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Mariam’s Resilience in 'A Thousand Splendid Suns'

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The concept of resiliency is a profound and well-administered trait in many literary pieces, amongst protagonists; one to be valued and admired by those surrounding them. Resilience is a trait often dealt to a character who undergoes a merciless amount of discrimination and terror throughout their lifetime. In Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, Mariam, one of the protagonists, in spite of the treacherous cultural stigma and continuous tragedy that pervades most of her life, is ultimately content with the life she has led for herself. Mariam demonstrates the aforementioned resilience, often found in protagonistic characters because she, on numerous accounts, is faced with trials of assault and belittlement throughout the novel. Once Mariam witnesses the life-shattering remnants of Nana’s suicide, her mind is opened to the purpose behind Nana’s treatment of Mariam; this forever alters Mariam’s mentality. Mariam endured seven miscarriages by the time she reaches just nineteen years old. These devastating recurrences cause Rasheed, her husband, to commence his ceaseless mistreatment of her – ultimately destroying all of Mariam’s hopes and longings in having a loving family and sense of belonging. Mariam saves herself, Laila and the children, in conquering the single most threatening being in their lives; Rasheed. This controversially heroic act highlights her motherly instinct to protect her beloved children and positively transforms her, emotionally, from constantly living in fear to living fearlessly. There is nothing which deters her -and there were many forces against her along the way – from achieving the happiness she sought from having a family of her own, ever since she was the young and naive child living in the small kolba between Herat and Kabul.

In the novel, Nana, Mariam’s mother, is one of the few people Mariam has been able to form a relationship with, their connection being extremely weak. The relationship dynamic between Nana and Mariam is opposite to the stereotypical mother and daughter relationship one would deem normal; Nana treats Mariam with little respect and expects a great amount of it given in return because she lost everything due to Mariam’s conception. Starting from a young age, “Mariam is harshly oppressed throughout the novel.” (Shapiro 32), and feels that she is a burden on her mother; Nana verbally abuses Mariam calling her a harami and making her feel as though, outside the kolba, she will be worthless. “A gust of wind blew and parted the drooping branches of the weeping willow like a curtain and Mariam caught a glimpse of what was beneath the tree: the straight-backed chair, overturned. The rope dropping from a high branch. Nana dangling at the end of it”. In observing the traumatic event that is her mother’s suicide, Mariam is subject to the looming concept of death; a far and distant thought to most fifteen-year-olds -however, one that Mariam is quickly acquainted with. Given the fact that just previous to this catastrophic event in her life, Mariam becomes privy to a passive, weak and despicable side of Jalil, her father, causing her to fill with guilt and sympathy for her mother as though she owes an apology for her child-like naiveness. For all of Mariam’s childhood, Mariam believed her father was a perfect man – despite Nana’s constant rejection of this philosophy. Mariam firmly believed her father could do no wrong until, after ensuring his presence in meeting her at the cinema, he stood her up, and again, being refused entrance into his home in Herat, after searching for him and waiting upon his doorstep overnight. Mariam is affected profoundly by the shocking events that follow her mother’s death because all she has ever, really known is her Nana, the kolba and Jalil. Quite quickly, Mariam is ripped from life as she knows it and must adapt and endure the mental and emotional trauma that losing her mother brings forth.

When Mariam loses her mother, she loses every familiar thing in her life and is left with Jalil and his multiple families, where Mariam is regarded as inferior and is made to feel as though she does not belong.

When her mother commits suicide, Mariam feels stigmatized once again: she cannot aspire either to be accepted by her father’s family or to be given a place in their society. Her only choice is to be hastily married off as far as possible and to be forgotten. Mariam is confined to the cottage and is exposed to minimal social interaction.

After Nana’s passing, Mariam arrives at Jalil’s residence -which is an ironic to a reader due to the fact that she once yearned so greatly to be living amongst Jalil’s family, and at last, she is granted this wish -yet it took her mother’s suicide for Jalil to finally accept her into his home. It is not long before Jalil’s wives rid themselves of Mariam, arranging to marry her off to Rasheed; a financially sturdy shoemaker, an older man. “She was being sent away because she was the walking, breathing embodiment of their shame.” (Hosseini 48). Having Mariam, Jalil’s harami, living amongst Jalil’s family created much tension amongst him and his wives. Hosseini implicates Mariam is regarded as the manifestation of Jalil’s careless and frivolous behaviour which was why the wives arrange her to wed Rasheed -they did not want themselves or their children subjected to the walking reminder of their husband’s unlawful relations with Nana. Upon experiencing the loss of her mother, Mariam has a life-altering realization -one that tears her apart but secures her strength; Mariam understands that her mother’s resentment and cruel words towards her were preparing her, it was Nana teaching her the lesson of endurance; something that would, in the end, lead Mariam to reach her happiness and fulfillment in life.

At the young age of just fifteen Mariam, begrudgingly, is married off to Rasheed at the hand of her father. This joining of man and wife is an adjustment for innocent Mariam, however, Rasheed is no stranger to the customs of such a union, being a widow and having lost a son. Rasheed does not spare much time before proceeding to consummate the marriage with Mariam, paying no attention to the fact that she is not yet willing. Rasheed seeks a son and views Mariam as a means to acquire what he desires, which is someone to carry his name. Mariam, however much she tries, Mariam is not able to carry any pregnancy full term -which infuriates Rasheed to no ends.

There was always something, some minor thing that would infuriate him, because no matter what she did to please him, no matter how thoroughly she submitted to his wants and demands, it wasn’t enough. She could not give him his son back. In this most essential way, she had failed him -seven times she had failed him- and now she was nothing but a burden to him.

Mariam’s miscarriages become a trigger for Rasheed’s ill temper and soon after, he begins his atrocious mistreatment and abuse towards Mariam. Rasheed constantly oppresses Mariam and after she fails to deliver the son that he so desperately desires, she is treated as the useless harami that she was conditioned to be while growing up. The civil husband and wife relationship dynamic, to which she, initially, became accustomed since she married Rasheed, rapidly takes a turn for the worse. This loss of congenial interaction with Rasheed only aids in building Mariam’s endurance, through constant verbal and physical abuse from her husband and shapes her into the strong woman she becomes.

In not delivering Rasheed a son, Mariam -in his eyes- has failed as a wife and he harbours resentment towards her for it. Rasheed manages to degrade Mariam farther than anyone has, in placing all pressures the culture yields of fertility on her solely. Rasheed’s outrageous mistreatment of Mariam is due to society’s precedent set for families to produce male offspring.

Rasheed is very obvious about his preference for a boy. He insists that the unborn baby in Mariam’s belly is a boy so that he is genuinely happy about the pregnancy. He is only willing to give a name to the unborn baby if it is a boy…This preference for sons continues to devalue women and prohibit the view of women as equals throughout society. 

Mariam must tread on thin ice around Rasheed and ensure she maintains her role as the perfect wife as best she can on all fronts other than reproduction, as an attempt to avoid being physically or verbally harassed by Rasheed. Avoidance of harassment, at times, appears to not make a difference when he has violent intentions. The heart-breaking loss of Mariam’s unborn children, paired with the unrealistic expectations Rasheed places upon Mariam daily is, ultimately, what unites Laila and Mariam further in the novel. Mariam deems Laila as a daughter figure in her life, and Laila’s children as her grandchildren which is all she ever longed for. Therefore, these events work together to positively affect Mariam, providing her with her longtime dream of experiencing a sense of belonging and family.

In A Thousand Splendid Suns, Mariam, although never physically bearing a child, has a motherly instinct and impulse to protect Laila and the children from Rasheed’s wrath. When Laila’s life was being threatened, Mariam becomes overwhelmed with this impulse, filling her with the strength to kill Rasheed, for the safety of those she loves, with a swing of a shovel to his head. Unfortunately, the Afghan court does not typically tend to rule in favour of the female gender if placed on trial, “I admit to what I did, brother, but, if I hadn’t, he would have killed her. He was strangling her.” (Hosseini 324). There is no consideration paid to the fact that the crime Mariam commits is an act of self-defence, or to the fact that there is a witness, due to the fact that this witness is a female, Laila. Mariam is aware of the fact that she did an immoral thing, however, she knows it had probable cause, allowing her to reveal her fierceness and fervour, with confidence, to the judge. With this, Mariam displays her final transformation of becoming an honest, confident, and deservedly free woman. After the abrupt death of Rasheed, she is able to find a positive outcome, peace. It is strange to the reader, the sense of peace and calm after the storm (Rasheed’s murder), where the most bountiful source of happiness in Mariam’s life, Laila is left to live the life Mariam fought for her.

Mariam is a marvellous Afghan woman, a representative of the rare and influential strength that comes from women who stand for solely what they believe is just. She fights the battles that are thrown her way with great difficulty -however, with success. “Most women decide to follow the rule of patriarchy no matter what treatment they accept. Smartly, along with the sad picture of women who accept the way patriarchy treats them, Hosseini portrays the strength of women who do the struggle to fight against the patriarchy.” (Istikomah 40). Mariam’s entire life has been riddled with struggles, and it is not until her courageous retaliation against Rasheed that she finally fights back. Hosseini’s portrayal of Mariam during this event allows the reader to discern how she becomes an emotionally stable woman, in contrast to her previous feelings of constant dread, ambivalence and alarm. This allows Mariam to leave the world with a more abundant amount of peace and confidence in herself than ever before giving her a “legitimate ending to an illegitimate beginning”. Mariam is an innovative woman who conquers her unlawful origin of being born a harami, to receive a legitimate end.

In Khaled Hosseini’s beautifully composed A Thousand Splendid Suns, no matter which horror-stricken events take their toll on Mariam, she never fails to exercise the one skill Nana instilled in her; endurance. Mariam survives some of the most petrifying experiences a woman can experience in her lifetime, and yet she conquers the definite source of evil in her life, Rasheed. Mariam departs from earth having made a positive difference in the lives of those she loves and is, after reflecting on her life, content with herself in her final moments. Through observing her own mother’s suicide, withstanding seven miscarriages, severing Rasheed’s connection to this world, and amongst many other hardships in her life, Mariam has managed to live demonstrating complete and utter love, along with fortitude time and time again. “I found an inner strength to fight for myself. It was clear that nobody else would.”

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