The novel’s protagonist, Parvana, is on the brink of puberty at 11 years old. In this state between child and adult, she has both more freedom and more responsibility than the female adults or near-adults in her life—the Taliban isn’t as interested in policing the activities of prepubescent girls as they are adult women, so she can usually get away with being out in the city. However, this also means that many tasks that are forbidden to adult women fall to Parvana. By exploring how Parvana deals with simultaneously being asked to emotionally mature long before she’s ready and hold onto her childish appearance as long as possible, the novel makes the case that growing up becomes far more complicated in situations like Parvana experiences. While the physical indicators that Parvana is still a child protect her and enable her to support her family, her emotional maturity is what allows her to thrive.
At the beginning of the novel, the narrator focuses primarily on Parvana’s actions that reflect her childishness. As she helps Father in the market, she grouses and squirms about having to sit still and about how uncomfortable she is, and she stamps her feet childishly when Mother and Nooria ask her to get water and help them clean. When the Taliban arrest Father, Parvana feels powerless and childish. However, up until Father’s arrest, Parvana has been able to be a child for the most part. She’s mature enough to have certain responsibilities, like fetching water and helping Father in the market, but she’s young enough that her parents and Nooria still enable her to have as carefree of a childhood as possible. Thus, it’s a shock for Parvana when, after Father’s arrest, Mrs. Weera and Mother hatch a plan to save them: Parvana will cut her hair, dress as a boy, and make money in the market to feed the family. For Parvana, this is an affront to the agency and the safety she thought she had as a child. As far as she’s concerned, she shouldn’t have to do these things because she’s so young—but she soon realizes that Mrs. Weera and Mother are right. Parvana, because of where she is in her development, is the only one of them who has a body that’s still androgynous enough to pass for male yet is mature enough to function independently in the market.
Though Parvana initially chafes at her increased responsibility and her new adult role, she eventually comes to realize that the responsibility gives her a great deal of freedom and agency. At first, she does exactly as she’s told: she returns to Father’s regular spot in the market to read and write letters for people who aren’t literate. However, when she discovers that an old school acquaintance, Shauzia, is also posing as a boy to work in the market, she begins to take advantage of her new, adult freedom. With Shauzia’s encouragement, Parvana feels safe and comfortable making the choice to disobey her mother when she and Shauzia learn that they can make a great deal of money by digging up bones in a graveyard. This is no easy choice for the girls: they know their parents won’t approve, they feel uncomfortable disturbing the dead, and they’re afraid of being found out by the other boys who are also out digging. But they also realize that this is the only way they’ll ever make enough money to provide more than bread and tea for their families. By making choices like this and experimenting with their new responsibilities, the girls find more freedom and agency than they ever thought possible.
However, the novel continuously reminds the reader that Parvana and Shauzia’s independence and maturity will be short-lived, and they’re only barely in charge of their own lives—in many ways, they’re still children. Shauzia in particular lives in fear that the family members she lives with will marry her off as soon as she’s old enough, which will mean that they can live off her bride price rather than her meager earnings from selling cigarettes. Though Parvana’s family is far more progressive and believes that women should have agency, not just be married off, Parvana also knows that her ability to pass for a boy will soon disappear as she enters puberty—and with it, she’ll be even more powerless than she was before she started dressing as a boy. Additionally, Parvana and Shauzia often find themselves in situations that are far beyond their comprehension as immature 11-year-olds. They’re shocked and disturbed when they enter a soccer stadium, expecting to sell cigarettes at a game, and instead find themselves watching the Taliban publically torture prisoners. Shauzia later insists that her plan to run away to France will be easy; she’ll simply join nomads until she gets to the sea and then take a boat, a childishly simple plan that showcases a huge lack in understanding of how the world works. Their innocence and naïveté isn’t something they can shake off just because they’re forced to act like adults in some ways; the world is still beyond their comprehension in a variety of ways.
As the first book in a series, The Breadwinner doesn’t entirely solve these problems—but it does suggest that if the girls continue to believe that they have power and agency, they can exert some control over their lives. For Shauzia, this takes the form of running away so her family cannot marry her off, an undoubtedly difficult decision. Because Parvana doesn’t face the same kind of opposition at home, she may have more options when it comes to what actual maturity looks like for her. However, she ends the novel understanding that if she continues to advocate for herself and make her own decisions, she’ll be able to mature on her own terms.
Agency, Maturity, and Childhood ThemeTracker
Agency, Maturity, and Childhood Quotes in The Breadwinner
History was her favorite subject, especially Afghan history. Everybody had come to Afghanistan. The Persians came four thousand years ago. Alexander the Great came too, followed by the Greeks, Arabs, Turks, British, and finally the Soviets. One of the conquerors, Tamerlane from Samarkand, cut off the heads of his enemies and stacked them in huge piles, like melons at a fruit stand. All these people had come to Parvana’s beautiful country to try to take it over, and the Afghans had kicked them all out again!
For most of Parvana’s life, the city had been in ruins, and it was hard for her to imagine it another way. It hurt her to hear stories of old Kabul before the bombing. She didn’t want to think about everything the bombs had taken away, including her father’s health and their beautiful home. It made her angry, and since she could do nothing with her anger, it made her sad.
Parvana knew she had to fetch the water because there was nobody else in the family who could do it. Sometimes this made her resentful. Sometimes it made her proud. One thing she knew—it didn’t matter how she felt. Good mood or bad, the water had to be fetched, and she had to fetch it.
Nooria looked terrified. If Parvana didn’t obey her, she would have to go for food herself.
Now I’ve got her, Parvana thought. I can make her as miserable as she makes me. But she was surprised to find that this thought gave her no pleasure. Maybe she was too tired and too hungry. Instead of turning her back, she took the money from her sister’s hand.
“Mrs. Weera!” Nooria exclaimed. Relief washed over her face. Here was someone who could take charge, who could take some of the responsibility off of her shoulders.
She kept hauling water. Her arms were sore, and the blisters on her feet started to bleed again, but she didn’t think about that. She fetched water because her family needed it, because her father would have expected her to. Now that Mrs. Weera was there and her mother was up, things were going to get easier, and she would do her part.
“You’re not cutting my hair!” Parvana’s hands flew up to her head.
“How else will you look like a boy?” Mother asked.
“Cut Nooria’s hair! She’s the oldest! It’s her responsibility to look after me, not my responsibility to look after her!”
“No one would believe me to be a boy,” Nooria said calmly, looking down at her body.
“It has to be your decision,” Mrs. Weera said. “We can force you to cut off your hair, but you’re still the one who has to go outside and act the part. We know this is a big thing we’re asking, but I think you can do it. How about it?”
Parvana realized Mrs. Weera was right. They could hold her down and cut off her hair, but for anything more, they needed her cooperation. In the end, it really was her decision.
Somehow, knowing that made it easier to agree.
When she had gone into the market with her father, she had kept silent and covered up her face as much as possible. She had tried her best to be invisible. Now, with her face open to the sunshine, she was invisible in another way. She was just one more boy on the street. She was nothing worth paying attention to.
Parvana took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Up until then, she had seen Talibs only as men who beat women and arrested her father. Could they have feelings of sorrow, like other human beings?
Parvana found it all very confusing. [...] All day long, though, her thoughts kept floating back to the Talib who missed his wife.
“Do you think they’d mind us doing this?” Parvana asked.
“The people who are buried here. Do you think they’d mind us digging them up?”
Shauzia leaned on her board. “Depends on the type of people they were. If they were nasty, stingy people, they wouldn’t like it. If they were kind and generous people, they wouldn’t mind.”
“Would you mind?”
Shauzia looked at her, opened her mouth to speak, then closed it again and returned to her digging. Parvana didn’t ask her again.
“No,” Parvana told her mother.
“I beg your pardon?”
“I don’t want to quit yet. Shauzia and I want to buy trays, and things to sell from the trays. I can follow the crowd that way, instead of waiting for the crowd to come to me. I can make more money.”
“We are managing fine on what you earn reading letters.”
“No, Mother, we’re not,” Nooria said.
Mother spun around to scold Nooria for talking back, but Nooria kept talking.
“I need a break,” she told her mother. “I don’t want to see anything ugly for a little while.”
Mother and Mrs. Weera had heard about the events at the stadium from other women’s group mothers. Some had husbands or brothers who had been there. “This goes on every Friday,” Mother said. “What century are we living in?”
“Do you think we’ll still have to be boys in the spring? That’s a long time from now.”
“I want to still be a boy then,” Shauzia insisted. “If I turn back into a girl, I’ll be stuck at home. I couldn’t stand that.”
“Where will you go?”
“France. I’ll get on a boat and go to France.”
Parvana was tired. She wanted to sit in a classroom and be bored by a geography lesson. She wanted to be with her friends and talk about homework and games and what to do on school holidays. She didn’t want to know any more about death or blood or pain.
“I don’t like working alone. The marketplace isn’t the same when you’re not there. Won’t you come back?”
Put to her like that, Parvana knew she could not refuse. [...] Part of her wanted to slip away from everything, but another part wanted to get up and stay alive and continue to be Shauzia’s friend. With a little prodding from Shauzia, that was the part that won.