And the Mountains Echoed | Study Guide

Khaled Hosseini

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And the Mountains Echoed | Themes


Love and Sacrifice

Sacrifice, both familial and cultural, is woven throughout the novel. In Chapters 1 and 2 the image of a finger being cut to save a hand is repeated. This image is linked to the predicament of the father in the story that Saboor tells his children, Abdullah and Pari, in Chapter 1. This father, Baba Ayub, must give his favorite child, Qais, to a monster, the div, to save the rest of his children. In Chapter 2 the same image is used to describe Saboor's choice to let the wealthy Wahdatis adopt his daughter, Pari. Both fathers are portrayed as acting out of love and for the well-being of their entire family. Yet like a hand missing a finger, what well-being is enjoyed (to various degrees) by the affected family members is fragmented and incomplete rather than whole.

Chapter 3 contains the novel's most wrenching example of sacrifice. Masooma, a paralyzed woman, demands that her sister and caretaker, Parwana, allow her to sacrifice her life so that Parwana may be free. Ordered by Masooma to abandon her in the desert, Parwana protests, "I can't let you go." Masooma replies, "You're not. I'm letting you go. I am releasing you." The indecision that Parwana experiences signifies the complexity of the situation. Who has done the sacrificing, and what has been sacrificed? The situation is made even more complex by Parwana's secret knowledge that she is responsible for her sister's paralysis.

In Chapter 7 the Islamic idea of holy sacrifice, or jihad, is evoked in the context of war. Baba jan taught his son, Adel, that jihad is a sacrifice made with a glad heart for God and country that brings rewards "both in this life and the next." He points to his war wounds earned from fighting the Russians as an example of this sacrifice, and his son longs to be a war hero like his father. However, as Adel soon learns, what has really been sacrificed is the town of Shadbagh. After the village was destroyed, Baba jan claimed the site as his own and built a luxurious compound. The former inhabitants of the village have also been forced to make sacrifices. Forced into refugee camps by the war, they have unwillingly sacrificed ownership of their land. Adel learns that his father's idea of sacrifice is hypocritical and a means of justifying wrongdoing.

The Power of Storytelling

The structure of And the Mountains Echoed reflects Khaled Hosseini's storytelling talent. It is a collection of nine short stories, each of which could stand alone, but which overlap and echo one another to form a whole. Common settings, symbols, themes, and characters are woven through all nine stories, but each story offers a unique perspective through a unique combination of narrator, tense, and setting.

In the novel's first chapter, the reader joins Pari and Abdullah as they listen to a bedtime story told by their father, Saboor. This takes place the day before their journey to Kabul, a journey that will begin the conflict that is at the novel's core: the adoption of Pari by a wealthy city couple. Saboor's story of the child-thieving monster, the div, is fantastical, but it serves as an allegory for the experiences of the characters that follow. Saboor's act of storytelling marks the importance of the occasion both ritualistically and communally. It offers a way to understand the difficult event that is about to happen and provides a means for Saboor to counsel Abdullah on how to deal with the loss of his sister. After describing how the div gives the father, Baba Ayub, a potion that makes him forget his lost son, Saboor breaks the narrative to speak directly to his own son: "Do you understand ... how this was an act of mercy? The potion that erased ... memories?" Saboor is using the tale to suggest that life will require him and his children to forget what they will have lost if they are to keep moving forward, for remembering means suffering. But unlike the father in the story, Saboor is unable to enjoy a prosperous future, for he is unable to forget the loss of his daughter.

Both Pari and Abdullah are able to forget, to varying degrees, the loss of one another. However, this is not a complete forgetting. Their lives are marked by an inner sense of what they have lost. The emotional burden of this loss is even passed to the following generation, and the only way to make sense of it is through the story. As Abdullah's daughter, Pari, explains in Chapter 9, every night during her childhood she asked her father to recount the story of the little sister he lost 50 years earlier. She says, "I felt ... that if I listened ... to her story, I would discover something revealed about myself."

The Presence of Absence

In various situations throughout the novel, the absence of a presence is so significant as to create its own presence, which is made out of absence. In making this the reality for all of his major characters, Hosseini suggests that there is no such thing as forgetting, avoiding, suppressing, or ending. In this life there are only echoes, which cannot be escaped.

In Chapter 1 Baba Ayub drinks a potion that erases memories. It is a reward he receives from the div after giving up his beloved son, Qais, for Qais's own benefit. Although Baba Ayub has no memories of his loss, sometimes at night he hears a bell jingling. He becomes sad and calls out, "Is someone out there? Who is there? Show yourself." The reader knows that the bell Baba Ayub hears is the one that was worn by the son he gave up. Although absent in person as well as from his father's conscious memory, Qais remains a presence in his father's life. Pari Wahdati's situation is in some ways similar to that of Baba Ayub. She has no memories of being taken from her family and given a new life. Nonetheless, she is conscious of a rupture or absence in her life that reaches her like "a weak signal on a radio dial, remote, warbled." Sometimes she feels this absence even more strongly, like a presence "so intimately close it ma[kes] her heart lurch."

Once he returns to his mother's house, Markos realizes that his long absence has neither allowed him to avoid what has happened nor freed him from his difficult relationship with his mother. That which he has tried to avoid now confronts him in her home like "dark, vast spaces," and he "feels as though there is a gaping hole in the middle of everything." In a similar but inverted manner, Nabi describes how Suleiman's unconsummated love for him is an absence that gives rise to an almost humanlike presence. Even though the two men are constant daily companions for decades, this presence made of absence "breathe[s] between [them] ... the pain of a life suppressed, of happiness never to be."

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