The Breadwinner: Summary, Characters & Quotes

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  • 0:04 'The Breadwinner'
  • 0:24 Historical Background
  • 0:41 Major Characters
  • 1:36 Summary
  • 3:49 Quotes
  • 4:51 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Dori Starnes

Dori has taught college and high school English courses, and has Masters degrees in both literature and education.

Once her father is sent to jail, 11-year-old Parvana must find the courage to break Taliban law to save her family. 'The Breadwinner' is the story of a girl who must risk herself so her mother and sisters can survive life in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

The Breadwinner

The Breadwinner is a novel by Deborah Ellis. Ellis, a Canadian peace activist, visited Afghan refugees in Pakistan in 1996. There, she learned about a girl who had disguised herself as a boy to try to make money. Ellis made that story the basis of her young adult novel, The Breadwinner.

Historical Background

The novel is set in Kabul, Afghanistan, after the Taliban take over. Women suddenly faced crippling restrictions, including being forced to wear burqas, or clothing that covers the body from head to toe, and being forbidden from attending school or walking outside without a man.

Major Characters

The major characters of the novel include:

  • Parvana: The eleven-year-old heroine of The Breadwinner, risks her own life to help her family, even though she just wants to be a normal kid.
  • Father: Parvana's dad, and a former teacher. He's intelligent and foreign-educated, which leads to his arrest. Parvana takes courage from his stories.
  • Mother: Also university educated, but is no longer allowed to work. She's seen her share of hardship, losing both her son to a landmine and her husband to prison.
  • Nooria: Parvana's older sister.
  • Mrs. Weera: A former teacher and women's rights activist; she's also Mother's friend. She has lost her whole family to the war except her granddaughter.
  • Shauzia: A former schoolmate of Parvana's, who's also forced to help support her family. She has one goal: to escape Afghanistan and the Taliban.


At the beginning of the story, Father is arrested by the Taliban. Without Father around, the family is in desperate need of money, food and water are scarce, and Parvana's mother becomes depressed. The family is stuck inside their apartment. Mrs. Weera talks to Mother, and they come up with an idea.

Since Parvana is the only family member who could pass for male, Mrs. Weera and Mother cut her hair, and Parvana dresses in her dead brother's clothing. Parvana then goes to the marketplace and resumes her father's job of earning money by reading letters for illiterate people.

While working, Parvana sees Shauzia, a girl who used to attend school with Parvana. Shauzia is also dressed like a boy to try to earn money. Though never close before, the two girls quickly strike up a friendship. For a change, Parvana and Shauzia decide to go to see a soccer game one day. They are horrified when the 'game' turns out to be Taliban soldiers chopping off the hands of male prisoners. Parvana retreats inside for a few days, sickened by the sport.

One day, Parvana returns home to hear that Nooria has agreed to marry a man from Pakistan. Nooria has big plans. She wants to attend university and become a teacher. Mother then announces that she is going to Pakistan and wants to take everyone with her. But Parvana stays behind in the hopes her father will be released from prison. One night after her mother leaves, Parvana sees a woman, Homa, fleeing. Parvana rushes her inside where Mrs. Weera takes care of her.

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