Study Guide

A Thousand Splendid Suns Analysis

By Khaled Hosseini

  • What's Up With the Title?

    The title is based on a line from the poem "Kabul" by Iranian poet Saib Tabrizi, as translated by Josephine Davis. The poem is recited by Babi when Laila's family is preparing to leave Kabul. Originally, Hosseini had just been looking for a poem for that scene, but, according to an interview with Book Browse, he found the phrase "a thousand splendid suns" to be an "evocative title."

    The phrase also shows up when Laila is teaching at the orphanage at the end of the novel. Laila is comforted by the realization that "Mariam is in Laila's own heart, where she shines with the bursting radiance of a thousand suns" (4.51.37). Fittingly, the title becomes a reference both to the city of Kabul and to the women of Afghanistan—the two subjects that the novel is most interested in.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    The ending to A Thousand Splendid Suns is a beautiful ode to Laila and Mariam's relationship, which is the foundation that the novel is built on. It emphasizes how Mariam and Laila became family and how Mariam's love still lives on after her death.

    Here are the things that you should remember when you read the ending:

    • Mariam and Laila became like mother and daughter.
    • Laila wouldn't have been able to renovate the orphanage without Mariam.

    The two women found each other at just the right time. Laila, having recently lost her parents, was desperately in need of a mother. Mariam, on the other hand, was traumatized by her numerous miscarriages and Rasheed's abuse. Laila needed to be loved, and Mariam needed someone to love. They both find what they're looking for.

    Eventually, Mariam ends up doing the thing that only a mother would do: sacrificing her life for Laila and Laila's family. Laila is so grateful that she leaves her comfortable life in Pakistan and dedicates herself to the children of Kabul. Mariam has a hand in this, too, because Laila uses her inheritance to fund the orphanage.

    This leads us to the revelation that Laila, now a teacher, is pregnant with a child. The family loves to brainstorm potential baby names (like Zalmai, we have no idea why an "Afghan boy can't be named Clark"), but they never discuss girl names (4.51.44).

    That's because Laila already knows that she'll name the baby Mariam if it's a girl. It's a small gesture, sure, but it's a powerful one. We've already seen how Mariam is in "Laila's own heart, where she shines with the bursting radiance of a thousand suns" (4.51.37). Now, Mariam and her story will live on as a part of Laila's family, where she always belonged.

  • Setting

    Kabul, Afghanistan

    Although A Thousand Splendid Suns spends time outside of Kabul, the novel is a big love letter to the birthplace of author Khaled Hosseini. After all, the title of the novel is taken from a poem dedicated to Kabul's beauty.

    The novel looks at the city during a time of conflict, when forces from within and without are struggling to take control of Afghanistan. Kabul itself hits some highs and lows throughout this period, but the novel never loses faith in the people of Kabul and their ability to endure.

    Cash Rules Everything Around Me

    Like all cities, Kabul has many different faces. There is Deh-Mazang, the low-to-middle-class area where Rasheed's house is located. We also take a stroll down Chicken Street where Mariam sees the "modern Afghan women," whose freedom she envies (1.11.19). This is one of the first signs of the class issues that affect Kabul.

    While the wealthy side of Kabul enjoys modern amenities and easy access to a higher education, the poorer part has a much harder time. It's easy to flaunt traditional morality when you have money, but it's harder when you are struggling to make ends meet. While the rich kids get "watches with leather bands," the children in the poorer parts only have "old bicycle tires" to play with (1.11.19). And that's before times get really tough in Kabul.

    The Times They Are A-Changin'

    Things take a turn for the worse after the Soviets take control. There are certainly some benefits at first, specifically in terms of women's rights: girls have more access to education than ever, and traditional moral rules are not supported by the government. Unfortunately, there are many who disagree with these changes, and they band together to form the Mujahideen. Surprisingly, this unites the often-warring ethnic groups of Afghanistan.

    Once the war is over, however, this alliance falls apart.

    The Taliban take control after years of fighting, but they have no interest in returning Kabul to its former glory. Instead, they take old-school morality from conservative rural communities—what Rasheed calls "the real Afghanistan"—and bring it to the city (3.37.53).

    That means that all women must wear burqas at all times, that girls are forbidden from going to school, and that all forms of media, from music to movies to painting, are banned. They're about two laws away from being the small town from Footloose.

    Moving On Up

    The people of Kabul show a surprising amount of resilience in spite of the situation. The whole city falls in love with the movie Titanic, for example. They flaunt the Taliban's media ban and risk punishment in order to share an emotional experience with each other.

    There's a similar thing happening within Laila and Mariam's home, as well. They experience the same poverty as the rest of Kabul, and though their home becomes more and more squalid, the relationships between Laila, Mariam, and Aziza grow stronger.

    Then, just like that, the Taliban is gone. With UN forces now in Kabul, life returns to some semblance of normality. Laila sees that the people have taken to planting flowers in old missile shells and calling them "rocket flower" (4.51.13). Talk about taking lemons and making lemonade.

    That's the beauty of Kabul. Though the people suffer and struggle, they never lose hope. You can take their money, you can take their loved ones, but you can never take the spirit of the people of Kabul.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (5) Tree Line

    There are plenty of people and places to keep track of, but the language is simple enough that it's never hard to follow. If you're sensitive to violence, you should also be aware that the book contains a few scenes that could be upsetting.

  • Dreams

    Dream sequences are a great way to get inside of the mind of a character. Think about The Dude's dream sequence in The Big Lebowski, or (spoiler alert!) 80 percent of Inception. Dreams allow us to get inside the subconscious of a character, where all the icky and unpleasant stuff lives.

    Laila's dream sequence in Part Three of A Thousand Splendid Suns is no exception to the rule. Her dream of burying Aziza alive reveals that she feels like she's complicit with the oppression of women carried out by the Taliban.

    Like all dreams, Laila's nightmare is sparked by real world events. Mariam and Laila had spent the day prior burying their television in the backyard, "striking the ground with a spade, then shoveling the loose dirt aside" (3.40.2). The Taliban had been raiding homes looking for illegal media, and the pair decided to hide the TV until the raids die down.

    The Taliban's moral laws are carried out in two main ways: banning media and oppressing women. Laila's dream connects these two missions. The television gets transformed into her daughter, a young girl who has never had the opportunity to go school or even play in the streets. This is Laila realizing that she has been forced to hide away Aziza, just like she hid away the TV set.

    Laila tells Aziza that it will "only be for a while," but that doesn't keep the young girl from panicking (3.40.63). Laila worries that the Taliban's oppression of women could get even worse, and her fears are realized when Rasheed forces her to send Aziza to an orphanage. Naturally, Aziza's gender has a huge impact on his decision.

    Don't forget that shovel, by the way. Here, it represents the oppression of women, and it comes back in the end of the novel as the weapon that Mariam uses to kill Rasheed. It goes from a symbol of oppression to a symbol of liberation—liberation, it must be said, with a heavy cost.

  • Nature

    Shall we compare thee to a summer's day? Thou art more lovely. How about if we compare you to a weed? A poisonous flower? Er, what about limestone? Oh, no—you're not into that? It's a compliment, we swear!

    Here, let us tell you why—Khaled Hosseini uses that same imagery to characterize Mariam in A Thousand Splendid Suns and chart her growth from a poor harami into a loving and selfless woman.

    When we are introduced to Mariam, we are given the image of her as "a weed […] something you rip out and toss aside" (1.2.3). These words would hurt coming from anybody, but they hit Mariam especially hard because they come from Mommy Dearest. But it is accurate, in a way: the world treats Mariam like a weed because she is a harami. She doesn't fit into the social order, and people reject her because of it.

    At some point, Mariam even begins to believe that she is nothing but a weed. When she's older, she describes love and hope as "twin poisonous flowers" that she uproots whenever they sprout inside her (3.35.26). Mariam learns to uproot love the same way that she was uprooted.

    That changes once Laila and Aziza come along. For the first time in her life, Mariam has people who love her unconditionally. That's a powerful thing. Mariam ends up expressing her love for Laila and Aziza in the most profound way, by sacrificing her life for them. There's one thing that's for sure after that: Mariam is a weed no more.

    So, when Laila returns to Mariam's childhood home at the close of the novel, she doesn't see Mariam as a weed—she realizes that Mariam is "as hard and unyielding as a block of limestone" (4.50.112). She can't be uprooted, can't be tossed aside, can't be ignored. Finally.

  • Titanic

    It's a fact: everyone loves the movie Titanic.

    Don't be ashamed, though: in A Thousand Splendid Suns, the entire city of Kabul catches "Titanic fever," too (3.41.12). The phenomenon sweeps the city even amidst a violent crackdown by the Taliban against illegal media. These people risked life and limb just to watch Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet make out.

    The question, of course, is why?

    We think that Laila has it right when she says that "everybody wants Jack" to come and save them (3.41.19). At this point in the novel, Kabul itself is a sinking ship and the frightened citizens feel trapped. They can see that the war and drought will inevitably get worse, but each person is secretly hoping that someone will come along and save them. Afghanistan might feel like a hopeless cause at this point, but there's still a chance for personal salvation.

    However, we don't quite agree when Laila claims that "Jack is not coming back" to save them (3.41.19). Laila eventually finds her savior in Mariam who, like Jack from Titanic, sacrifices her life so that Laila and her children can live on. At the close of the novel, it even looks like Titanic City might not end up sinking after all.

  • Pinocchio

    Would you have guessed that a novel about women in Afghanistan would have so many American pop culture references?

    Despite our surprise, Hosseini's allusions to American films actually add interesting depth to his characters. The best example of this is his use of the Pinocchio cartoon to develop Mariam and Jalil's relationship. The film acts as a subtle plot point and can be seen as a metaphor for Mariam's growth through the novel.

    You could easily miss the first reference to Pinocchio in Part One. Remember when Mariam begs Jalil to take her to a movie on her birthday? That was Pinocchio, a "special type of film" (a.k.a. a cartoon) that was completely new to the country (1.5.5). Jalil's refusal to take her to the movie—despite the fact that he owns the movie theater—emphasizes how he doesn't fully accept Mariam as a daughter.

    We next come in contact with Pinocchio at the close of the novel, after Mariam's death. Laila has received Mariam's inheritance, but she "does not understand" when she pops in the cassette tape that was included and Pinocchio comes on the screen (4.51.137). Of course, we the readers (we're the smartest) know how powerful that gesture is. Jalil is asking for forgiveness from Mariam and trying, in a very small way, to rebuild the childhood that he helped destroy.

    But it goes deeper than that. The plot of Pinocchio reflects Mariam's own journey. At first, both Pinocchio and Mariam are not "real" in some sense. Mariam is a harami, isolated from social life and from her father, Jalil. Pinocchio happens to be made out of wood. But then they're both thrust on a perilous journey where they overcome some pretty terrifying odds.

    They emerge from the other end transformed: Pinocchio becomes a human boy and Mariam finally finds a family in Laila and Aziza. She is no longer a harami—she's just Mariam.

    • Allusions

      Literary and Philosophical References

      • Nizami Ganjavi, Layla and Manjnun (2.23.48)
      • Saib-e-Tabrizi, Kabul (2.26.43-44, 4.50.36, 4.51.37)

      Historical References

      • Ahmad Shah Massoud (referenced throughout)
      • President Daoud Khan (referenced throughout)
      • Mohammad Najibullah (referenced throughout)
      • Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (referenced throughout)
      • Richard Nixon's Watergate scandal (1.10.14)
      • Mir Akbar Khyber (1.15.1)
      • Karl Marx (1.15.5)
      • Ronald Reagan and the Iran-Contra Affair (2.16.37)
      • Mullah Omar (3.37.3)
      • Osama bin Laden (4.49.15)
      • George W. Bush (4.49.21)

      Pop Culture References

      • Walt Disney's Pinocchio (1.5.5, 4.50.137)
      • Ustad Awal Mir (singer) (2.23.79-80)
      • Titanic (3.41.3-19)
      • Superman (4.51.44)