Orhan Pamuk’s The Red-Haired Woman is a tale of obsession


Pallavi Sareen

Sep 26, 2020

A young boy’s obsession with father-son relationship shapes the way he grows up and lives his life. Based in culturally rich Istanbul, the book draws its inspiration from the Greek Tale of Oedipus Rex and classic Persian Tragedy of Rostam and Sohrab.

Both the tragedies, though the opposite of each other in terms of the story have inherent similarities. Both deal with the father-son bond and how the lack of it shapes one’s life. The story is told in three parts with Cem taking on the role of the narrator in more than half the book and a surprise narrator towards the end.

Part 1: The beginning of Cem’s story

Cem is the son of a Marxist pharmacist who gets used to living in the absence of his father whose sudden disappearance is a common occurrence. His abandonment issues are so thoroughly evident as he looks for a father figure in various men who cross his path. His dreams of becoming a writer were encouraged by the librarian he spent a lot of time with and even in his own mind, he knows it is a dream that has been encouraged and not something he wished for himself. So, it is not surprising when he decides to leave his family to go with a well-digger to earn quick money so he could further his studies. The well-digger is another interesting character.

When Cem becomes his apprentice, he begins seeing the well-digger more and more like the father he wanted. As their bond grows stronger and the two-week job of digging the well keeps extending as laborious hard work yields no result, the only thing that keeps Cem from running away is the look of disappointment in the well-digger’s eyes and The Red-Haired Woman. But like the tragedies of Ferdowsi and Sophocles, Cem’s obsession with pleasing the well-digger doesn’t end well.

Part 2: The impact of childhood experiences

The individuality of Cem’s character is overshadowed by the influences of others. That is why he drops his dreams of becoming a writer and under the influence of the well-digger becomes a geologist instead. Despite his physical growth, mentally Cem still urges to understand the father-son bond and this part of the story is overly dramatic. It is filled with obsession with the tales of Ferdowsi and Sophocles.

Each part of the story is broken, analysed and discussed. The obsession is to such extremes that it starts getting manifested in his real life as well. The hidden skeletons threaten to peek out from the closet. Cem is rich, successful and has a wonderful wife whose mind is compatible to his. But even then, the void of a child is too much to bear. Even when Cem ends up meeting his father after such a long time, the bitterness over the abandonment doesn’t leave him.

This second part deals with more than just the adult life of Cem. It describes Istanbul in vivid detail. And the culmination of the story also happens in the second part only. The inevitable, which the entire story is leading up to finally occurs.

Part 3: The story of the Red-haired Woman

This final part was the unexpected surprise with the reader getting a peek into the mind of the red-haired woman. Even without it, the story would have ended on a perfect note in Part 2. But I understand why the author felt it necessary to include this and I couldn’t be happier about it. In all the tragedies of men, the tears of women mean nothing more than the added drama which tug on the heartstrings of the reader. This part of the book addresses that only. Despite the book being named after The Red Haired Woman, she is but a side-character whose only role is to watch the men around her get consumed by their obsession. Till the end, she keeps trying to get attention to the words that she is speaking, failing to do so at all quarters. But her final monologue gives the reader the necessary closure for all the characters.

Favourite Quotes

“The terror of being blamed for something even when we’ve done nothing wrong is a fear that manifests itself only in dreams. I felt it all too often.”

“When there is no one to observe us, the other self we keep hidden inside can come out and do as it pleases. But when you have a father near enough to keep an eye on you, that second self remains buried within. ”

“Our wealthy, Westernized classes are so obsessed with individualism, they’ve forgotten how to be themselves, let alone how to be individuals,”

—The Red Haired Woman by Orhan Pamuk


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