to take a math test she hadn’t prepared for, and she didn’t want her teacher to send a note home scolding her for talking. Nooria, however, sobbed and called Parvana stupid when Parvana suggested that the Taliban would let them go back soon. Parvana and Nooria’s relationship is difficult anyway—and living in a single room, they can’t escape each other. It didn’t used to be this way. Parvana’s parents had high-paying jobs and the family lived in a big house with servants, a fridge, and a car. Parvana shared a room with Maryam, but there was enough space. A bomb destroyed that house, and several of their increasingly smaller houses after that. Every time a bomb hit, the family got poorer.
When Parvana doesn’t grasp what’s going on at first, it speaks to her immaturity and her naïveté—in her mind, the worst thing that could happen is that her teacher will send a note home and she’ll fail her math test. In reality, as Nooria’s reaction reveals, the situation is far more dire than Parvana realizes. Her family is now in extreme poverty, as evidenced by the fact that they now live in a single room. The fact that they used to be so wealthy speaks to the way that major conflicts like the wars in Afghanistan can fundamentally change life in a country for the worse.
Themes
Afghanistan, History, and Pride Theme Icon
Agency, Maturity, and Childhood Theme Icon
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Afghanistan has been in wars for over 20 years. The Soviets came first to drop bombs. Parvana was born a month before the Soviets withdrew; according to Nooria, they couldn’t stand to be in the same country as such an ugly baby. Following the Soviets’ departure, groups in Afghanistan began to fight each other and drop more bombs on Kabul. Parvana has spent her whole life listening to bombs and running from them. Now, the Taliban controls most of the country. Though the Taliban’s name means that they’re religious scholars, Father insists that religion is about teaching kindness and how to be a better person—and the Taliban isn’t doing that. These days, Kabul doesn’t suffer as many bombs. The bombs are in the northern part of the country.
The Soviets arrived in Afghanistan in 1979 and left a decade later; after several years of civil war, the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in 1996. Nooria’s comment highlights the sibling tensions between her and suggesting that, despite their extreme circumstances, this is a family like any other. Now, Parvana doesn’t feel as proud of her country because the Taliban is in charge.
Themes
Afghanistan, History, and Pride Theme Icon
Family and Friendship Theme Icon
When Father suggests they end their day, Parvana gathers up the small household items and ornaments they’re trying to sell. Mother and Nooria regularly go through the family’s belongings to come up with more things to send with Father. Father slowly stands, takes Parvana’s arm, and they begin to hobble for home. He used to have a prosthetic leg, but he sold it when a customer made a lucrative offer that Father simply couldn’t turn down. Since the Taliban ordered women to stay inside, there are now lots of prosthetic legs for sale. Many husbands decided that if their wives couldn’t go anywhere, they didn’t need their prosthetics.
The narrator’s discussion of the prosthetic legs for sale in the market makes it clear that Father is one of many who suffered a lost limb as a result of the bombs. However, because he’s a man, he doesn’t suffer in quite the same way that women do. The women the narrator refers to are at the mercy of their husbands or fathers when it comes to their mobility, which makes it harder to find ways to resist.
Themes
Gender Relations Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Parvana and Father wander through Kabul. Many buildings have been bombed, though the city was once beautiful. Nooria is old enough to remember restaurants, cinemas, and traffic lights. Parvana remembers none of this, so hearing about the old Kabul hurts her and makes her sad. They turn down the side street to their building and Parvana asks how women in burqas manage to navigate the streets. Father notes that they fall often. Parvana looks up to her favorite mountain, which she can see at the end of her street. Right after the family first moved to this building, Father insisted that since people name mountains, he’s going to call the mountain Mount Parvana.
It hurts Parvana to think about Kabul as a bright, bustling city because that version of Kabul represents an idealized time that she doesn’t remember. The Kabul in front of her is fundamentally different and makes it clear to her that Kabul (and Afghanistan more broadly) is in deep trouble and will have to work hard to regain its sense of pride and agency. The recollection of Father naming Mount Parvana reveals one way that people can gain agency: they can focus on good, hopeful things that make others in their family happy.
Themes
Afghanistan, History, and Pride Theme Icon
Family and Friendship Theme Icon
Agency, Maturity, and Childhood Theme Icon
Related Quotes