The Cobbler and His Sons -The Change and Dissolution in Rural Towns

By Dr. Mehmet Nuri Gültekin

Translated by Academy Group


“The Cobbler and His Sons” has lots of hints to show the economic and class impact of the social evolution, modernisation that takes place in Chukurova and Adana area. In the development process, the population movements, the effects of the old life, new enrichment manners and the newly rich have been delivered with quite successful descriptions in the novel.

The affect of the mechanization in agriculture to the working conditions that relied on traditional manual production and the effect of it on the status of man could be easily seen in this novel. Both how the villager-town-dweller relationships and the family’s are affected from the social and economic change, and the radical effect of fast change processes on the people’s lives can be followed in “The Cobbler and His Sons”. The family, whose life is being described, is actually a symbol. It is not singular; with the changes experienced, it represents many families. When looked from a different angle, leaving the technicality aside, by starting out with the changes within three generations, what is being expressed in this novel is, the characteristic of the evolution in the Turkish society or Chukurova.

The transition from labor-intense agriculture, which was prevailing Chukurova, to the mechanized production, has caused deep effects on the majority of the population. Big human masses pour down to the cities and evolve from being farmers into unqualified unemployed bulks. On the other hand, in the cities, parallel to the changes experienced, with the collapse of the traditional handicrafts against the machine, a big mass that lived in the cities, but has been left out of production, has experienced the process of “becoming field workers” in the city. Especially the long war years that the society has lived and participated in every aspect, has caused many transformations. It created sudden and serious changes in the characteristics of the population in the cities. In Orhan Kemal’s writings, the phenomenon of “becoming field workers” and becoming a mass of unqualified workforce, so to speak, becoming poorer and breaking away from production in the cities are being handled in an attentive way.

The beginning of the novel is quite successful in describing the social flux in Chukurova. The flowing of agriculture towards industry and within this big chaos the position of a cobbler shop, which is becoming outdated, is settled on a meaningful form.


Topal Eskici’s clash with the new generations is not only because of age difference or a generation clash. At the same time, this situation is a reflection of a change that is being experienced. The father and the neighbors (other tradesman), are the actors of the change and history, in the 1930’s and 1940’s of Turkish society. The old Eskici, is the representative of a time, where in the base, nothing is done for money, but the feudal prestige is the starting point of all actions. There is a strong resistance against time and advancements. The clear opposition of Eskici’s younger son is the result of the reflection of time:

At the intervention point of his own life, the fact of “migration” is seen in a different way. For Topal Eskici, a bond is built between not only his customers being stolen, but also, between the technology that the migrant is using and his job going bad. Now the old (at every aspect Topal Eskici) is pushed aside:


The problem of Eskici is, his being left behind in technique and his extreme conservatism insisting on the old style. It is also one of the main reasons of the tension between his younger son and him. Now, being part of the capitalist market (“doing business with the wholesalers”), makes it essential to do some changes:

At the arrived phase, the tension and value-struggle between the actors of the country’s history and the ones that have economic benefit takes stage. But the tangible results are close to justify the ones that have economic benefit. From the description of the tangible conditions lived and delivered from the Cobbler’s mouth, a reality of Turkey is revealed again. The quotations here show that Topal Eskici’s only problem was not the government; it was also the “godly powers”. Because, with their value in the traditional memory, government which was identified with the caliph, has a “godly” character; but both of them are inadequate against the ‘new’ reality. The old cobbler has become someone who is made fun of and teased in every aspect.

This tragic situation is not that Eskici had to pay a toll, but it is that he still is unaware of the reality and how the things work. It would take a long time to realize that being a ‘veteran’ has no importance. What happened is an anomic, singular strike, which has no economical equivalent.


The collapse of some big land owners in Chukurova and emerging of newly rich people and new ways of getting rich caused the past, that is being described in the quotation above to be erased. We see that Aristocrats are somehow loosing ground and the ones that do not have the capacity and ability to harmonize the qualities of the new political and economic relationships become impoverished. As is seen, the values that Topal Eskici is proud to have and all the values that he turned to in the past life, are shattered into pieces and dispersed in the world of his son who wants to “buy goods from the wholesaler and do business as apiece”.

In reality, as shown by their pragmatic approach against the God, Eskici hopes for a gain, by adding the ‘national’ next to their ‘nobility’; but it does not work, the collapse has accelerated.

In the Ottoman times, Topal Eskici’s grandfather has acquired big lands as a result of transformation, barter and property changing hands. It is remarkable that these similarities within the generations are lived at different extends in the Republic period without even lasting a few generations.

Topal Eskici’s past is far beyond from being a simple history of wealth, it is important in point of showing the indicators of social dynamics.


The condition of the agriculture and social life (capitalist), before being completely articulated to the market, can be understood from the above quote. At the times where the change is too slow, and the transforming effect of the economy on the objective conditions was far, the feudal values had a meaning; but the times Topal lived, the 1945s and 1950s, limits the chance of these values (at least with the mechanized agriculture in Chukurova) to live only in the traditional memories with a proud towards the past. In many novels of Orhan Kemal, we face him describing the little or no effect of this kind of phenomenon on the new conditions with the term “being proud of the gravestones”. But here, more than Topal being proud of the past, there is his acceptance of the defeat and his complaining of not being able to be like the rest of the members of the society. He also adds a meaning to the faith and prayer in this sense. This situation is inevitably submittance of an individual, who recognized the weakness and decline of his class.

Another generation clash and mentality change is also mentioned in the novel. Multi-culturality becomes an important phenomenon in Orhan Kemal novels. But in the sense of social class, without looking at the individual moves, we can say that there is a fall in the social status of people.


As a “deviation” in the family history of Topal Eskici, his father, by the help of his friendship with the Armenians in Adana, meets with the technology, but since there is not anybody else at his foresight and progress level, the regression we have been mentioning continues. Another interesting detail is the meaning that the “Gülbenkyan” family represents. While the Armenians became the pioneer of modernisation in Adana, the muslim community that the writer describes as “native” develops familiar reactions. From the perspective of the writer, the end of the ones who were not “friendly with the machine” has come true, in the figure of Topal. Foresight, technical information and modernisation becomes a phenomenon pioneered by the Armenians.

As could be seen from the quotation below the reproduction and continuing of feudal values have a lot more priority for the big landowners of agriculture, which is yet to be articulated to the capitalizm. Topal’s grandfather Resul Aga establishes all his expectations from his son according to the traditions and his son (Topal’s father) exists in the history of the family as a deviation because of his wide worldly view from education to the technical knowledge. Because the last representative of the family or as the character in the novel Topal Eskici’s physical conditions show that Resul Aga’s feudal values are followed and they have been defeated by the advancements experienced. The development of capitalist agriculture relationships in Chukurova justifies the previous foresights; and actualizes it with various actors.

Resul Aga’s son’s (Topal’s father) expectations from his son (Topal) are modern. Topal’s father’s foresight, devotion to trade, interest to technology, helps even after the Armenians. Topal Eskici learns to repair the shoes from his father’s Armenian friends. In the shoemaking business, when we pay attention to the terms, we see that, besides the relationship of Armenians with the outer world, we can also understand the connections of the technology in the shoe atelier.

Topal, who had an Armenian friend (like his father), learns the shoemaking business at Dikran’s fathers shop. When we pay attention, we see that he always describes Armenians with ‘science’, innovation, technology or craftsmanship. This is not a simple reflection; because, as mentioned in the quotation above, the Armenians in the Chukurova area in the 19th century has a leadership in the communal life and have also an open side to the technological advancements.

When Topal’s leg have been cut off in Tripoli, he remembers these events that he and his family has experienced and now the conditions of the 1940’s he is living in, new economical conditions, machines and life that is changing from it’s roots...Topal tries to rise out of this weight by changing, shrinking and paying a lot more price; but it was too late. Remembering his past and the conditions of the new life, pushes Topal and the alikes to the edge of life.

It is possible to see all the signs of a process that is experienced in the life of an individual. At this stage there is no value of the sacrifices or heroism. Everybody takes their share from the evolution experienced, like many people who has been displaced and who has changed classes. But what Topal Eskici tried to do is, to spend the money that does not exist anymore and is not used in the new market, the currency has changed. There is neither the old Ottoman who sent him to the war and caused him to lose a leg, nor the previous relationships and wealth that was owned once. One of the reasons for people not to be able to accept the class-decline and be so conservative against the social life is the friskiness of the traditional memory.

What Topal has experienced since he came back from the war to Adana and afterwards is actually a short history of a community. The ones who left, the ones who changed and newly comers (migrants) are the reflection of the realities of the changing conditions, apprehensions, people’s consciousness as much as a fictional reality. Here, the loneliness of the old cobbler is far more than a physical loneliness, it is the loneliness of not being able to have a space at the social structure, not being able to help in the new economic and social relationships and not being valid-profitable. It is the loneliness of not being able to harmonize with the new occurances and regression. As an emblem of the outdated Ottoman, the cobbler symbolizes a ‘anachronism’, whose time has passed.

Another interesting point is the town-dwellers (however it was an agricultural town, Adana) had a multi-cultural life. In many of Orhan Kemal’s novels, this aspect is always emphasized. Existence of a living together as a community culture is described as a fact of the community in places other than Istanbul and other big cities. But the multi-culturality or the values of the town in the changing social life often faces a mutation because of the wars and enforced migrations. Now Topal Eskici is an ‘excess’ in the new social life. All the values that he defends without practicing, has a piece in this ‘excessiveness’. Because none of the values he defends and the feudal culture he represents has a value in this new social structure. Agriculture, industry, machine etc. the confusing advancements justifies Topal’s farseeing, ‘factory’ ambitious father. But what Topal has represented and defended with his grandfather and all the feudal and irrational values are inevitable to collapse and dissolve in the tangible Chukurova reality.

The things that left the social life of the cobbler; citizenship, feudal values and the craftsman Armenians, reinforce his being pushed aside. What is experienced is not just loneliness of being old or disabled, it is the loneliness, reduction, collapse and being consumed away which is caused by still defending the values of 50-60 years ago, while being in the process of becoming upside down in Chukurova at the end of the 1940’s. In this sense, in the spook of the 40’s, no one has an issue of remembering and valuing the communal events of ‘far’ dates like 1911-1912. And now, among the noises of the ‘factory’, no one has the possibility or necessity to hear Topal Eskici:

There is the phenomenon of ‘war riches’ at almost every era in Turkey, and it is possible to encounter it here too. From the quotes below, it is possible to see the change of social facts and parallel to that, we can see the class changes and the functioning of value criterias.

Topal Eskici leaves Adana for a while and works as a smith for tools like plough, pickaxe etc. in villages. But this doesn’t last long either. After the 2nd World War, the mechanization in agriculture brings the balances upside down and that accelerates the ‘factory’ era more which, the Gülbenkyan’s have anticipated in the 19th century. While this fact has increased the quality and quantity of the agriculture, it transforms the people, solves the old traditional land relationships

Topal Eskici leaves the smithing he did in the villages which had earned him good money at first for a short time, after the mechanization and return back to his cobbler shop. But the collapse has started once and the transformation is sweeping away all the people, jobs...that belonged to past; and Topal Eskici belongs to this people and jobs group.

The scenery has changed quite a lot in the city that he has left for a temporary time.

We can see that getting rich only works for a limited minority and where the richness reflects to. While becoming poor is always left as a fact, the way and form of earning wealth has transformed but, it did not cause a qualitative change on the poverty in Chukurova. Herein, it could be said that many factors are determinative from the relationships in the possession of land to the variety of the product.

Again, another situation that we understand from the novel is, the status that Topal Eskici had when, at the beginning he brought a know-how to the rural-village areas (at the beginning he could have a place in the social structure), after the mechanization and modernization the value he has lost. While tractor was causing deep changes in the Turkish agriculture and country life, it rolls over the old jobs and occupations like a cylinder. The occupations and people that are excessive in this operation are pushed out of the system.

Being effected in the city starts with the entering of technology in every aspect of life; but in time traditional family relationships receives its split from the modernizing outcomes. Depending on the technology being included in the production, the hold of individual family members in the extended family becomes hard and shortly, this extended family dissolves. With the determination and enforcement of the outer forces, the functioning cogwheel of the extended family starts to become stiff. This is what came true in the family of Topal Eskici. Underneath of all the behavior’s of Topal Eskici’s younger son, there is the old cobblers authority and traditional power which was not supported by the new economic values. While turning his back to production methods that considers the necessities of the technology and the market makes the cobbler firm and conservative in the sense of conservation, dialectically, it forces him to change and collapse by reducing his power within the family. In the economic sense, when the old citizens that produced with the simple hand crafts resist change, they become weak to resist the outer pressures, lose their power and go rapidly towards changing class.

Topal wants his older son to quit the shop they work together and find his own job. But since traditional and emotional ties do not change as fast as the economy, instead of saying this directly, he wants to do it in a softer way and asks his younger son to communicate this to him.

Changing technological and economical conditions changes the consumption habits and expectations of the society. The inevitable relation between reaching the tools like refrigerator, radio, pressure cooker which have already been a part of daily life and economic condition, causes especially the female members of the family to question their own status. This is what happens in Topal’s family.

The impossibility of meeting the changing economic and social necessities with small hand crafts is experienced. Family decides to go to the countryside for the second time; but this time, it is different than the first time when he left as a smith in both economic and status aspect. His status when he went for the first time as a smith is higher than the villagers and he had knowledge, but now, at his second time in the countryside, there is a development that changed place; there is a changed and different village and land. The return of the family to the countryside, who was once the owner of an immense amount of land and downgraded to handcrafts and moved to the town, is an indicator of collapse in every sense. This situation of the family who could not articulate to the new job opportunities in the town and had a loss becomes a development that accelerates the dissolving. In other words, the family that could not have the harmony to move to machine production from the handcrafts become field workers. They have to go cotton picking; they draw some advances and spend part of it. This shows that the family is in another exploitation cogwheel.

After the decision of his sons to become cotton workers, Topal Eskici accepts that the era he has been having difficulties in submitting has changed; but his traditional habits prevents him to do the necessities of the poverty. The perception of Eskici from outside is appropriate to the conditions of the period. He is only tolerated and pitied in the bar rooms. Thereafter, everything carries on as it should be.

As expected, what has accelerated the dissolving in the Eskici family is the sons who do not have a job that brings an economical yield. Despite the traditional behaviors of the father, the decision of the sons to go cotton picking arises from the necessity of their objective conditions. Earning money averts the traditional manners. Compared to their father it’s for the sons to make rational decisions, who have not experienced the wealthy times of the family. This consciousness is seen as a must of the physical conditions of life.

We see that the physical conditions experienced like mechanization, workforce move etc. averts the obligations and individual social status anxieties and the traditional behaviors can not resist this pressure of change. While in the changing agricultural conditions the enrichment rate does not move much, but only, the place where the capital accumulates moves more towards the big landowners instead of the cities. This enrichment is not something that expanded to the base or a more balanced growth, instead it is sudden growth caused by the effect of exterior conditions.

In a social relations system where the market is the determinator of the production and values, all the behaviors and attitudes are formed around it. In a not too much logical structure where the traditional values like friend, comrade, family or neighbors are concentrated, ‘profit’ or everything having an economic ‘value’ may seem far; but in Chukurova, where these events are told, what Eskici has understood so late is instead of all the traditional relationships, ‘self-interest’ has been dominating for quite a long time.

Topal Eskici’s decision of going for picking cottons with his family has been responded with a competition for his shop by the other tradesmen. Everybody was trying to take an advantage of the situation; and the race to grab Eskici’s shop and machines starts.

While all these were happening, parallel to the status of the family, the necessity of the women to adapt the hard working conditions arise. Because while an average craftsman in a traditional structure or his kids are working, the woman generally deals with the house work and the kids. With a regression and decline from this status, by becoming a field or agriculture worker, women will also be working in the same environment with men and will be in the system of exploitation.

In this sense, from Zalha’s view, the daughter of Topal Eskici, it is possible to see the change, the hopes of a collapsed family.

While the pressure of the objective conditions destroy all the values, we witness that there is still a tension between the stands and behaviors of the people. Because, going for cotton picking is seen as an opportunity to reattain the status that was lost in the city or being a field worker is perceived as a temporary job. However the physical conditions worked differently and the decline will continue until the tools of communal mechanism is possessed and there will be a transfiguration. Although the personalities, especially the cobbler is far from understanding this, the sons know everything has changed.

For the family to go for picking cotton is a “must” as the physical condition. And this is the condition that will determine everything. This obligation can be seen as the pure result of all the advancements in the family life.

In the end the family goes to the lowland for cotton picking. But now the toughness of the working conditions and life show itself harder this time. Because of many reason like the flies, the heat, the laziness, maleria and not knowing how to work on the land, the hopes of the family towards this job starts to diminish.

Topal Eskici is a representative of confusion of mind or consciousness in a rapidly changing, modernizing social structure. Against the advances, pragmatically he embraces religious values. Although he knows he cannot get a ‘benefit’ out of it, he still falls into contradictions. Instead of understanding the objective social conditions, he questions more of intangible values.

The result Topal Eskici reaches by evaluating his conditions shows a defeat in every aspect. While he is very weak in bar and wine issues, him trying to give ethical lessons of this kind clarifies his contradictions.

As expected, his family who isn’t used to agricultural work, can not manage to work properly, while trying to struggle with heat and malaria. The younger son and grandson catches maleria. His daughter gets sick. Health problems which were not accounted for appear.

Another character that needs to be mentioned here is Ünal, who is the helper on the truck. This young lad that the family met when they came to the cotton field represents the virtue of sharpness, success, being able to do everything when an individual has ‘technical knowledge’ or knows how to use a vehicle or tool that Orhan Kemal mentions at his novels. He saves the family from deaths. Ünal has all the features of the ‘technical type’. Another position that Ünal obtained in the family life is be on Topal’s side against his sons, by ‘currying’ favour with him. Therefore he causes a serious decomposition in the mechanism of the family.

Because of strong malaria attacks, the cotton-picking business is left in the middle and they return back to the city. But this short time span, causes serious fractures in the family’s, especially the cobblers consciousness; in his opinion he became conscious. As one of the most important advancement, his relationship with the ‘migrant cobbler’ starts to change. His understanding of the importance of hardship or poverty in evaluating people is the first sign, which shows that Topal started to perceive the objective conditions.

Because of the stiffness of the economic conditions, as it always happens, people attack the easily pier cable features of the ones that are “weak” like themselves, when they believe they do have enough power to defeat them, in order to show their anger or reactions and the cobbler is doing this. Because, the migrant cobbler is a tangible target right in front of him, who is relatively the weakest and powerless.

On the other hand, at the cotton picking business there is again failure. There is a family type which is ‘in between’, where it neither fully belongs to the city, nor to the countryside. The effort and work represented by the family is a fact that needs to change and does not belong to the city. It became inevitable to determine a direction towards the work forms, which are accepted by the era and the social requirements.

Later on, the events continue with the transforming power of life. Topal’s daugther marries the Truck helper Unal and his younger son marries a girl he meets at the cotton field. One by one the children of the cobbler slip off the feudal relationships that do not work anymore.

As a result, this novel shows us a very serious social disintegration, and the other face of modernisation from the start to the end, beginning with Topal Eskici’s father. Changing economic relationships, mechanization in agriculture give rise to a class of newly poor, field workers and laborers. While these are happening, everything belonging to the past, be it jobs or community values, has a deep-rooted shock, transformation and change. Therefore it seems possible for the actuality of the novel, to follow the social activity from Topal’s life and the resolution of his traditional family, in the duration from the end of the 19th century through the 1950s.