Heroes should be perfect and inspire us to be better than we currently are. When the reader looks back, it is easy to see that, yes, Mariam is inspirational; she is loving, sacrificial, patient, enduring, faithful, and courageous. But, what I love most about how her character is written is that she is so entirely flawed. She is bitter, tired, resentful, angry, and fearful. I think that’s what makes her a hero the most. In A Thousand Splendid Suns, Mariam is a character filled with all kinds of nasty traits, but she sets these aside and becomes a hero that Laila and Laila’s children needed, thus inspiring the reader to follow suit.
Mariam, born illegitimately to a single mother and 99%-of-the-time absent, wealthy father, grew up with an angry, bitter mother who was strict and often flat-out mean to Mariam. Young, naïve, and thinking her mother was the one keeping her from a perfect life with her seemingly loving father, Mariam runs away. She’s swiftly rejected by her father who left her out on his porch, refusing to come down to even see her. Mariam, realizing that her mother was right about her father, goes home to her mother, only to witness the aftermath of her mother’s suicide. She’s then hastily married off by her father’s family to an abusive husband (Rasheed).
Rasheed, bearing his own grief of losing his wife and child, wants the one thing that it turns out Mariam can’t give him: a child. Thus, Mariam is once again a living reminder to her cohabitant’s grief. She’s forced to bear the abuse and disappointment quietly and without complaint, especially because she is living in Pakistan during the 1960s-2000s, a place and time where women have very few rights. And she does this. Without fault.
Then enters Laila, a young, beautiful girl, recently orphaned. Rasheed takes the girl in, and Mariam is immediately aware of what Rasheed plans to do with Laila. However, as is her role as his wife in this society, she speaks nothing of it. She cares for Laila’s wounds, feeds her, and takes care of the house. Rasheed ignores Mariam and focuses all his attention on Laila, eventually making Laila his second wife. Mariam still holds her peace, even after Laila bears Rasheed’s children. Because the reader gets to read Mariam’s thoughts, the reader witnesses page after page of tormented thoughts and horrific experiences that Mariam goes through. Yet, she bears them all without complaint.
Over time, Rasheed also abuses Laila. Through Laila’s and Mariam’s sharing of their own traumatic histories, their current struggle under Rasheed’s abuse, and the war and starvation under the Taliban rule, Mariam and Laila become unlikely friends. Ultimately, Laila’s daughter goes to an orphanage so she won’t starve; this is the catalyst for Mariam. She knows Laila must leave and she will have to make sure they make it out alive since neither the Taliban nor Rasheed will allow that to happen. Mariam sacrifices herself by facilitating Laila and the children’s escape, although she knows they will kill her.
Mariam’s death is heart wrenching, but this is not what makes her a hero. I believe Mariam to be a hero because she sacrifices her happiness for someone that she loves, someone she could have easily hated. Laila, although innocent, is the perfect target for Mariam’s anger, just as Mariam herself was the perfect target for both Mariam’s mother and Rasheed’s anger. However, Mariam breaks that cycle. She rises above and instead provides an example of love, courage, and forgiveness. She shows it doesn’t matter that her personal history was traumatic and unjust; her treatment of others is her responsibility alone. Laila and those children depend on her to break that cycle of bitterness and abuse. She does the right thing when the wrong thing would be both easy and understandable. That is what should inspire the reader; this is what makes her a hero.