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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The history of Afghanistan is not only a backdrop for the events of the novel, but it is also distinctly woven into the character’s storylines. The rises and falls of the plot coincide with those in Afghanistan’s history. Some examples of how these events manifest in the novel include both Mariam and Laila’s birthdays coinciding with either the takedown or establishment of a regime or faction. Upticks in country violence coincide with the growing violence within the walls of Rasheed’s home. The more oppressive the Taliban becomes; the more Rasheed restricts Mariam and Laila’s very lives. Even the character’s ethnic identities become indistinguishable from the political factions. This proves that for an Afghan, there is no separating the political unrest from their own lives. They are affected deeply by not only local powers, but international ones as well, such as when Laila and Tariq see the attacks on the World Trade Center on the television. Many of the novel’s themes and symbols intersect with Afghanistan’s history, including gender relations, family dynamics, and the burqa. It would be impossible to tell Mariam and Laila’s story without also discussing how Afghanistan’s history was shaped and formed in the late 20th century.
Many of the characters act in accordance with not their desires, but rather how their actions will affect their own reputation. This dissonance causes many characters to feel shame to varying degrees. The importance of reputation is both used as a weapon, as in Rasheed’s interactions, and as a means to cause shame, as with Nana’s treatment of Mariam. Jalil’s shame at establishing Mariam as his legitimate daughter is what causes the events of the novel to unfold. Had he not paid mind to what other people would think of him, Mariam would not have married Rasheed. Mariam’s reputation as a harami follows her, even identifying her, throughout the novel. One of the only characters able to wrestle with casting away her reputation is Laila, who continuously heeds her own desires instead of the desires of others. Mariam is eventually able to do this as well, and it becomes the redeeming moment of her character arc. Not only is an Afghan’s reputation personal, but having a negative reputation has political ramifications. Women with no feelings of shame, like Laila, face severe repercussions from the Taliban’s Shari’a laws.
Women, especially mothers and daughters, and how they interact with each other are heavily depicted throughout the novel. Despite a great majority of the plot taking place during a time when women were not allowed many freedoms, the setting is subverted by foregrounding complex feminine relationships. The first example is that of Mariam and Nana, who have a fraught mother-daughter connection. Multiple mother-daughter relationships are introduced thereafter. When Laila is introduced, the relationship she shares with her own mother is both compared with and contrasted to that of Mariam and Nana’s. Both mothers suffer from illnesses that alienate them from society and they show their love for their daughters in ways Mariam and Laila do not understand. As the story progresses, these relationships grow in strength even as the political violence grows even more dire.
Laila creates a loving relationship with her daughter, Aziza, to give her daughter what she could not have. Mariam, too, develops a close relationship with both Laila and Aziza. However, Mariam and Laila’s relationship, complicated due to the circumstances in which Laila arrives, must first go through a metamorphosis. They grow to accept and care for each other. In the face of the terrible abuse suffered at the hands of their husband Rasheed, it is necessary that they look out for one another. Mariam truly shows how she feels about Laila when, as they are escaping, she lies and says she is Laila’s mother. Within this lie is the truth and depth of Mariam’s newfound love for Laila. It is possible to read this love as maternal. It is only through Mariam and Laila’s strong bond that the events of the climax are resolved.