The Breadwinner

The Breadwinner Summary and Analysis of Chapters 10 – 12


Chapter ten opens with the revelation that the plan to make money is to dig up bones. Parvana follows Shauzia with trepidation as they walk for an hour. Shauzia says they can use Father’s blanket to haul away the bones. They watch boys fan out across the graveyard, where explosions have shaken up the graves. White bones stick out of the rusty-brown earth. The boys start digging. A man sets up a scale next to a destroyed building. Shauzia says he’s the bone broker, who buys the bones from them and sells them. Parvana wonders who would buy bones. Shauzia hands her a rough board to use as a shovel and says who cares, as long as they get paid.

Like a carrot being pulled from a garden, Shauzia extracts the first bone and throws it on Parvana’s blanket. Parvana joins in and soon discovers a skull. They talk about how he’s grinning. Shauzia says it’ll be their mascot. By the time their blanket is full of bones, they have five skulls. Parvana has to go to the bathroom in the ruined building. On her way, she worries about stepping on a land mine, remembering that some are disguised as children’s toys to blow up children. But she is safe. The first pile of bones gets them more money than Parvana expected: as much as she made in three days at the market.

Shauzia and Parvana decide to keep digging, though Parvana knows her mother is expecting her for lunch. At one point the sun breaks through the clouds, shining on the white bones and the sweaty workers. Parvana says they’ll have to remember this day: no one will believe them, but they had to dig up bones so their families could eat. At the end of the day, they decide not to give their families all the money, knowing they’ll spend it. They agreed that if they want to get trays to become mobile sellers in the market, they’ll have to set some aside. Parvana stops at the water tap to wash the dirt off. She sticks her head under the tap and wishes it could wash away the image of the skulls grinning at her.

Maryam says Parvana is all wet at the beginning of chapter eleven. Mother demands to know where Parvana was—they’ve been worried all day. Parvana looks at the wall and admits she was digging up graves. Mother laments that this is what they’ve resorted to in the country. Mrs. Weera says animal bones are used for all sorts of things: chicken feed, oil, soap, buttons. She supposes human are animals too. Parvana shows them all the money she made. Mother says she’ll go back to reading letters. Parvana refuses and says she wants to get a tray to follow the crowds. Parvana is stunned when Nooria takes her side and says Parvana should continue to dig bones, as the family needs more money. Mrs. Weera says usual times call for ordinary people to do unusual things. Mother relents, insisting that Parvana tell her everything that happens so they can document it in their magazine.

From then on Parvana leaves with a packed lunch. She can’t eat in the middle of a field of bones, so she finds beggars to give her nan to. In two weeks she and Shauzia can afford trays with straps. They sell cigarettes and gum and matches. They are happy to be out of the graveyard. At her old spot at the market, the woman in the window throws a red wooden bead at Parvana; she rolls it in her fingers and wonders about the woman. Parvana notices Nooria hasn’t said anything nasty to her in ages. Parvana reflects that arguing with her sister no longer feels right.

After mornings at the market, Shauzia and Parvana meet up to wander Kabul with their trays. They don’t make as much as at the graveyard, but it’s more than Parvana makes reading letters. One Friday afternoon they follow a crowd of thousands filling the stands of a sports stadium. They dodge the Taliban soldiers at the entrance and slip in, thinking it’s a soccer match where they could make a lot of money. However, no one cheers and the men look unhappy to be there. Several prisoners are brought onto the field. One man is untied and bent over a heavy table. A soldier lowers a sword on the man’s arm. Blood flies in every direction. Shauzia starts screaming. The rest of the stadium is quiet. The soldiers proclaim that these men are thieves, that is why their hands are being cut off. Parvana sees a young Talib man holding a rope strung with four severed hands, like beads on a necklace.

In chapter twelve Parvana stays home for a few days, wanting not to see anything ugly for a little while. Mother and Mrs. Weera heard about the stadium event: it goes on every Friday. Parvana wonders if her father will be taken there. Shauzia says she missed Parvana when Parvana returns to the market. Shauzia complains how her family is full of grumpy people; she is happy to be out of the house. Shauzia confesses that she is saving money with plans to take a boat to France, where the sun shines and flowers bloom and people smile. Parvana couldn’t imagine taking such a journey on her own. Shauzia says she’s starting to grow: her shape is changing, and she doesn’t want her woman’s body to emerge before she’s saved up enough money to escape. Shauzia says she knows she’s a bad person for wanting to leave her family behind, but she thinks she’ll die if she has to stay.

Parvana just wants a normal, boring life. Shauzia asks if Parvana wants to go with her, but Parvana says she couldn’t imagine leaving her family. Parvana reveals her own secret: the gifts the woman threw out the window. They joke about the woman being a princess they must rescue. They return to work, selling dried nuts and fruit. Parvana longs to be back in a classroom, bored by a geography lesson. She grows used to what is now normal life.

Summer brings fruits to the country and tribal traders on horseback from other regions. Parvana asks them about the places they were from and what grows there. She brings the stories home to share. Meanwhile, Mrs. Weera and Mother start their school in secret through their women’s group. The school holds only five girls, including Maryam. Sometimes Parvana escorts Nooria to the homes where she meets her students. The window woman continues throwing gifts on Parvana’s blanket, as if to remind her she is still there. One day Parvana hears sounds of an angry man and a crying woman above her. Parvana hears thuds and screams. She springs to her feet but can’t see through the painted window. A man behind her says to mind her own business and says he has a letter to read. That night Parvana plans to tell her family about the incident, but she returns home to learn from Mother that Nooria is getting married.


The ninth chapter’s cliffhanger is answered at the beginning of chapter ten: Shauzia and Parvana will dig up bones at the cemetery to earn more money than they make at the market. While hesitant to go along with the plan, Parvana follows Shauzia. Meanwhile, Shauzia has no fear. Her lack of sentimentality is on display when she suggests they can use Father’s blanket to gather up the bones.

At the graveyard, Ellis uses stark imagery to convey the bizarre setting: graveyards have been tossed and loosened by bombs; sun-bleached white bones stick out of the rusty-brown earth. The entire spectacle contributes to an atmosphere in which the Taliban’s regime has not only disrupted everyday life for living people but also has no reverence for the dead.

Regardless, the extreme circumstances of their lives require quick adaptation: Shauzia and Parvana soon grow comfortable with the macabre task, laughing at the skulls they line up as mascots. They are thrilled by how much money the bone seller gives them for their haul, inspiring them to spend all day at the cemetery. It is only once Parvana rinses her head under the tap and wishes the skulls to leave her mind that there is any suggestion of the trauma the grim work induces in her. Similarly, the shame of the work she’s been engaged in only resurfaces when Parvana is confronted with her family.

At home, Parvana confesses and shows her family the money she made. The moment results in a discussion she doesn’t anticipate, in which the matriarchs in her life justify her continued work digging bones. Mother is the last holdout: she can only give her consent to the practice if she reassures herself that they will document what Parvana has to do, as she understands that the Taliban’s needless oppression has created their dire and unusual circumstances. As Parvana grows used to her work digging bones at the graveyard, the motif of sibling friction arises again: she realizes Nooria hasn’t teased her in ages, and she similarly has no desire to provoke her sister. Having to become the breadwinner has forced Parvana to grow up fast, putting cooperation before pettiness.

But despite Parvana’s quickly developing maturity, she is innocent enough not to understand why so many men are assembled in the stadium with unhappy expressions. The brutal reality of seeing the Taliban cut off thieves’ hands is yet another traumatic experience Parvana must contend with. The event causes Parvana to spend a few days indoors, recovering her nerves. The public display of violence produces its intended effect, reminding Parvana that she is breaking the law at all times, and faces unfathomable consequences if caught.

After some time off, Parvana returns to work, finding comfort in her friendship with Shauzia. Parvana, while initially excited by the girls’ ability to make increasingly more money, loses interest, treasuring the boring life she led before the Taliban took charge. Meanwhile, Mother and Mrs. Weera continue their covert operation of educating women and girls in secret. Life for Parvana seems as if it won’t change anytime soon. But unbeknownst to her, the chapter ends with the news that Nooria has arranged to get married.