The inner turmoil Amir wrestles with after betraying Hassan drives the entire plot of The Kite Runner. This struggle is a conflict between the kind of man that Amir believes he is, and the kind of man that Baba is. By allowing Hassan’s rape, Amir fails Hassan profoundly and fundamentally. Even worse, Amir never corrects his failure for the rest of Hassan’s life. Amir views Baba as just, strong, and sure, and finds himself lacking in comparison. Baba seems to share this perception of his son, but Amir ultimately learns that Baba too has deeply betrayed Ali in sleeping with his wife, and that much of what Amir perceived as Baba’s strength was Baba trying to atone for his failings.
The inciting incident that sets the plot in motion is Assef’s raping of Hassan after Hassan recovers the defeated kite of Amir’s victorious kite-fight. Though this specific event sparks all the important plot developments to come, it is not the beginning of Amir’s betrayal of Hassan. The reader knows that Amir tends to be petty and disrespectful toward Hassan, sometimes even lying to Hassan to keep him illiterate and on the periphery of Baba’s favor. Amir regrets his treatment, but for him, the power struggle has always been a familiar hallmark of their relationship. Amir betrays Hassan again by growing distant after the rape, and eventually by framing Hassan for stealing his watch and birthday money. These betrayals prove unendurable for Hassan and Ali, who leave Baba’s household and never return. Throughout the next quarter-century of Amir’s life, not even his escape from war-torn Afghanistan into his new American life can fully keep the haunting of his past at bay. When Baba off-handedly mentions Hassan’s name, Amir says “a pair of steel hands closed around my windpipe,” indicating that there is still much that must be atoned for.
The climax of the novel and resolution of Amir’s inner turmoil comes when Assef brutally beats Amir for attempting to rescue Sohrab. Assef’s brass-knuckle punching is literally the beating that Amir was unwilling to take decades earlier to defend Hassan. Hosseini leaves no ambiguity about the importance of this moment as Amir laughs uncontrollably throughout the fight, due to how good it feels to be “healed at last.” Though this atoning fight is the climax of the plot, it is not the end of the story, because it only reflects half of Amir’s betrayal of Hassan. Amir knows he must atone for his failure to support Hassan after the rape, which is why he fights to bring Sohrab home to America. At no point does Hosseini guarantee that Amir’s difficulties are over or that Sohrab will fully heal, but by the end of The Kite Runner—as Amir carefreely runs after a kite “with a smile as wide as the Valley of Panjsher”—there is a clear sense that Amir is moving forward with responsibility and compassion, and there is reason to hope for these characters’ futures.