East Meets West: The Mythology Behind Orhan Pamuk’s The Red-Haired Woman
Nobel Prize–winning author Orhan Pamuk’s novel, The Red-Haired Woman, weaves Eastern and Western mythology into a tale of modern-day Turkey. In the opening paragraph, the narrator and protagonist, Cem, welcomes the reader and introduces them to the main theme. It is the tale of Cem’s life, and he writes, “The more I remember, the deeper I fall into it. Perhaps you, too, will follow, lured by the enigma of fathers and sons” (p. 3). As the three epigraphs—from Nietzsche, Oedipus Rex, and Shahnameh, a Persian epic poem containing the story of Rostam and Sohrab—illustrate, the conflict between fathers and sons goes back to the beginning of history, and a tragic fate may be inescapable even in the modern world. As the tale goes on, Cem’s story intertwines with those of the ancient characters as he becomes obsessed with their myths and finds his own life starting to mirror theirs.
You don’t have to have read Oedipus Rex or Shahameh to enjoy The Red-Haired Woman, but we’ve put together a quick guide in case you’d like an introduction or refresher.
Oedipus: The tragic hero
King Laius: Oedipus’s biological father and King of Thebes
Queen Jocasta: Oedipus’s biological mother
King Polybus: Oedipus’s adoptive father and King of Corinth
Queen Merope: Oedipus’s adoptive mother
The Sphinx: A monster with the head of a woman and body of a lion who poses riddles and eats those who answer incorrectly
King Laius hears a prophecy that his son will grow up to kill his father and marry his mother. In order to thwart the prophecy, Laius abandons the baby to die on a mountainside. The baby is discovered, however, by shepherds who bring him to their king and queen, Polybus and Merope, who name him Oedipus and raise him as though he were their own son.
When Oedipus grows up, he too hears of the prophecy that he will kill his father and marry his mother. Determined to change his fate, Oedipus leaves Corinth and the people he thinks are his parents and journeys to Thebes. On the way, he meets, quarrels with, and kills an old man.
Oedipus arrives in Thebes where he learns that the king, Laius, has just been killed. To make matters worse, a Sphinx torments the city. Oedipus correctly answers the Sphinx’s riddle, freeing the people from her wrath and winning both the throne and the hand of the recently widowed queen, Jocasta.
After many years, and having had four children, Oedipus decides to find Laius’s murderer in an attempt to save the city from a plague. He discovers that he himself was the culprit and that he did, indeed, fulfill the prophecy by killing his father and marrying his mother. Jocasta, unable to cope with the truth, hangs herself. Oedipus, in turn, gouges out his own eyes.
Rostam and Sohrab
Rostam: Hero of Persia
Tahmina: The princess of Samangan
Sohrab: Rostam and Tahmina’s son
Rostam loses his horse and ends up in the kingdom of Samangan where he is welcomed by the king. He meets princess Tahmina, who sneaks into his room and asks him if he will have a child with her, and, in exchange, she will bring him his horse. Having completed the terms of the deal, Rostam goes to leave but gives Tahmina a seal to bind on the arm of their child if it is a boy. Nine months later, she gives birth to a son, Sohrab.
Many years pass before war breaks out between Persia and Samangan. Both Sohrab and Rostam have become legendary warriors and arrive to fight on opposite sides. Everyone is scared to fight against Rostam and his army, except for Sohrab, who is sent to battle Rostam in single combat.
Unaware of their opponents’ true identities, Rostam and Sohrab engage in an epic wrestling match that ends when Rostam stabs Sohrab. As he is dying, Sohrab promises that his father will avenge his death. Rostam sees the seal that he gave to Tahmina and realizes that he has been fighting his own son, but it is too late to save him. Rostam is overcome and Tahmina dies of her grief.