The Taliban's oppression of women through institutionalized misogyny is by far the most important theme in the novel, as it is the factor around which all the characters' lives revolve. Because of the Taliban's terrorizing, dehumanizing laws that keep women within the home unless accompanied by a male, Parvana finds herself with no choice but to disguise herself as a boy. The theme of oppressing women's freedoms is also conveyed in Mother's refusal to participate in a society that denies her right to work as a journalist. In addition to her not being allowed to work, her daughters are denied access to education. Ultimately, the Taliban's fear of women's independence leads them to impose these restrictions they see as necessary to maintain a hierarchical structure within families and society that puts women in subservient roles to men.
The importance of family is thematized through the contrast between Parvana and Shauzia. Though she may squabble with Nooria and resent the chores she is made to perform in service of her family, Parvana retains a loving bond to her family, as they are her only source of comfort amidst a war-torn society. Shauzia, however, belongs to a family not built on love and mutual respect so much as exploitation. Shauzia also supports her family, but she feels no satisfaction in being the breadwinner because she believes they are taking advantage of her. Rather than the spirit of cooperation that exists in Parvana's home, Shauzia lives with relatives who took her and her sick mother in on the basis that Shauzia provide for them; it is a home life devoid of love or guidance, and so she must take care of herself, and she fantasizes about escaping on her own. Ultimately, the contrast in the girls' attitudes toward their families illuminates the role a loving family plays in Parvana's life.
Resilience of Women
The resilience of women in the face of oppression, trauma, and poverty is another of the novel's dominant themes. As much as the Taliban seek to terrorize the Afghan people and oppress women, the novel's female characters prove too resilient to be beaten down. Though the trauma they experience may temporarily incapacitate them, Parvana and her mother bounce back, using their anger and indignation as fuel to undermine the Taliban. While Parvana seeks new ways to support her family, Mother, Mrs. Weera, and Nooria establish a secret school through which they can educate girls. Additionally, they contribute to the resistance efforts through their women's group and by publishing a magazine that shares women's stories, hoping to build a covert network of support against the regime.
Another of the novel's major themes is courage. Early in the book, Father instills a sense of feminist pride and courage into his daughters by telling them the story of Malali, an Afghani girl in the 19th century who became a folk hero after rousing an ailing Afghan army to fight off British imperialists. Parvana later invokes Malali's name to draw on the role model's courage in the face of oppression. Knowingly violating the Taliban's fundamentalist laws, Parvana displays immense courage in baring her face to the public and going to the marketplace each day disguised as a boy. The same courage is also exhibited by Mother, Mrs. Weera, Shauzia, Homa, and Nooria: throughout the book, they find the courage to not let the regime break their spirits.
Education arises as a major theme in the novel primarily due to its absence. Prior to Taliban rule, Parvana went to school; she liked some classes and was bored by others. When she isn't allowed to go to school, she longs for the days when she could sit bored in class. Education also arises as a weapon the Taliban uses to oppress the Afghan people. Father's foreign education presents a perceived threat to the Taliban, and it is used as the pretense for his sudden and violent arrest. Education is also central to Mother, Mrs. Weera and Nooria's lives. Mrs. Weera was once a teacher, while Mother isn't allowed to use her education for the job she trained for, and so she refuses to leave the house. Nooria had been on track to attend college, where she intended to train to be a teacher. Eventually, the women establish a secret school to educate girls at great risk. The importance of education is also emphasized by the uneducated Taliban soldier for whom Parvana reads a letter. The narrator comments on the high rates of illiteracy among Taliban, implying that the less education they have, the more they are likely to blindly follow a regime.
The themes of courage and resilience are complemented by the theme of cooperation. When the Taliban have taken nearly everything from Parvana's and Mrs. Weera's families, the women are able to survive because they are united in a spirit of cooperation and mutual support. It is this same prioritization of cooperation that leads Parvana and Nooria to finally put their sibling friction aside. Parvana also replicates the cooperation model outside the home, working alongside Shauzia. The two girls offer each other comfort, understanding, and friendship in the midst of extreme desperation.
Though the novel is set amidst horrific circumstances, a sense of hope pervades Parvana's narrative. To see past her traumas and hardships, Parvana holds out a belief that her family will emerge on the other side of their poverty and oppression. Despite the fate of Parvana's family being uncertain, the novel ends on a note of hope as Parvana holds a sweet apricot in her mouth and watches the sun sparkle on the peak of the mountain her father named after her. These images underscore Parvana's hopeful attitude: she is looking forward, embracing her future, rather than looking back.
The Breadwinner Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Breadwinner is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
Parvana and Shauzia had gone to the soccer stadium to sell things but discover the stadium had been turned into a Taliban punishment zone. Thieves are getting their hands chopped off. Mother's reaction is to question what century they are in...