When writing about literature, I often find that I return to the same quotations repeatedly, perhaps because they resonate across the fabric of the text and articulate the key concepts the writer is communicating. These quotations are often ideal to include in exam essays, as they tend to be both rich and malleable (that is, they can be analysed in depth and used to respond to a range of questions).
Here are my top 3 quotations from The Kite Runner.
1. “You can’t bury the past – because the past claws its way out.”
Hosseini introduces the novel with this pithy statement, and the interlinked themes of memory, guilt, and the need for peace drive the narrative from the moment of betrayal hinted at on the opening page, to Amir’s eventual experience of redemption. Of course, whilst the novel’s first-person narrative perspective indicates that this journey towards absolution is an intensely personal one, Hosseini parallels Amir’s story with that of the country of Afghanistan itself. If for the elite Pashtun Amir, the “past” means a failure to protect his marginalised friend from sexual violence, within the context of the novel this symbolises the failure of those with power to protect the weaker members of society. In this quotation, the repetition of the “past” and its shift from object to subject implies that the gravity and wide-ranging impact of such betrayals means that history takes on a life of its own, entrapping individuals within a cycle of events that seem to become unchangeable. Compounding this, the use of the present tense, personification, and violent diction reveal that the past has become an antagonist within the novel, maintaining control over Amir. Yet, Hosseini shows us that even if it is not possible for the individual to completely heal the wounds of the past, standing up for justice and equality is still necessary. It may be a drop in the ocean, but by saving Sohrab, Amir does manage to improve the life of one of the victims of the Taliban.
This quotation also introduces an element of Amir’s character which he needs to confront in the return to Afghanistan: his continual dissociation from his actions and his role in supporting the exploitation of the Hazara people. Whilst it could be argued that use of the pronoun “you” in the quotation is designed to engage the reader in the novel’s moral journey, it could equally be posited that Hosseini is revealing Amir’s inability to accept responsibility for his actions. Farid’s statement that Amir has always “been a tourist in [his] own country” is true; until the denouement, Amir’s relatively privileged upbringing has not prompted him to use his power for good, but has rather led to bullying behaviour towards Hassan – behaviour which Amir is presented as frequently justifying or minimising.
2. “I actually aspired to cowardice. … Assef was right, nothing was free in this world. Maybe Hassan was the price I had to pay, the lamb I had to slay, to win Baba.”
In this section of the novel, Amir reflects on the events in the alleyway and the reasons why he did not attempt to protect Hassan. From a reader’s perspective, Amir’s youth and Hosseini’s emphasis on Assef’s brutality go some way to explaining his actions – but although the rhyming sentences may be reminiscent of childish songs, Amir is not portrayed as reflecting on his age. Instead, Hosseini reveals that whilst fear might be one motivation for the protagonist’s actions, the truth was that Amir made a choice to sacrifice his friend for his own benefit. By describing Hassan in animalistic terms – just as elsewhere in the novel the Hazara people are described with prejudiced terms such as “dog” and “donkey” – Hosseini links Amir’s thinking with that of the racist Assef. The suggestion is that Amir has internalised society’s racism and class system, and that he is presented as perceiving himself – a Pashtun – as superior to Hassan – a Hazara.
Yet, even as Hosseini shows that Amir is confronting the truth about his own moral failings, the sense of obligation in the repeated modal verb “had to” and use of religious imagery indicates that he is still attempting to justify his actions. For the reader, however, the sacrificial diction emphasises Hassan’s vulnerability and innocence, whilst the word “price” indicates that he is commodified. It is clear that Hosseini is challenging the unjust exploitation and abuse of the Hazara people within Afghan culture. Of course, understanding that he must oppose the regime is fundamental to Amir’s actions at the end of novel, and Hosseini deliberately parallels the rescue of Sohrab with the alleyway scene in order to highlight the transformation in Amir’s character. In both confrontations, Hosseini draws our attention to the slingshot (or lack of it), the dehumanisation and commodification of the victim, and Amir’s choice. The fact that Hosseini shows that Amir is capable of making a different decision the second time suggests that we all have the potential for moral growth and courage in the face of brutality. Individual decisions, Hosseini seems to say, can improve the lives of other individuals, and become part of a larger movement towards equality.
3. “Their sons go out to nightclubs looking for meat and get their girlfriends pregnant … and no-one says a goddam thing.”
In contrast to Amir’s moral uncertainty and equivocation, Soraya’s rebellious voice rings through the text with an unambiguous call for change. Like Amir, Soraya is presented as a migrant to the USA, one member of a family who have been forced to flee Afghanistan in favour of the safety of the west. Yet Hosseini consistently reminds us that Soraya’s journey to the land of the free has not resulted in her own liberation, as she finds herself ostracised due to a previous sexual relationship outside of marriage. In this quotation, Hosseini uses Soraya to reveal the double-standards she experiences within a patriarchal culture, and her anger is expressed through the “unfeminine” profanity. Elsewhere in the text, Hosseini exposes the dehumanisation of the Hazara people, and here women are similarly described as “meat” – stripped of their individuality and identity, and defined in terms of their sexual availability. The generalising tone of the pronouns suggests that this hypocrisy is normalised and largely accepted, whilst the fact that Soraya is referring to a group of women indicates frustration at their complicity in maintaining the status quo.
Like other protest texts, Hosseini’s novel not only explores injustice, but it also attempts to imagine how society could progress to a more equal future. Whereas dystopian fiction often depicts the rebellious protagonist dismantling the structures of a rigidly controlled society, Hosseini’s choice to write a fundamentally realist text means that the progress he imagines must be more incremental. Thus he casts Soraya in the role of a teacher, so that she can pass her more liberated views on to the next generation. Similarly, Jamila Taheri (Soraya’s mother) is described giving a hand-knitted jumper to Sohrab; whilst this is only a tentative step towards agency, she is shown to be using her skills to challenge her husband’s entrenched prejudice.