The well of Orhan Pamuk

In The Red-Haired Woman, Orhan Pamuk hides behind the tumult of the tragedies of Oedipus and Sohrab the desire to ‘become a writer.’ The element of ‘the well’ here alludes to the novel’s fictional structure

Something resembling a well… Once you’re in it, you’ll only go deeper and deeper… But in the meantime I’ll listen. Now it, later I, will be on top. Until [one] drowns.”

Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar, “Yaz Gecesi” (Summer Night)

Let us recall the epigraph of Öteki Renkler (Other Colors), the book of essays billed by the author Orhan Pamuk as the one in which he “reveals the most” about himself: The epigraph is a line from Şeyh Galip, or Galip Dede, which reads, “Get clad in any color, but don’t reveal your [true] color.” This epigraph is “actually” the golden rule that governs Orhan Pamuk’s writing. However, I believe readers can follow his trail as the author also gets clad in his very own color while “not revealing his true color despite getting clad in all kinds of colors,” and this way see Pamuk’s possible true colors. Otherwise he wouldn’t be writing at all. He gave an account of his reasons for writing in his Nobel Literature Prize acceptance speech “My Father’s Suitcase” -- “revealing one’s true color” was the sum of all those reasons, remember?

Other Colors, Orhan Pamuk, Translated by Maureen Freely, Penguin Random HouseIn The Red-Haired Woman, (Kırmızı Saçlı Kadın) the point is entirely about not revealing much. The text gets clad in all kinds of colors, and in the meantime it does give a bit away… Let me explain my point. What is The Red-Haired Woman’s point? After the book’s release, topics of debate surrounding the novel included the father-son dynamic and the East-West divide. Certainly I do not oppose these arguments but I retain my right to think they are incomplete. Let me explain: The novel revolves around a situation faced by a fifteen-year-old Cem, who dreams of becoming a writer but ends up an engineer, during his time digging wells in the town of Öngören to make money for his education after his father walks out on them. This incident, while keeping Cem’s thoughts busy all through his life, apparently was also meant to destroy him eventually.

The novel’s fictional structure in the style of a helix that goes deeper as the story progresses has the Red-Haired Woman at its center. The story of the father-and-son relationship revolves around that centerpiece. The top vertex of this triangular structure changes throughout the novel. To make my case more credible I need to formulate it into a schematic representation and I’ll do that with some help from René Girard, who came up with the most effective formula about this matter.

In his book Deceit, Desire and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure, Girard looks at literary texts in accordance with how desire is positioned in a specific work. Let me borrow the following from Orhan Koçak’s preface to the Turkish translation of Girard’s book:

From an “unsuspecting” viewpoint, what is essential is the object, which is the main reason and the source of the subject’s desire. According to another (and a little less “unsuspecting”) point of view, the subject is the main source for everything -- not that the object is unimportant, but the desire itself and (its object) come even before the object: Desire must try and find its object, if not, create one. In both approaches, the third summit of the triangle (mediator) is nonexistent. There is no triangle but a linear connection. What Girard did was to bring this secret, obscured “stimulator” to the fore: The subject desires the object because somebody else desires it. There is always some other being who “fertilizes” the desire and stimulates (in other words, “mediates”) it. This other being provides the subject with the model for its desire. (10)

Therefore, works that include a hidden object of desire and highlight the subject are romantic pieces, while those where a mediator exists for the desire and where the subject has a desire for this object through a mediator are novelistic pieces. Girard uses the term “triangular desire” in his definition of novelistic works. This serves as a schematic representation. In one vertex of this structure that resembles an equilateral triangle stands the subject, in another is the object of desire, and finally in the third vertex there is the mediator. Here, the mediator is the key. Girard proposes two types of mediators: “In situations where the distance between two spheres of probability, with one having the mediator at its center and the other having the subject, prevents these two spheres from being in touch with one another, we use the term external mediation. If this distance allows for these two spheres to more or less intersect, then what we have is internal mediation. (29)

According to Girard, “The protagonist of external mediation speaks the true identity of its desire out loud. He openly consecrates its model and reveals that he/she is a follower of that model.” (29) Getting back to The Red-Haired Woman, when Cem, who suffers from fatherlessness, begins digging wells with Master Mahmut, he is captivated by his master’s compassion and care, he is happy to be his apprentice and he recognizes the authority of his master. The type of mediation we have here is external. The object of desire, on a surface level, is drawing water out of a well. But let’s just stop here for a moment. For it needs a little more exploration since the topic is “a desired well.” It might be helpful to think over the psychological connotations of the metaphor of “the well.” Since the story of “Oedipus Rex,” which is repetitively highlighted throughout the text, tells us to also explore the image of the “mother,” the suspicion whether there is a relationship between the concepts of “mother” and “well” will lead us to the Jungean archetype of “the mother.” Carl Jung cites the term “deep well” among the many symbols of the mother archetype. (22) Which means, the object of desire that makes up the desire vertex of the triangle between Mahmut and Cem must be, or might be, “the mother.” But since Cem respects the authority of Mahmut, the mediation is external. Cem has completed the phallic stage successfully. For those who need a little bit of a reminder, the phallic stage is described by Freud as the developmental stage in infants in which the male child sees his father as a competition in possessing the mother as an object of desire and undergoes “castration anxiety” because he has a penis. In cases where an infant has not completed this psychosexual development stage successfully, the boy is left with an Oedipus complex.

The Red-Haired Woman, Orhan Pamuk, Translated by Ekin Oklap, Penguin Random HouseAlthough Cem overcomes Oedipus complex by respecting the authority of Mahmut, who replaces Cem’s father, Cem’s true object of desire is “actually” something else -- which is, writing. Whereas we have no clues as to Cem’s father also having a similar desire. We know that Orhan Pamuk’s father used to write from “My Father’s Suitcase,” but that’s a different story -- for now. But even though we do not know whether Master Mahmut, the protagonist of the external mediator, has ever had any desire to become a writer or not, we still know there is something that will stimulate Cem’s desire, make him see Mahmut as his competition and thus create an internal mediation and tighten the helix and deepen the well: that Mahmut tells religious themed stories at nights.

And when Cem responds to these exemplary tales with the story of Oedipus, his aim is not too different from that of Mahmut. Cem puts on his weapons in the internal mediation and intimidates his master with stories of his own in order to protect his territory -- that is, of course, on a subconscious level. For this to happen on the conscious level, the internal mediation needs to manifest itself more sharply. For Cem to see Mahmut as his competition they need to have a shared object of desire, which would be the Red-Haired Woman.

Submission is replaced by rivalry when Cem finds out that Master Mahmut, despite being banned from doing so, has been to the tent show to watch the Red-Haired Woman in her very impressive portrayal of the tragedy of “Rostam and Sohrab” from “Shahnameh” and moreover has also chatted with her. The spheres of mediation are now intersecting. For Cem, Mahmut is now a competition that needs to be eliminated. But Girard says that the “person who hates first hates himself for the secret admiration concealed by his hatred” (30). This is exactly what happens to Cem in “The Red-Haired Woman.” When his master that he has assigned the role of a “father” turns into his competition and when he thinks he has eliminated (murdered) that competition, he is massively ridden with guilt (85). Although this guilt at times diminishes, it never really goes away. It even becomes a threat for Cem’s only desire in life: “But could such an unscrupulous person who leaves his master to die at the bottom of a well ever be a writer?” (91)

To fully apprehend what he really did, Cem starts trailing the stories of “Sohrab” and “Oedipus.” These stories are explored in such detail in the book that Orhan Pamuk has even faced some criticism for that. The author doesn’t leave a single point unexplored: he meticulously goes from Freud’s scholarly article on “The Brothers Karamazov” to Sophocles’ “Oedipus the King” and all the way to Ferdowsi's “Shahnameh.” Digging this much into detail might be Pamuk’s way of telling his readers to focus on what is behind all these.

The second part of the novel deals with Cem’s life as it unfolds in a rapid pace. In addition to the stories that he sets out to explore, we also follow Cem as he morphs into a typical highly educated, well-to-do business man. As it is frequently highlighted throughout the text, there is no escape from destiny, so when Cem is contacted years later for some construction work in the town of Öngören, events start unfurling really fast and the climax points of the novel start to emerge in this part. Mr. Sırrı, whom Cem bumps into during his father’s funeral, is the owner of the house where Cem slept with the Red-Haired Woman, Gülcihan. Sırrı is an acquaintance of Cem’s father and he also finds out from Sırrı the reason why the Red-Haired Woman was looking at him as though they already knew each other: because Gülcihan was the ex-lover of Cem’s father.

So we see that the Red-Haired Woman, who is an object of desire between Master Mahmut and Cem, “actually” creates yet another internal mediation by way of being an object of desire this time shared by Cem and his father. In the meantime, the story of “Oedipus,” which he has been exploring for years, is now, although indirectly, part of his own life. But this too is a tool to obscure the real matter. Avid readers of Pamuk’s fiction are always watchful for these kinds of traps; this is not the ultimate impact.

Cem finds out that he has a son with the Red-Haired Woman. To see his son, who has filed a paternity case, he goes to Öngören. Yet this part of the novel is narrated as though he hasn’t been able to see his son. However, we, the readers, are almost sure that his son Enver’s friend, the person who claims his name to be Serhat, is “actually” Enver. In the meantime we learn from Cem’s conversation with Serhat, whom we’ll later find out that he is actually Enver, that Enver writes poetry. Thus we’re presented with yet another object of desire. And so we go back to where we started. At the beginning of the book, “writing” was an object of desire between Master Mahmut and Cem. From this point on, it’s an object of desire between Enver and Cem. We sense that this might conclude in a murder, but we cannot tell whether it will be in the style of “Oedipus,” which Cem has spent a lifetime studying, or like the one in the story of “Sohrab.” “Whenever I get mad at you I actually feel like I want to blind you,” Enver tells his father at one point (170). Here we’re given a hint as to the story’s ending and, yes, eventually Enver will end up shooting Cem in the eye with Cem’s gun during an act of self-defense.

Orhan PamukOne of the best ways of highlighting the fact that a novel is a work of fiction is to place a narrative gap in the text and Pamuk pulls that off with a single sentence. Enver, while he is still hiding his real identity from his father, goes to Enver’s house with Cem. They ring the doorbell but no one answers although inside the lights are on. Later when we find out that the person accompanying Cem that night was Enver, the angry son creates some sort of an discrepancy in the novel’s time scheme when he says, “Somebody was at my door, I was writing poetry, so I didn’t answer,” (167) highlighting the fictional character of the text by way of blurring reality.

In the last part of the novel the story is narrated by the Red-Haired Woman. She recaps the story from her point of view. This is the most important part in the entire text, because this is the part where there is an additional clue as to why the novel’s title is The Red-Haired Woman. Here we find out about another point Pamuk has tried to make by intentionally choosing this title for his book -- besides the obvious fact that the woman is the catalyzer of the events narrated in the book. I don’t think Pamuk has chosen the word “kırmızı” over “kızıl” [the literal English translation for both words is “red”] so that the book’s English translation would be easier, like several critics have suggested. Had Pamuk chosen the word “kızıl,” he couldn’t have expressed the artificiality and/or fictional quality conveyed by the word “kırmızı.” Getting back to the novel itself, the Red-Haired Woman brags at some point in the book that red is not her hair’s natural color, but a choice (175). In my opinion this hints at fiction. The unnatural hair color underscores the book’s “fictional characteristic” and thus hides beneath the tumult of -- and connects to -- the stories of Oedipus, Sohrab and Hamlet and the conflicts between the master, the father and the son in the book. This fictional woman puts pressure on her son to write his father’s story, which eventually is also her story. Enver complies and he ends up writing the novel that we’ve been talking about.

Thus we are presented with two more triangles of desire. The first is Enver desiring his mother, through the internal mediation of his father, while writing the book. His account of his mom and dad’s relationship from the first person point of view, although the account is his dad’s, is hard to ignore. The Red-Haired Woman tells how her son Enver used to “kiss her hands with respect […] just like a lover” (194). Right after that, she says that she’ll hand the books that Cem has read to their son, so he would be able to walk “in his father’s shoes” (194). If we also keep in mind that Enver’s comments regarding “books and art” during an argument with his father are the exact same things Cem used to say during his younger days, we cannot argue that Enver is really walking in Cem’s shoes. In fact, quite the opposite; Enver, using the power of writing, has managed to make his father think like him. We can even go as far as to claim that Cem, Cem’s father and Enver are amalgamated into each other. So it can’t be a coincidence that the exact definition used by Cem about his father, that his neck “smelled of a mixture of cheap soap and biscuits, just like he did in his childhood,” is also used by the Red-Haired Woman about her son, Enver. And this completes the cycle of the Oedipus complex in the book. If we get back to the very beginning now, we might also remember that “the well” stood for the mother archetype. And this firmly secures the place of Enver, the novel’s writer, in the Oedipus complex. The novel thus gains coherence. Yet the last words uttered by the Red-Haired Woman, hence the last words of the novel, once more highlight the fact that the point -- hence the object of desire -- is actually “writing”: “Don’t forget that your father actually wanted to be a writer as well.” (195) Now let’s look at the novel’s first sentence: “Actually I wanted to become a writer.” (9) Which explains my point in repeating the word “actually” throughout the text. In my opinion, the word “actually” to appear in both the opening and the ending of the novel should be seen as a clear sign that the novel “actually” aims to talk about something else, besides serving to amalgamate the characters of Cem and Enver.

Risking sounding too ostentatious, I will still claim that Pamuk is giving away something about himself with the novel’s last sentence. Pamuk had revealed in My Father’s Suitcase that his father had given him several notebooks in a suitcase. This creates a disturbing situation for Orhan Pamuk; he starts worrying about whether his father is a good writer or a bad one. In a way, his dad is stripped of his role of being a “father” and turns into a mediator. Just like in the case of Enver and Cem, where “writing” is an object of desire, this situation hints at a similar desire shared by Gündüz Pamuk and Orhan Pamuk. Although Orhan Pamuk always speaks of his father with kindness and respect, he doesn’t hide the frustration he used to feel whenever his father went away. Just like Cem.

As a typical Orhan Pamuk fan, I became suspicious when I read Cem taking his father’s “tiny old suitcase” while going to Öngören (14). The one that Gündüz Pamuk gave to his son was also a “small, black, leather suitcase.” Up until this point we have no information other than the suitcase in both cases being small and previously owned by the father and although this is not enough to prove my point, it is enough to at least make one curious. In his essay “My Father” in his autobiographical book Manzaradan Parçalar (Fragments of the Landscape), Orhan Pamuk tells of Gündüz Pamuk, but in a way, it is as though he is also talking about Akın Çelik (Cem’s father). “Not even once has my father scowled at me or scolded me; not even one fillip.” (15) Cem says the same about his father: “Then I’d miss my dad who never yelled at me and who never scolded me.” (27) I admit that this much is not enough to prove my point either. In the same essay, Pamuk recalls a time when he was very little when his father was teaching him how to swim in Heybeliada. When his father swims away from him he gets anxious and shouts, “Dad, don’t leave me!” “Yet again he used to leave us. He’d go to remote places, to other countries, to places we didn’t know,” Pamuk goes on to recall in an upset tone (19). Similarly, when Cem learns of his father’s demise, he recalls a similar moment: “When I was seven, my mom, I and my dad had once been to the Heybeli Beach to swim. My mom was gently placing me in the water while holding my belly and I was struggling to swim towards my father, who was standing in the water, only three steps away from us. Just as I approached him, he would take a step backwards so that I would continue swimming and thus learn faster, and in anticipation of catching up with him, I’d yell, ‘Dad, don’t go!’” (133-134). Yet, just like Orhan Pamuk’s father, Cem’s father too had a habit of disappearing too often.

Orhan Pamuk used to love his father’s scent, just like Cem does. These words belong to Pamuk: “As a child, I loved climbing up on my dad’s lap, lying next to him, smelling his unique scent, and touching him.” (19). And these are Cem’s: […] was pulling my head towards his neck and his chest, the very point on his neck that I’m now looking at, which had a unique scent even when were at sea (the smell of cheap soap and biscuits).” (134)

Looking at the signs up until this point, we can now clearly talk about a certain parallelism between Cem’s father and Orhan Pamuk’s father. But is that parallelism truly meaningful? Although it shouldn’t be, I sense here a situation that the parallelism linking Enver and Akın (the scent) can lead us to. Orhan Pamuk would have normally had this novel written by “the novelist Orhan,” just as he did in his previous books. However, reasoning it might cause trouble, or let’s be frank, rumors, he probably made this fictional “son” by the name of Enver write “The Red-Haired Woman.” This way he tolerates the similarity between Cem and Orhan Pamuk and in a way he outdoes his father by way of blending Cem’s ambitions to become a writer with those of Gündüz Pamuk. And this way he takes “revenge” from his father, to whom he says he is grateful but who, at the same time, he is permanently upset with. My claims are based on Orhan Pamuk’s own words: “Like I’ve been trying to explain, I’m trying to take my own revenges, but often I do it in such a highly personalized manner that the reader doesn’t recognize it and mistakes revenge for beauty.” (“Manzaradan Parçalar,” 27)

In “The Red-Haired Woman,” Orhan Pamuk hides underneath the tumult of the stories of Oedipus and Sohrab the desire to “become a writer.” He digs the well deeper by constantly altering the summits of the triangle while weaving the relationship between the subject and mediator around that very same desire, again around the very same tumultuous story. The element of “the well” here is a significant point that should not be missed, for it implies the novel’s fictional structure. And in order to draw some water from the well, one needs to try hard. Pamuk would never let his readers reach the water inside the well that easily; after all, he may have written this novel in just fourteen months, but it was brewing in his mind for some thirty years. At the end of the day, it is Orhan Pamuk, the author of “Black Book,” “The New Life” and “My Name is Red,” that we’re talking about.


Girard, R. (2013). “Romantik Yalan ve Romansal Hakikat: Edebi Yapıda Ben ve Öteki” (A. E. İldem, Trans.) İstanbul: Metis Publications. (Original work published 1961)
Jung, C. G. (2005). "Dört Arketip” (Z. Aksu Yılmazer, Trans.) İstanbul: Metis Publications.
Pamuk, O. (2016) “Kırmızı Saçlı Kadın” [The Red-Haired Woman] İstanbul: Yapı Kredi Publications.
Pamuk, O. (2011) “Saf ve Düşünceli Romancı” [The Naïve and the Sentimental Novelist] İstanbul: İletişim Publications.
Pamuk, O. (2010) “Manzaradan Parçalar” [Fragments of the Landscape] İstanbul: İletişim Publications.
Pamuk, O. (2010) “Öteki Renkler: Seçme Yazılar ve Bir Hikâye” [Other Colors] İstanbul: İletişim Publications.