Overcoming the Ultimate Tragedy: Understanding ‘Life Is Beautiful’ and ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’
As a victimized African-American man living in America during a time of discrimination, Martin Luther King, Jr’s influential words are still repeated fifty years later: “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.” There is truth in this message, as although a target cannot control what a tormentor does, he can change his position and perspective on the circumstance. Khaled Hosseini and Roberto Benigni tell the story of protagonists who have to endure opposition from entire societies. In turn, they realize that they need to overcome the criticism in order to escape from the negativity. Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns and Benigni’s Life is Beautiful reveal that people rely on their own bravery as well as reassurance from those they love in times of oppression, seen through Laila and Guido’s courage to take action on a situation and support received from others during harsh conditions.
Laila’s boldness in trying to escape from Rasheed with Mariam and the kids as well as Guido’s daring move to sneak into the women’s camp prove that a human will take matters into their own hands in search of a positive outcome. After enduring abusive effects of her marriage with Rasheed for several years, Laila decides to attempt to flee to Pakistan in order to get away from the violence. In the middle of her getaway, “Laila felt giddy and bold. She had another of those little sparks of euphoria, and when a stray dog with yellow eyes limped by, Laila leaned forward and pet its back” (Hosseini 262). The “euphoria” Laila feels shows that in spite of being a patronized Afghan woman, her initiative brings a moment of joy. Laila feels this boldness so clearly because without her attempt to try and change her repressive position in society, she would keep suffering. Hosseini further develops the hope of the situation when a “stray dog with yellow eyes limp[s] by”. The helplessness of the dog is replaced with encouragement when Laila pets it, demonstrating that Laila feels optimistic and confident about her decision. Her courageous act opposes the common views on subordinate woman living in Afghanistan, but is needed in order to take herself out of that subordinance.
Likewise, in Benigni’s Life is Beautiful, Guido takes a bold move in trying to save his family while in a concentration camp during World War II. After being told that the war has ended, he tells his son, Joshua, to hide. Guido then puts a rag over his head to look like a woman and sneaks into the female side of the camp to warn his wife, Dora, not to get on any trucks, which he was told leave with people but come back empty. While the large number of people that boarded the trucks may have known they would be killed eventually, Guido realizes that he would rather die trying to keep his family together than succumb to the soldiers’ injustice. He understands that the only way to keep his wife and son alive is to find a way to communicate with them himself. Guido’s quick thinking and excited, youthful tone when explaining what is happening to Joshua are what saves his family from being killed. Although Guido ends up sacrificing his life for the safety of his wife and son, his act of bravery helps them escape the severe oppression during the war. Both Laila and Guido demonstrate that courage is an essential part in overcoming opposition, as they are both discriminated against for their gender or religion.
A person needs support from others during hardships and suffering, as seen when Mariam defends and gives motherly advice to Laila and Joshua provides Guido with the motivation to stay safe and alive. In the middle of Laila’s brutal beating by Rasheed caused by his jealousy of her relationship with Tariq, Mariam intervenes. Mariam’s reasoning includes that “had [she] been certain that he would be satisfied with shooting only her, that there was a chance he would spare Laila, she might have dropped the shovel. But in Rasheed’s eyes she saw murder for them both” (349). Rasheed’s visions of “murder” for the two women prove the extremity of the danger they were in, which leads to the undoubted support of Mariam to Laila, as Laila is like a daughter to her. Mariam knew that when she brought the shovel down, she would be severely punished for her action. However, she and Laila had suffered together and stuck by each other through the pain the whole time. Mariam’s protection gave Laila a glimpse of reassurance, since she confirmed that the cause of their suffering would no longer be able to hurt them. Aside from giving Laila physical safety, Mariam also provides Laila with emotional advice and comfort when deciding what to do after Rasheed was killed: “Mariam twiddled a strand of Laila’s hair, untangled a stubborn curl. ‘For me, it ends here. There’s nothing more I want…It’s all right, Laila jo. This is all right. Don’t be sad’” (358). Mariam’s actions of affection and repetition of “it’s all right” illustrate that she is acting as a mother to Laila during the stressful position that they’re both in. This ultimately helps to calm Laila down and allow her to think rationally as to what is the best option for the well-being of her children. Without the guidance of Mariam, it is likely that Laila could have made a rash decision regarding where they will go that would have harmed herself and her children. Her survival and the happiness of her future was directly related to the support received from Mariam.
Similarly, without the intent to, Joshua supports his dad throughout their time at the concentration camp by taking belief in Guido’s “game”. After boarding a train with other Jews on their way to camps, Joshua asks his father where they are going. It is Guido’s desire to preserve Joshua’s innocence and childhood that leads him to say they are going on a trip for his birthday. One rule leads to another, and soon Joshua is living in a fantasy game of points and tanks when his reality is a deathtrap. Joshua’s ability to absorb Guido’s lies and keep a relatively positive attitude drives Guido to take extra caution to stay alive. Since the Jews were being tortured and deprived of their humanity, it could have been easy for Guido to lose will if it were not for his family to protect. During these harsh conditions, it was especially beneficial to Guido to have Joshua as a source of inspiration to help him make something positive from a inevitably negative situation. Although provided in different forms, Laila and Guido both have support from the people they love to keep fighting through the opposition that the face, ultimately helping them better tolerate their conflicts.
While the plots of the two works are contrasting in the gender and age of the protagonist, Hosseini and Benigni both demonstrate the idea that people can be self-sufficient to protect themselves and others, but also can rely on the support from others when faced with discrimination. In A Thousand Splendid Suns, Laila uses her own plans when she is confident and excited about her decision, but uses Mariam’s advice when she is not able to think straight. Guido in Life is Beautiful also takes actions of bravery and risk when trying to prevent separation of his family and uses his son’s innocence as a motivator to stay strong. The brutal oppression that the protagonists were faced with are less common, but still prevalent in today’s society. There are many countries, such as Afghanistan, where women still have fewer rights and are discriminated against with job opportunities. However, the “good” people’s spirits can not be broken if they do not let silence overpower the “bad” people’s cruelty.
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