At its heart, The Breadwinner is a testament to the power of family and friendship. Parvana’s family is close-knit, and her family members do everything they can to support one another, even with the presence of normal bickering between siblings. Friendship is an important source of support too—when Parvana is traversing Kabul disguised as the boy Kaseem, it’s her rediscovered friendship with an old school friend, Shauzia, that keeps her going and helps her feel safe in the world. With this, the novel positions caring for and serving one’s family and friends as the most motivating and fulfilling thing a person can do—and in the case of Parvana’s family in particular, it’s the only way to guarantee the family’s survival.
As Parvana explains early in the novel, in her world, family members are the only people that a person can trust. This hasn’t always been true, however—it’s the new way of life since the Taliban came to power, as they encourage neighbors to spy on each other. For safety, people can only trust their families. While relying on family isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it soon becomes clear that supportive relationships with family aren’t enough to keep a family fed in Afghanistan—especially when the only family members a person has are female. Only men and boys are allowed to leave the home, move freely, and earn money—so without a man or a boy in the family capable of working, families have no way to financially support themselves. Parvana finds herself in this situation after the Taliban arrests Father, thereby putting Parvana, Mother, 17-year-old Nooria, five-year-old Maryam, and toddler Ali (the only boy) in danger of starvation, deeper poverty, or even arrest for not having a man to look after the women, as is mandated by the Taliban’s rules.
Despite the Taliban’s work to sow suspicion and distrust among friends and neighbors, friendship nevertheless emerges as a more than passable alternative to family. A stroke of luck allows Parvana and her family to turn to an old friend, former gym teacher Mrs. Weera. With her guidance and her unwillingness to simply sit and wallow in their poor fortune, they hatch the plan to dress Parvana as a boy so she can earn money in the market. At the same time, Mrs. Weera provides Mother and Nooria with much-needed emotional support. Whereas Father couldn’t convince Mother to continue writing or resisting the Taliban through her work, Mrs. Weera manages to do so—speaking again to the power of friends to perform the kind of emotional labor that family members sometimes cannot.
Meanwhile, Parvana’s friendship with Shauzia becomes something even more meaningful: it means safety and solidarity, and Shauzia gives Parvana the courage to take steps she’d never have been brave enough to take alone. Like Parvana, Shauzia is young enough that she can successfully pose as a boy in order to work in the market. Because of this, the girls become especially close—they both understand the danger they’re in and bond over it as they protect and encourage each other. Shauzia is the one to push Parvana to dig up and sell bones to earn the capital they need to purchase cigarettes, fruit, and gum to then sell; selling small items off of trays is far more lucrative than Shauzia’s job at the tea stand or Parvana’s job writing letters. It’s possible, then, to credit Parvana’s family’s friends—both Mrs. Weera and Shauzia—for the family’s continued survival.
Even though Parvana’s experiences speak to the power of supporting one’s family, the novel also makes it clear that staying loyal to one’s friends can sometimes be even more important. Shauzia lives in fear that her paternal grandparents, whom she and her mother live with and who dislike her mother, will soon marry her off. This will allow her grandparents to live more comfortably on her bride price than they currently do on her earnings from cigarette sales. For Shauzia, then, family isn’t a supportive unit worth remaining loyal to—it’s something to escape. By contrast, when Father is released from prison, he and Parvana turn their attention to figuring out what happened to Mother and Nooria, who traveled north so that Nooria could marry—but the Taliban took their destination city. For them, their strong family bonds make it worth it to strike out without their friends in service of their family. Shauzia, however, she prepares to take a different journey away from her family—one that Shauzia hopes ends in France and will allow her to do more with her life than simply be a bargaining chip. With this, the novel makes the case that while both family and friends are important and can help an individual survive, it’s important to identify who in one’s life is truly supportive and target one’s attention there.
Family and Friendship ThemeTracker
Family and Friendship Quotes in The Breadwinner
There were a lot of false legs for sale in the market now. Since the Taliban decreed that women must stay inside, many husbands took their wives’ false legs away. “You’re not going anywhere, so why do you need a leg?” they asked.
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.
Other people lived in the part of the building that was still standing. Parvana saw them as she went to fetch water or went out with her father to the marketplace. “We must keep our distance,” Father told her. “The Taliban encourage neighbor to spy on neighbor. It is safer to keep to ourselves.”
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.
“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.
“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?”
Parvana remembered arguments between her father and mother—her mother insisting they leave Afghanistan, her father insisting they stay. For the first time, Parvana wondered why her mother didn’t just leave. In an instant, she answered her own question. She couldn’t sneak away with four children to take care of.
“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.
“Shauzia has family here. Do you mean to say she would just leave her family? Desert the team just because the game is rough?”
Parvana said no more. In a way, Mrs. Weera was right. That was what Shauzia was doing. But Shauzia was also right. Didn’t she have a right to seek out a better life? Parvana couldn’t decide who was more right.