Persian Language & Literature

Symbolism of women in Hedayat's "Blind Owl"
By: Massoume Price, 2001


Sadeq Hedayat's 'The Blind Owl' is one of the most important literary works in Persian language. The central theme of the story is an attempt toward the resolution of the writer/narrator's dualistic experiences of the real versus unreal, the sensual against the spiritual and death as opposed to life. Underlying his problems are sexual fear, association of women with death (a common theme in literature) and disgust affiliated with death/women.

It is important to understand the narrator's symbolism of his perception of the female characters. An in depth study of such symbolism reveals that the narrator is unconsciously treating the women of his creation as blank screens onto which he is casting various aspects of his personality that he can not consciously acknowledge. In order to penetrate to the heart of the narrator's problems of identity and being, one might also relate the experience of mothering and of women to problems of dependence and ego weakness. Accepting male and female elements as the two aspects of the same personality, we may also see them as relating to modes of knowing and dealing with the world. Relating by active doing, knowing by thinking and communicating through verbal symbols is normally associated with the male element of knowing, while knowing by feeling and communicating through emotional empathy constitutes female element of relating.

Then it is possible to suggest that the narrator is suffering from a split in personality and is trying to integrate a split off female element. In reality he is projecting a dread and fear of his own female element. In such cases the whole problem of women is bound up with ones' own attitudes to "oneself" and it is always the female element that is dissociated in both men and women. In a masculine society such as Iran, a great deal of the contemporary culture needs to be explained in terms of the development of modes of false strength, which are based on a certain kind of male dynamic. Where there is a deep insecurity of existence, this male dynamic is employed as a substitute for female element of "being". In these societies reality is normally located in terms of masculine paradigm, in which all female elements of being and knowing have been eradicated. Men in these situations will have problems accepting their culturally unacceptable and inferior female element.

It should also be noted that men of Hedayats' era, for the first time in Iranian history, witnessed the transformation of the traditional Iranian women into the modern twentieth century women. The kind, who joined the ranks of the political parties, rallied, had lovers; performed abortions and even bore illegitimate children. They also challenged the bi-polar image of women as the virtuous versus the prostitute. The male intellectuals of the period and long after, accepting principles of equality and freedom for both the sexes and at the same time growing up with the traditional notions of good, non sexual, virgin woman, no doubt would have had problems coping with the new image. Not knowing whether to be on their knees to her as the good mother figure, or full of sensual contempt for her as the whore. Ultimately, these men would be in need of her presence or impelled to destroy her. Hedayat would have been no exception. His preference for the spiritual, non-sexual contact with women can also be attributed to his inability to cope with the emergence of the new woman. The female characters therefore may be seen as dramatizations of endopsychic situations, to be understood as attempts to express the writers' attitudes to women, to his own female element, and to embody these attitudes to female knowledge in order to deal with problems of identity and being. In turn his cultural experiences and the masculinity of the society he lives in also influence such dramatizations.

His symbolism of women in this book is illuminating. Eyes and faces are important, because woman is associated with creative reflections. The writer who is seeking confirmation of identity is desperate for the eyes or the face that can respond to him in order to confirm his being. When the narrator can not find such confirmation his life is forfeit. At this point, the ethereal woman's face and eyes connect woman with death. The problem of woman now becomes problem of existence and meaninglessness. She can create by reflecting the writer, or she can leave him without a creative identity. Out of these problems a troubled mind can create an ideal woman, one who has none of the difficulties and dangers of being mortal or sexual. Here we witness an impulse to deny reality in favor of manic denial. The ethereal woman is such an immortal, magical woman and eternally manic.

The word manic is important in connection with the story. The narrator wants the ethereal woman to remain in the world of death. Furthermore she must remain out of touch and not to be seen by others. Later on, when the ethereal woman and the mother image become the same, one realizes why the narrator is so pre-occupied with woman as a focus of the problem of life and death. Mother is the birth giver; the narrator is mystified by the strange psychic state of his mother. The mother withdraws and there is an intense need to find her. The ethereal woman becomes the mother. How could one bear sexuality with her, to enter her body? Therefore any suggestion of love intimacy with women in the sexual sense must be avoided. For him it is not possible. At this point, the sexual love becomes the focus of the collapse of security and being.

The search for the ideal woman continues. His wife becomes the same as the mother and the ethereal woman. The quest is symbolic of the narrator's need to find the mother in the world of the death, and to obtain from her the completion of reflection, thus restoring meaning to life. Loosing the mother has left him aware of the lack of meaning in his existence. He must find her to complete the existential process. Even if it means getting back in time and into the primal relationship. What he needs is a new sense of time, in order to achieve confirmation of identity and reconciliation with his own mortality.

However in this world of unreal, the re-birth of the "being" happens in the experience of rejecting the female element of being and knowing. The mother figure is found, but sent into evanescence. In a sense she is killed like the ethereal woman and the wife. But the mothers' poisonous wine and the ethereal woman's eyes remain with him. This can take him into another world, where he can experience psychic re-birth as one could never before.

What we witness is not the oedipal elements as the main feature of the story, but a sexual fear and disgust associated with death. His fear of death is a manic one, it drives from antics intended to overcome the depression derived from the fear of death. The narrator dose not want to become real, at the same time he is afraid to loose his shadow. One has a shadow only if one is real and alive. No shadow is sinking into none existence, into death.

But the eyes and the wine do not confirm his existence. The murdered wife leaves no such traits. The narrator has had sexual contact with her. He is contaminated, diseased and disgusted. He has followed his appetite and has copulated like an animal. At the level of unconscious there is a fear of sex as "eating" and being eaten. When things are eaten they disappear, therefore one goes out of existence. Instead of being eaten he dreams of eating the woman, to make her disappear.

The writers' disintegrating relationship with his female element lies behind the collapse of his relationships with the rest of the world. The earth becomes an evil-witch like object and loses all meaning and significance. A tendency for suicide arises when he believes that a world in which it is not possible to distinguish the reality from the painted appearance is one, which cannot be borne. This weariness with life is a symbol of schizoid suicide, which leads into withdrawal into death, into a ghostly world.

In the unconscious, narrator believes that corruption of relationships through sexual contact brings nothingness. Which again indicates the presence of a schizoid element in his mind. A person with a schizoid mind seeks isolation. Union with a woman will not take him into the path of separateness. So he buries the woman. Now he can be free. He is alone but alive, in the process he is denouncing the "inferior" half of himself, the woman in him, the part that he fears may corrupt and make him diseased.

He expresses the intolerable perplexity of woman as a focus of appearance and reality. But this distrust of women is not misogyny. It is a result of profound pondering of problems of human nature and being. Hedayat's association of women with death, his inability to deal with realism through the dreadfulness of the tragic, and a paranoid attitude accompanying his inability to tolerate and accept his own mortal reality, indicates a form of dissociation from reality which serves as a clue to his existence problem.

In "the Blind Owl" the write fails to establish existential authenticity and freedom. This is because his view of self, others and the world in general, in his struggle through re-birth, is dominated by his rejection of his female elements of being and knowing. Such rejection is mainly due to his own schizoid problem, but it is also magnified by the prevailing attitudes toward women in his native country.