Hedayat and His Literary
Works: A Commentary

Farzin Yazdanfar

Persian miniature

Persian miniature:Chogan (Polo)
Artist: Mahmoud Farshchian (1973)

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Iran was a country in transition. The impact of industrialization and new conditions brought by the western presence, concomitant with the political awakening of the people and the need for change, especially in the political institutions of the society, led to a movement known as the Constitutional Revolution (1905-1911). This Revolution and increasing familiarity with European literature resulted in the Modern Literary Movement of Iran and brought about a new era of literary experiments both in prose and in verse.  In verse, the new ideas were resisted while the experiments in prose, especially in short story writing, were welcomed.

Hedayat's picture

Two years before the Constitutional Revolution broke out, Sadeq Hedayat, the foremost short story writer of Iran, was born. He was of a highly educated aristocratic family. After finishing his primary education, he was sent to a French school to study French.  He received his secondary education there, and was sent to Europe on a government scholarship to study dentistry. He shortly gave up dentistry for engineering, and engineering for the study of pre-Islamic languages and ancient culture of Iran.

In Europe, Hedayat was exposed to world literature, especially European literature, and read the works of Kafka, Poe, and Dostoevski. In his solitude, he became extremely self-conscious and devoted a great deal of his time to the problem of life and death.  He studied the works of Rainer Maria Rilke and was impressed by Rilke's adoration of death so immensely that he wrote his own commentary on Death in 1927. He even tried to commit suicide in the same year by drowning himself in the river Marne, but he was rescued. The influence of Rilke's work, especially "The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge," on Hedayat was so profound that in developing the central character of his novella,The Blind Owl, he took some of the thoughts and words of Rilke's main character and included them in his own novella. This novella is regarded as Hedayat's masterpiece and has been translated in many languages.  It took him almost a decade to prepare this novella which he finally published in 1937 in India. It could not be published inside Iran until 1941.

Most of Hedayat's works, especially the ones that he wrote in the 1940s, are realistic works. However, Hedayat was fundamentally a romanticist, irresistibly drawn to death and fascinated by the glories of the past.  He was preoccupied with social and ethical concerns and wrote collections of short stories - each one around a central theme.  He examined the themes of justice, trust, change, and determinism in the stories which he wrote primarily in the late 1920s and 1930s. Denial of justice* was a concern of such importance that he wrote a commentary on the translation of Kafka's In the Penal Colony, entitled the Message of Kafka. This is the most representative piece of Hedayat's scholarly writing in which he uses simple syntax and discusses a very difficult and complex issue - man's role in the cosmos - with literary skill and philosophical understanding.  His preoccupation with justice also influenced his choice of works to translate, for example Jean Paul Sartre's The Wall and Kafka's Before the Law.

Another theme which attracted Hedayat was the status of women in a male-dominated, traditional society like Iran. The best example how he deals with this theme is a short story entitled Story with a Moral, which was written in the form of hekayat, and deserves full attention and needs to be analyzed for structure, theme, and symbolism in order to show Hedayat's skill in making use of symbolism and examining complex social and political themes.

Story with a Moral makes the beginning of Hedayat's career as a writer.  He gradually improved his writing skill and developed a talent for philosophical, social, and eventually political themes. His career reached its peak in the late 1930s when he finished preparing his novella. However, in the 1940s it was obvious that he could not produce anything substantial.  He became increasingly frustrated to the point that abusive criticism replaced artistic criticism in his works. His inability to create the literary works his public expected, drove him deeper into depression.  He finally decided to leave Iran and go back to Paris, where he had started his career. However, postwar Paris was not the Paris he had experienced in the 1920s.

He made his last decision. He attempted suicide again; this time he succeeded, on April 4, 1951. At the time of his death, he had become recognized as the foremost modern prose author of Iran.

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Hedayat's baby picture


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