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.
The Kite Runner focuses nearly exclusively on male relationships. While the relationship between father and son is important to the novel, male friendship is central as well. Amir’s relationship with Hassan is the most obvious example. Though the two are constant companions, Amir’s superior social status causes a power difference between them, which is later complicated when Amir learns that Hassan is actually his half-brother. Amir realizes that the favor Baba showed Hassan was that of a father to a son, and he reflects on the way he let his jealousy corrupt his friendship with Hassan. Despite this problematic dynamic, Hassan is clearly a wonderful friend, as demonstrated by his willingness to support Amir even when it is difficult or dangerous to do so. This loyalty is evidenced most clearly by Hassan’s kite-running, and his refusal to give Assef the kite he runs for Amir, resulting in Assef raping Hassan as punishment.
Rahim Khan is another important character for understanding male friendship in the novel. He is a friend to both Baba and Amir, and in those relationships, he takes the role of pushing back against the questionable choices both men make. Rahim Khan can take this role because he occupies the same social position as Baba and Amir. It is Rahim Khan who knows his friends’ innermost secrets—that Baba slept with Ali’s wife and Amir allowed Hassan’s rape—and yet he does not lord these secrets over them, instead choosing to be a voice of reason and call the other characters back to goodness. Rahim Khan’s morality is evident in his phone call to grown-up Amir, in which he states “there is a way to be good again.” As a friend, Rahim provides Amir with “a way to end the cycle” of betrayals and secrets.