The Breadwinner

by

Deborah Ellis

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The Breadwinner: Chapter 2 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Mother and Nooria are immersed in cleaning projects. Parvana begins to take off her chador, but Nooria and Mother tell her to fetch water first. It takes six trips to fill their water tank, and Parvana hates the heavy work. Nooria quips that Parvana wouldn’t have so many trips if she’d done it yesterday and flips her beautiful hair. Parvana grumbles as she hauls buckets up the stairs. No one helps her with her chores and that annoys her, but she knows that Mother and Nooria can’t help—they’d never make it up the dangerous, uneven stairs to their third-floor apartment in burqas, and they can’t go out safely without a man. Parvana is the only person in the family who can do it. Sometimes she’s proud of this; sometimes she resents it. But she knows that someone has to do the work.
It’s telling that Parvana is also the only one who can safely fetch water for the family. Since Parvana is such a young girl and not yet a woman, the Taliban aren’t as interested in policing her appearance or her movements—but this will certainly change as she matures. However, even as her youth protects her in this way, she seems to long to be more mature like Nooria—especially when she seems to envy Nooria’s beautiful long hair.
Themes
Family and Friendship Theme Icon
Agency, Maturity, and Childhood Theme Icon
Related Quotes
When Parvana is done, she joins Maryam on the floor and compliments Maryam’s drawing. Mother and Nooria call Parvana to help them clean out the cupboard. They just did it three days ago, but with no work or school, there isn’t anything else to do. Parvana hates all the cleaning—it uses up water quickly. Parvana looks around the tiny room, which contains only a tall cupboard and their two toshaks. The lavatory is just a small room with a platform toilet, the water tank, and the propane cookstove. The stove is there because the room has a vent. Though they have neighbors in the part of the building that’s still standing, Father insists they keep their distance. The Taliban encourages neighbors to spy on each other. Because of this, Parvana is lonely.
Given Parvana’s youth, it’s understandable that she’s not entirely sympathetic to Mother and Nooria’s attempts to keep busy. Even if Parvana just has to sit still, she still gets to leave the house and see more than the four walls that Nooria and Mother do. In this sense, her lack of sympathy comes from the tiny bit of privilege that she has over Nooria and Mother. Her inability to make friends with neighbors exposes another way that the Taliban have curtailed Parvana’s life, as they’ve effectively made people isolated from and suspicious of one another.
Themes
Gender Relations Theme Icon
Family and Friendship Theme Icon
Agency, Maturity, and Childhood Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Mother and Nooria begin to put things back in the cupboard, and Mother hands Parvana new items to sell. Parvana is enraged that Mother is selling Parvana’s good shalwar kameez, but Mother insists there’s no need for it. Parvana asks why they don’t sell Nooria’s clothes, but Mother insists that Nooria will need them when she gets married. When Nooria makes faces at Parvana, Parvana insists that Noria’s husband will be marrying a stuck-up snob. Mother shuts down Parvana’s tirade. Parvana hates Nooria and if her mother weren’t her mother, she’d hate her too.
The fact that Nooria needs to keep all her good clothes for her future marriage emphasizes the age gap between the girls. While Parvana wants to be seen as more adult (and therefore, be able to keep clothes she loves), she cannot escape the reality that she’s only 11, while marriage and adulthood are rapidly approaching for Nooria.
Themes
Family and Friendship Theme Icon
Agency, Maturity, and Childhood Theme Icon
Parvana’s anger disappears when Mother puts the parcel of Hossain’s clothes away in the cupboard. Hossain used to be the oldest child, but a land mine killed him when he was 14. Mother and Father refuse to talk about Hossain, but according to Nooria, he was a happy, laughing person and often played with Nooria and baby Parvana. Parvana helps prepare supper, and after the meal, the family sits together. Parvana keeps a close eye on Nooria and Mother for the silent signal that passes between them that starts the cleanup process, but she can never catch it.
Hossain’s death likely feels even weightier now, when the family could really use another man to help support them. As women, Nooria and Parvana can only do so much to help out under the Taliban’s rules. Parvana’s inability to catch the signals between Mother and Nooria speaks again to her youth, as she doesn’t yet have to tend to the family like an adult would. The secret signal also seems to show that Mother and Nooria have become much closer due to their circumstances.
Themes
Gender Relations Theme Icon
Family and Friendship Theme Icon
Agency, Maturity, and Childhood Theme Icon
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Father, dressed in his good white shalwar kameez and with a freshly combed beard, looks rested and handsome. He tells the story of Malali. In 1880, the British invaded Afghanistan. During one terrible battle, the British were winning, and the Afghans were feeling increasingly hopeless. But then a young girl ripped off her veil, ran to the front of the battle, and waved her veil like a battle flag. She led the Afghan soldiers into battle and victory. Father says the moral of the story is that Afghanistan’s women are the bravest in the world, as they’ve inherited Malali’s courage. Maryam waves her arm, but Nooria insists they can’t be brave if they can’t go out and lead men into war. Father says there are many different kinds of battles as Mother insists it’s time to clean up.
It seems likely that Father intends Malali’s story to inspire his daughters to find ways to be brave, even if they can’t heroically charge into battle. Maryam, being so young, doesn’t understand enough about what’s going on to share Nooria’s sense of hopelessness. Especially since Nooria can’t leave the house these days, it’s hard for her to formulate any feasible plans to resist. It’s also important to note that Father also wants his daughters to learn to take pride in their identity as Afghan women, something that may be harder now under the Taliban.
Themes
Afghanistan, History, and Pride Theme Icon
Gender Relations Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Parvana makes a face that causes the whole family to laugh. Suddenly, four Taliban soldiers burst in. Ali screams and Nooria covers herself with her chador—the Taliban sometimes steal young women. Frozen from fear, Parvana watches the soldiers grab Father. Mother screams at them as they tell Father that Afghanistan “doesn’t need [his] foreign ideas.” Mother hits the soldiers, but a soldier beats her with his rifle. Parvana flies at the soldiers as they drag Father out and down the stairs. Two more soldiers dig through the cupboard and slash the toshaks. Parvana is terrified—Father has English books hidden in the bottom of the cupboard, and the Taliban often burns books. Parvana screams at the soldiers to leave until they turn to beating her. When the soldiers finally leave, Mother gathers Ali and Maryam comforts Parvana.
Father is well educated, so his ideas represent a kind of free-thinking, broad-minded Afghanistan that the Taliban sees as a threat. Parvana’s choice to fling herself at the soldiers makes it clear that she is, above all else, loyal to her family and willing to put herself in danger to protect people she loves. Especially given how snippy she and Nooria have been, it’s important to see her dedication to saving Father. It suggests that when things get rough, Parvana will rise to the occasion to protect family members and the kind of Afghanistan she wants to live in—as represented by the books.
Themes
Afghanistan, History, and Pride Theme Icon
Family and Friendship Theme Icon