A Thousand Splendid Suns Themes, Symbols, and Motifs Activity

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Symbols, Themes, and Motifs in A Thousand Splendid Suns


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Activity Overview

Themes, symbols, and motifs come alive when you use a storyboard. In this activity, students will identify themes and symbols from the novel, and support their choices with details from the text.

Themes to Look For and Discuss

The Rights of Women

The primary theme in the novel A Thousand Splendid Suns is the rights of women, especially under the Taliban. Mariam and Laila grow up during regimes that are not oppressive. Although Mariam’s father’s family pushes her into marriage with Rasheed, it is ultimately her choice to agree to marry him. Under the Soviet regime, Laila is able to go to school, and her father wants her to hold off on marriage until she has finished her education. With the arrival of the Taliban, all of that is taken away. Women are expected to wear burqas, be escorted by male family members, and to be obedient to the rules and regulations of the regime. Laila and Mariam suffer at the hands of Rasheed because he is given all of the power over the women and children, according to the law. The unfair treatment of women is horrific and brutal, and epitomized with Mariam’s execution in the stadium.


Hope drives Mariam to seek out her father Jalil, in her hopes of being enfolded into his family with his wives and her half-siblings. Hope is also what Nana lost as she watched her daughter walk away from her to seek out her father instead. Hope drives Mariam to try to make her marriage work, but is ultimately lost when she discovers she cannot have children. Hope keeps Laila’s spirits up, especially when she finds out that Tariq and his family have to leave Afghanistan. Laila’s hopes of seeing Tariq are dashed when Rasheed hires a man to tell Laila that Tariq is dead. Hope comes back to Mariam as she develops a bond with Aziza, and then with Laila. And while Mariam loses her freedom by taking the fall for Rasheed’s murder, her hope follows Laila and her children, so that they can begin a new life together, free from prosecution, and finally free from Rasheed.

The Importance of Sacrifice

Many characters make sacrifices for each other throughout the novel. Laila’s first sacrifice comes when she does not marry Tariq and run away with his family, because she knows she cannot leave her Babi. Her second sacrifice comes when she learns that Tariq is “dead”, but she knows she is pregnant and therefore in danger: she agrees to marry Rasheed to protect her baby. Mariam sacrifices her freedom so that Laila, Tariq, Aziza, and Zalmai can escape to a better life by turning herself in for Rasheed’s murder. It is this ultimate sacrifice that leaves a deep impression on Laila’s soul, who returns to Herat to better understand Mariam’s life, and uses her inheritance to help the orphanage in Kabul.

The Importance of Family

Family becomes something that is not defined by blood. Jalil is family, but he essentially rejects Mariam. Mariam’s Nana, who was so unkind to Mariam throughout her childhood, feels so betrayed by her blood that she hangs herself in despair. While Rasheed is Mariam’s husband, his violence and rejection from her lack of ability to carry a child makes him her oppressor. Mariam ultimately finds her family with Laila, Aziza, and Zalmai. Mariam and Laila develop a sister-like bond, and she becomes a second mother to Aziza and Zalmai. It is this devotion that leads Mariam to make the choice to turn herself in so that Laila and the children can live their lives in freedom.

Motifs, Imagery & Symbols


An important symbol in the novel A Thousand Splendid Suns is the city of Kabul. The title of the novel is based on 17th-century poet Saib Tabrizi’s poem “Kabul.” In lines 15-16, Tabrizi writes, “One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs/ And the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls.” His poem is a love song to the city of Kabul, the same city where Laila and Mariam form their bond, and the city that, while ravaged by war, pulls Laila back to help rebuild. It is a seat of horror with the Taliban, but later, it becomes a symbol of hope for a new start for Afghanistan.


An important recurring symbol is Pinocchio. For her 15th birthday, Mariam thinks carefully about what she wants from Jalil, and she decides that she wants him to take her to see the new movie Pinocchio. He had told the whole story of the movie, and his words make her long to see it in person. It is this wish that changes the atmosphere between them, as Mariam comes to realize that his weekly visits are all she will ever have of him as a father. Years later, Jalil waits outside of Mariam’s house in Kabul, but she refuses to see him. Laila later receives what he was trying to give to Mariam: a box with an apology letter, money, and a copy of the movie Pinocchio.

Chai Tea

Another important symbol in the novel is the chai tea. Mariam begins to see Laila in a new light when she intervenes during Rasheed’s beating of Mariam. Eventually, she begins to bond with Aziza, who holds tight to her finger. Then, one night, Mariam acknowledges that no one has ever stood up for her before the way that Laila did for her. Their newfound truce results in Laila asking Mariam to have a cup of chai in the yard. While Mariam insists that she has chores so she can’t stay for long, one cup turns into three, until Rasheed yells for Laila that Aziza is crying, and the two women exchange knowing looks. They were not enemies any longer.

The Bamiyan Buddhas

Another symbol is the Bamiyan Buddhas that Babi takes Laila and Tariq to see. The Buddhas were once part of a thriving Buddhist center until the 9th century. They are carved into the mountainside, and they have thousands of caves behind them, in the mountain itself. Here, Laila sees the love that Babi has for Mammy, despite her selfishness and her anger at Babi for having “no convictions”. Babi thinks about moving to America and making sure that Laila still gets a good education, but she knows he’ll never leave Mammy, and Mammy will never leave Kabul. The Buddhas were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.

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Template and Class Instructions

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Student Instructions

Create a storyboard that identifies recurring themes in A Thousand Splendid Suns. Illustrate instances of each theme and write a short description below each cell.

  1. Click "Start Assignment".
  2. Identify the theme(s) from A Thousand Splendid Suns you wish to include and replace the "Theme 1" text.
  3. Create an image for examples that represents this theme. (Or use Photos for Class)
  4. Write a description of each of the examples.
  5. Save and submit your storyboard.

Template: Theme


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