The Breadwinner

The Breadwinner Summary and Analysis of Chapters 4 – 6


Parvana and her mother arrive home from the prison very late. Parvana’s feet are covered in broken blisters, bloody and raw. Her mother’s feet are even worse. She hasn’t been out of the house since the Taliban took over Kabul. Parvana recalls an argument her parents often had, in which her father tried to get her mother to leave the home more. As a writer who cannot publish, for her there is no point in seeing things she cannot write about, and so she refuses to go out until there’s a decent government again.

Her mother cries for a long time. Nooria sponges her face and cleans the wounds on her feet. Nooria then attends to Parvana. The water feels good. All night Parvana drifts in and out of dreams in which she shouts at the soldiers. “I am Malali!” she shouts as she watches them beat her mother. Nooria cooks breakfast and helps Parvana hobble to the bathroom in the morning. Mother spends the day with her face to the wall, not speaking to her family. Aside from sipping tea and using the bathroom, she doesn’t move. This continues to the next day. Ali and Maryam can’t understand why Mother isn’t speaking to them. Parvana plays with them. Parvana takes the pieces of Father’s face and assembles them like a jigsaw. The piece depicting his chin was missing.

Parvana gets tired of trying not to disturb her mother by the third day. She notices a change in Ali. He doesn’t cry anymore, which is at once a relief and worrisome. His dirty diapers are piled in the corner, making the room smell. On day four they run out of food. Parvana shakes her mother and tells her. Nooria yanks Parvana away and says to leave Mother alone, because she’s clearly depressed. Nooria and Parvana glare at each other for hours. No one eats that day. The next, Nooria demands that Parvana go out to find food. Parvana realizes Nooria looks terrified, knowing she will have to go out for food herself if Parvana refuses. Parvana thinks she can use this power to make Nooria as miserable as she wants. However, the thought gives Parvana no pleasure. Instead of manipulating her sister, Parvana takes the money and goes out.

In chapter five, Parvana thinks it’s strange to be at the marketplace without her father. She almost expects to see him at his blanket. Women are not allowed into shops, and shopkeepers are beaten for serving women inside their shops. Parvana, not sure if she would be considered a woman, starts with buying nan (bread) at the baker’s, which opens onto the street. The ten loaves are still warm and smell amazing. At the fruit stall, a Talib soldier questions Parvana and begins hitting her with his stick. She shouts at him to stop, surprising him into stillness. She runs out of the market and into a woman carrying a child. The voice behind the burqa is familiar: it’s Mrs. Weera. Parvana calmly reassures her that it was sensible to run away from the Taliban. She offers to walk Parvana home, saying she has been meaning to visit Parvana’s mother.

Nooria is upset that Parvana only bought bread, no rice or tea. Mrs. Weera walks in and takes off her burqa, telling Nooria not to be so hard on Parvana. Mrs. Weera is tall, and used to be a physical education teacher and was in the Afghan’s Women’s Union with Fatana, Parvana's mother. With a no-nonsense attitude, Mrs. Weera asks why the diapers aren’t washed and sends Parvana to get buckets of water. Parvana makes seven trips. Meanwhile, Mrs. Weera gets Mother up and washed. Parvana is dizzy from doing so much work without food or water. Nooria gets angry at Parvana for nearly drinking unboiled water, which could make her sick. Mrs. Weera tells Nooria she’s not practicing good team spirit by criticizing her sister. Mrs. Weera gives the women directions about what chores to do, and then stays the night. The last thing Parvana hears before sleep is Mrs. Weera saying, “I guess we’ll have to think of something else.”

Chapter six opens with a plan: Mother and Mrs. Weera are going to turn Parvana into a boy so she can go to the market. They’ll say she’s a cousin from Jalalabad, come to stay. She will wear her dead brother Hossain’s clothes. Parvana says it won’t work: she has long hair. Nooria pulls out a pair of scissors. Parvana says Nooria can cut her hair; Nooria says she won’t pass as a boy, considering her womanly body. Parvana says she’ll look like that soon. After some resistance, Parvana gives Mother permission to cut her hair. Mother says they’ll keep a lock tied in ribbon. Parvana says it’s not important to keep it. Parvana’s face emerges: her features are bigger. I have a nice face, she thinks. Her new hair is soft and bristly. She likes how her new boy clothes have pockets, which she has never had.

Nooria says she looks less ugly as a boy than a girl. They put a cap on her head and give her money to go out. She reaches for her chador before Nooria says she won’t need it. Parvana realizes that people will see her face. She worries everyone will know she’s not a boy. On the street, however, no one calls her out. She feels the sunshine on her face. She does the shopping and returns proud that she got away with it. Her elated mood is contrasted with her mother’s depression: Nooria says it upset her to see Parvana in Hossain’s clothes. Parvana sees the tired lines in Nooria’s face; she looks much older than seventeen. She offers to help with dinner, but Nooria says she’d only get in the way. Parvana fumes. That night she hears her mother call Ali Hossain as she’s trying to get him to sleep.


The experience of having her husband arrested and being beaten by the prison guards sends Parvana’s mother into a depressive state. Beyond the damage done to her feet, Parvana is psychologically traumatized by witnessing her mother’s beating. The incident returns to her in dreams. However, witnessing such brutal and direct oppression inspires Parvana, in her fantasy, to invoke Malali’s name to conjure courage and resilience.

With Father gone and Mother incapacitated, Nooria and Parvana are left to manage the household. Conditions deteriorate over a few days until they run out of food. It is left up to one of them to go outside. As the sisters argue about who should risk going out, the motif of sibling friction arises. But when Parvana sees fear in Nooria’s eyes and recognizes her power over her, she does not feel the satisfaction she expects. A small but significant change takes place in Parvana at the end of the fourth chapter: she recognizes her need to put her differences with Nooria aside for the benefit of the family.

Parvana’s need to escape a Talib who discovers her shopping illegally (i.e. without a male guardian present) causes her to run straight into Mrs. Weera, an old friend of Mother's. Mrs. Weera’s no-nonsense, resilient attitude proves indispensable to the family. She immediately sees the state the household and its members are in and then takes action, whipping Parvana’s family into shape. The fifth chapter ends on an ominous note of foreshadowing: while Mrs. Weera and Mother discuss plans, Parvana overhears them deciding they’ll “have to think of something else.”

The cliffhanger is answered at the beginning of the sixth chapter. Since Parvana’s family has been left without a male who can move freely outside the home and make money to support them, Parvana will have to dress as a boy in her dead brother Hossain’s clothes. Having been oppressed to the point where they have no other option, the women in Parvana’s family have no choice but to undermine the Taliban’s rules and maintain a resilient spirit.

Parvana is hesitant to accept the idea, as it means she’ll not only have to cut her hair, she’ll need to have the courage to break the law at all times. However, Parvana is elated by the feel of sun on her face when she goes out. Though she had expected everyone to notice her gender with her face uncovered, she succeeds at hiding in plain sight and is thrilled to get away with it. Parvana’s buoyant mood is swiftly met with the stark reality her family still lives in. Though her success at shopping is a small victory, her mother’s depression has not disappeared. The chapter ends on a bittersweet note. While Parvana may get away dressing and working as a boy, the trauma Mother experiences from having her son and her husband taken from her is something from which she will likely never recover.