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Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns does more than tell the story of two ordinary women struggling in war-torn Afghanistan but, describes what would happen if the Gods of Mount Olympus were sent to live in the country during its pre and post Taliban years. The purpose behind Hosseini’s symbolic characters is to show that men and women are both capable of incredible feats. Hosseini has written a feminist novel with A Thousand Splendid Suns. The characters in Hosseini’s novel are representatives of the Gods of Olympus from Greek mythology in order to show how these actions have been commonplace for years but, that does not mean that they should be accepted.
Hosseini uses the character Rasheed and his connection to the Greek God Zeus to show how men have historically been given an abundance of power, just for being born male, and this power comes with a superiority complex that leads them to believe that all females are beneath them and should be treated accordingly. The introduction to Rasheed frightens the audience with descriptions of how massive and threatening the man appears physically. Hosseini writes, “Mariam smelled him before she saw him. Cigarette smoke and thick, sweet cologne not faint like Jalil’s…The size of him made her gasp, and she had to drop her gaze, her heart hammering away. She sensed him lingering in the doorway, then his slow, heavy-footed movement across the room. The candy bowl on the table clinked in tune with his steps” (Hosseini 52). Suddenly the reason that Zeus always takes the form of other creatures during his sexual conquests make more sense. Like Zeus, Rasheed’s appearance alone is overpowering, though in the case of the God, women actually burned to death upon seeing his true form. Rasheed seemingly takes up more space in the room than Mariam is allowed to have and Hosseini writes knowing that this detail will make the audience uncomfortable even it is commonplace for the story he is telling. Rasheed, like Zeus, has the ability to collect romantic partners without being scorned.
Both Zeus’ and Rasheed’s wives get upset whenever their husbands find other romantic partners but they never divorce or leave these men because they cannot. On the topic of courting Laila, Rasheed says to Mariam, “Think of it this way, Mariam. I’m giving you help around the house and her a sanctuary. A home and a husband… Well, I’d say this is downright charitable of me… The way I see it, I deserve a medal” (Hosseini 216). Rasheed is asking for praise for something that Mairam is just expected to do, invite someone else into their home. Hosseini has Rasheed exert his power this way so that we could see how Rasheed, and their society as a whole, sees men as the only gender capable of keeping a household thriving. Hosseini is pushing his audience to understand that this mindset is ancient and society should have moved past it by now. Another trademark quality that both Rasheed and Zeus share is how they punish those around them using brute force. Rasheed carries his belt in the same menacing way that Zeus carries his lightning bolt. Hosseini’s novel writes, “His powerful hands clasped her jaw. He shoved two fingers in her mouth and pried it open, then forced the cold, hard pebbles into it. Mariam struggled against them, mumbling, but he kept pushing the problems in, his upper lip curled into a sneer… Through the mouth full of grit and pebbles, Mariam mumbled a plea. Tears were leaking out of the corners of her eyes” (Hosseini 104). It is important to note that this occasion is just one of many times Rasheed has physically abused his wives (mental and emotional abuse was also present in his relationships) and he did not receive any repercussions for his actions. The world that Rasheed lives in has taught him that he is free to treat women as he pleases because, as a man, he is above them. He does not see any wrongs in his behavior, but Hosseini has shown it to his audience by making the women the center of his story instead of a character like Rasheed.
Mariam was written to be the novel’s version of Hera so that Hosseini could show a woman who was born into an unjust society, realized the inequalities put in place, and devoted her life to trying to be more than what society had thought she was. Often in Greek mythology, Hera is only known as the wife of Zeus, but both Mairam and Hera made names for themselves that stretched beyond being decorations to their husbands. Mariam and Hera show resilience as they face the everyday struggle of being a woman who is reduced to being a servant for her husband and nothing more. Mariam had lost seven of her children and the emotional weight of it affected her throughout her life. The text describes the time she buries her first child (Hosseini 96) and she grieves for months afterwards. Mariam is forced to feel this pain of never having her own child while Rasheed is allowed to have children with Laila and does not suffer the same loss. In Greek mythology, Hera remains faithful to only Zeus while Zeus is known for being the playboy of the Gods and he is free to do whatever or whomever he wants. Mariam has fallen victim to her society’s standards so when she can not seem to meet that standard (by not having a child) then she only sees herself in the way the world says she should, useless. Hosseini, however, would argue that Mariam is extremely important and the weight of her ‘usefulness’ should not be proportionate to the amount of children she can produce. Mariam continues to bear a resemblance to Hera in the sense that the both fall victim to their circumstances. Mariam becomes jealous of the way that Rasheed is treating Laila and retaliates by saying, “ ‘I wouldn’t have fed you and washed you and nursed you if I’d known you were going to turn around and steal my husband’ ” (Hosseini 226). The moment is significant for Mariam because she realizes that she does not have to simply follow the rules that society has put in place for her to follow. Instead, like Hera, she takes matters into her own hands and takes control of her life in a way that was not normal for women at the time. Hosseini uses the moments that Mariam sticks up for herself as heroic feats so the audience can see that women having a voice is a good thing. He trains the audience in a way that makes them want to see the women thrive in a society that treats them as the underdogs. Mariam spent a good portion of her early life being referred to as a harami, a bastard, despite the fact that she played no part in her own creation. Hosseini writes, “It is the creators of the harami who are culpable, not the harami, whose only sin is being born” (Hosseini 4) The line directly addresses how Mariam is not to blame for the inferior way that society views her. The line is the first time that the audience is shown the perspective that women are not to blame for being seen as objects but the community around them should be blamed for thinking of an entire group of people as being so low.
Laila’s role in the story is similar to the goddess Athena in the way that Laila grew up being intelligent enough to realize the societal flaws and she was willing to challenge them in order to change them. Athena was chosen as Zeus’ favorite child, just like Laila is (initially) the favorite of Rasheed. As a part of Rasheed’s constant praising of Laila he says, “You are the queen, the malika, and this is your palace” (Hosseini 233) Laila uses these praises as a way for her to manipulate Rasheed. While she cannot over power him, she does have the ability to stop him from becoming too violent with Mariam. Hosseini added this level of power to show how Laila, even when viewed as her husband’s toy, was trying to use her advantage was trying to overcome the gender stereotype that women could not be powerful. Laila’s manipulation not only shows that she holds power, but it also shows that she has the intelligence that women were not expected to have. The goddess Athena is known for her great knowledge and Laila is as well. Everyone around Laila acknowledges this and her friends tell her, “Laila, you will make us two dummies proud. You’re going to be somebody. I know one day I’ll pick up a newspaper and find your picture on the front page” (Hosseini 412) Laila’s intelligence makes her acutely aware of how the world had been treating women as if they are inferior to men. She uses this knowledge to break free from following the societal standard and putting herself on the same level as the other men in her life. This refusal to be compliant becomes more violent in the final moments that Laila spends with Rasheed. Another common trait that both Laila and Athena share is that they are warriors. In her final battle with her husband, Laila makes the bold choice to strike Rasheed with a drinking glass (Hosseini 347). Laila was aware that she did not physically compare to Rasheed but she struck the blow anyway. Athena is a goddess who knows her worth and Laila is the same. The two women refuse to withstand beatings and the moment causes the audience to understand that women should not have to face struggles such as this. They understand that equality should be given to all of the genders instead of having one gender work for it while another is just given it like equality is a birthday present.
The characters of Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns represent the gods of Greek mythology so that Hosseini can persuade his audience to see the error in ideas that are commonplace in today’s society. Rasheed may seem like the only one with any sort of heavenly aura upon a first read, but once the audience looks closer it will be revealed that Mariam and Laila are stronger than him. Rasheed’s Zeus-like physical strength does not compare to the hardships that Mariam and Laila had to endure. They suffered more losses and fought more emotional battles than Rasheed, all while society told them that they were beneath their husband. To consider these women anything less than gods would be a mistake.
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