Amir’s quest to redeem himself makes up the heart of the novel. Early on, Amir strives to redeem himself in Baba’s eyes, primarily because his mother died giving birth to him, and he feels responsible. To redeem himself to Baba, Amir thinks he must win the kite-tournament and bring Baba the losing kite, both of which are inciting incidents that set the rest of the novel in motion. The more substantial part of Amir’s search for redemption, however, stems from his guilt regarding Hassan. That guilt drives the climactic events of the story, including Amir’s journey to Kabul to find Sohrab and his confrontation with Assef. The moral standard Amir must meet to earn his redemption is set early in the book, when Baba says that a boy who doesn’t stand up for himself becomes a man who can’t stand up to anything. As a boy, Amir fails to stand up for himself. As an adult, he can only redeem himself by proving he has the courage to stand up for what is right.
Amir has a very complex relationship with Baba, and as much as Amir loves Baba, he rarely feels Baba fully loves him back. Amir’s desire to win Baba’s love consequently motivates him not to stop Hassan’s rape. Baba has his own difficulty connecting with Amir. He feels guilty treating Amir well when he can’t acknowledge Hassan as his son. As a result, he is hard on Amir, and he can only show his love for Hassan indirectly, by bringing Hassan along when he takes Amir out, for instance, or paying for Hassan’s lip surgery. In contrast with this, the most loving relationship between father and son we see is that of Hassan and Sohrab. Hassan, however, is killed, and toward the end of the novel we watch Amir trying to become a substitute father to Sohrab. Their relationship experiences its own strains as Sohrab, who is recovering from the loss of his parents and the abuse he suffered, has trouble opening up to Amir.
The major events of the novel, while framed in the context of Amir’s life, follow Afghanistan’s transitions as well. In Amir’s recollections of his childhood, we see the calm state of Kabul during the monarchy, the founding of the republic, and then watch as the Soviet invasion and infighting between rival Afghan groups ruin the country. These events have a hand in dictating the novel’s plot and have significant effects on the lives of the characters involved. The establishment of the republic gives Assef an opportunity to harass Amir, simply because Assef’s father knows the new president. Later, Kabul’s destruction forces Baba and Amir to flee to California. When the Taliban take over after that, they murder Hassan and even give Assef a position that lets him indulge his sadism and sexual urges without repercussions. Both of these events factor into Amir’s mission to save Sohrab and his redemption by confronting Assef, subtly implying that Afghanistan will similarly have its own redemption one day.
All the characters in the novel feel the influence of the past, but none so much as Amir and Sohrab. In Sohrab’s case, his past has been so traumatizing that it affects all his behavior. The prolonged physical and sexual abuse he endured makes him flinch anytime Amir touches him. He also fears the abandonment he experienced when his parents died so much that he attempts suicide when Amir says he may have to go back to an orphanage. For Amir, the past is always with him, from the book’s first sentence, when he says he became what he is today at the age of twelve, to its final sentence. That’s because Amir defines himself by his past. His feelings of guilt for his past actions continue to motivate him. Amir even feels responsible for the Taliban murdering Hassan because he thinks he set in motion the events that led to Hassan’s death when when he pushed Hassan and Ali out of Baba’s house. As he says on the book’s first page, the past can never be buried.
Rape recurs throughout the novel. The most significant instances of rape are Assef’s rape of Hassan and his later rape of Sohrab. Hassan’s rape is the source of Amir’s guilt, which motivates his search for redemption, while stopping Sohrab’s rape becomes Amir’s way of redeeming himself. In each case, rape is a critical element in the novel’s plot. Other instances of rape include Baba stopping the rape of the woman in the truck with them as they flee Kabul, and the rape of Kamal that Kamal’s father implies. As a motif, rape is important for multiple reasons. It is not just physically violent, but it is also an attack on the victim’s emotions and dignity. Rape in this sense represents complete physical and mental domination of those who don’t have power by those who do, and the victims of rape that we see in the novel, most notably Hassan and Sohrab, always suffer lasting emotional trauma.
The adult Amir clearly recognizes the ironies in his own story. He even describes how Rahim Khan tells him when is still a child that he has grasped irony in his writing. The novel’s greatest irony, and its most tragic, centers on Amir’s choice not to stop Hassan’s rape. Amir doesn’t intervene because he wants Baba’s approval, which he knows he can earn by bringing home the kite and proving that he, like Baba, is a winner. But by not stopping Assef and the others, Amir becomes exactly the sort of coward Baba worried Amir would become, and unwittingly allows Baba’s son—and his own brother—to be raped, as he does not yet know that Baba is Hassan’s father. Amir ultimately wants to be happy, but instead he earns himself an overwhelming sense of guilt. There is a further irony in the fact that Amir only realizes how much he resembles Baba when he discovers that Baba conceived Hassan with Sanaubar, Ali’s wife. Amir wants to share the best of Baba’s traits, but instead what they share is the betrayal of their best friends. Another significant irony is the fact that Assef, who raped Hassan and caused Amir’s guilt, becomes the way for Amir to atone. Amir is emotionally healed by taking the beating Assef gives him. In each instance, the irony stems from Amir recognizing the unintended consequences of his actions or desires.
Amir does not exactly have flashbacks, which would suddenly put him back in the midst of an earlier event. Instead he repeatedly moves the story back in time to give a history of what he is talking about. The novel begins with him living in San Francisco, for instance, then immediately jumps back to his childhood in Kabul. Shortly after that, he jumps back yet again, this time to Baba’s and Ali’s childhood. When he meets Rahim Khan in Pakistan, Rahim Khan starts his own story by going back in time and telling Amir what Hassan’s life has been like. Amir tells his story to a reader who has no knowledge of any of this beforehand, and his choice to regress in time and give the back story of each character does two things: it provides critical information about the character’s history, and it also reinforces the thematic idea that the past defines the present.
Hassan’s cleft lip is one of his most representative features as a child, and it is one of the features Amir refers to most in describing him. The split in Hassan’s lip acts as a mark of Hassan’s status in society. It signifies his poverty, which is one of the things that separates him from Amir, simply because a cleft lip indicates that he and his family do not have the money to fix the deformity. Baba, who is Hassan’s biological father, chooses to pay a surgeon to repair Hassan’s lip as a birthday gift, signifying his secret fatherly love for Hassan. Later, Assef splits Amir’s lip as he beats him, leaving Amir with a permanent scar much like Hassan’s. In a sense, Amir’s identity becomes merged with Hassan’s. He learns to stand up for those he cares about, as Hassan once did for him, and he becomes a father figure to Sohrab. Because of this, it also serves as a sign of Amir’s redemption.
The kite serves as a symbol of Amir’s happiness as well as his guilt. Flying kites is what he enjoys most as a child, not least because it is the only way that he connects fully with Baba, who was once a champion kite fighter. But the kite takes on a different significance when Amir allows Hassan to be raped because he wants to bring the blue kite back to Baba. His recollections after that portray the kite as a sign of his betrayal of Hassan. Amir does not fly a kite again until he does so with Sohrab at the end of the novel. Because Amir has already redeemed himself by that point, the kite is no longer a symbol of his guilt. Instead, it acts as a reminder of his childhood, and it also becomes the way that he is finally able to connect with Sohrab, mirroring the kite’s role in Amir’s relationship with Baba.
In Islam, as in Christianity, the lamb signifies the sacrifice of an innocent. Amir describes both Hassan and Sohrab as looking like lambs waiting to be slaughtered. Amir says this during Hassan’s rape, noting that Hassan resembled the lamb they kill during the Muslim celebration of Eid Al-Adha, which honors Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son for God. Similarly, he describes Sohrab as looking like a slaughter sheep when he first sees Sohrab with Assef. Assef and the others had put mascara on Sohrab’s eyes, just as Amir says the mullah used to do to the sheep before slitting its throat. Both Hassan and Sohrab are innocents who are figuratively sacrificed by being raped, but these sacrifices have very different meanings. In Hassan’s case, Amir sacrifices him for the blue kite. But in Sohrab’s case, Amir is the one who stops his sexual abuse. In this context, sacrifice is portrayed as the exploitation of an innocent.