Reading Lolita In Tehran Summary

Azar Nafisi

Reading Lolita In Tehran

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Reading Lolita In Tehran Summary

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Reading Lolita in Tehran is divided into four parts: “Lolita,” “Gatsby,” “James,” and “Austen.” It follows the life of the author as she lives in and teaches in Iran during and after the Iranian Revolution from 1978-1997. In each section, the themes from the students’ readings are linked to Nafisi’s memories of the time during the Revolution.

Early on, Nafisi is forced to leave her position at the University of Tehran because she refuses to wear the veil. Revolution and protests swirl across the country. Nafisi believes she should not have to wear the veil as she teaches, though she acquiesces to wear it in public otherwise. The wearing of the veil and headscarf remains an important thread through the book, born from the Ayatollah Khomeini’s decree that all women must adhere to the Islamic dress code. Nafisi views the headscarf as a symbol of oppression.

Nafisi makes a living as an independent writer for a little while, then submits to wearing the veil to take a position teaching literature again at the University of Allameh Tabatabei.

In “Lolita,” Nafisi resigns from the University of Allameh Tabatabei and begins teaching private literature classes to her students, Mahshid, Yassi, Mitra, Nassrin, Azin, Sanaz, and Manna. The class focuses on literature and interpreting it with and through world events. The class meets in Nafisi’s home every Thursday night. As the students work through the books they read, one of the recurring themes is a discussion of why people enjoy reading stories that are so tragic.

The section moves between times, from the beginning of the class to the end, when Nafisi is leaving. She takes two pictures of her students: one in robes, and one with the students wearing their own clothes. She notices that, without their robes, her students’ personalities pour through the photographs.

The second section, “Gatsby,” continues to jump in time. Nafisi relates the time around her early teaching appointments, designing syllabi and discussing literature with other professors while protests swirl throughout the country. Anti-American sentiment increases, but at this time, Nafisi befriends an American journalist. Her students struggle with The Great Gatsby, because its themes negotiate the American Dream, a concept that contrasts deeply with the conversation in Iran at this time.

Nafisi stages a trial in her class, with The Great Gatsby as the defendant. The activity causes a sensation on campus, and the “trial” attracts a lot attention. At this time, veiling becomes important again, and Nafisi details the other events happening as many of the professors are forced out or leave.

“James” follows “Gatsby,” and takes place as the Iran-Iraq War begins. The war surprises the people of Iran. Nafisi’s colleagues urge her to comply with new, stricter rules for women’s dress codes; she resists but eventually complies because she has little choice. The government becomes more and more repressive.

Universities begin requesting her at this time, as well, so it is not a complete loss for Nafisi. She agrees to wear a veil while teaching, but only if she can teach the material of her choice. The university receives threatening letters stating that Nafisi shouldnot be allowed to teach, which strikes her as strange because, although she deliberately wears her veil improperly, the books she teaches are not, in her view, particularly controversial.

Nafisi finds herself troubled by some of her students’ attitudes, while others happily learn from the literature they discuss. Sadly, Nafisi recounts how she and her students handled announcements of the deaths of students and faculty as the destructive war continued to take its toll.

Nafisi explores the role of feminism in Iranian culture. She also relates the horror her students experience without agency over their bodies, including being inappropriately touched by their uncles or the political use of rape.

In the final section of the book, “Austen,” Nafisi teaches Pride and Prejudice to her private class. The book encourages a discussion of empathy and blindness. In this regard, the book returns to the same themes that emerged through Lolita, and they apply pointedly to the way people are treated in Iran at this time.

As the war continues, her students make plans—some want to move, others are finding spouses. Nafisi’s friend urges her not to blame all the problems on the Islamic Republic.

The book takes part of its title from the book Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. In Lolita, a middle-aged man has a sexual relationship and becomes obsessed with a twelve-year-old, pubescent girl. Nafisi has said that Lolita represents the people of Iran, and thatLolita’s main character, Humbert Humbert, represents the ruling regime. In both instances, the powers in charge impress their fantasies upon their victims.

Reading Lolita in Tehran has generated a number of critical responses, both positive and negative. Positive responses appreciate Nafisi’s defiance of oppressive requirements and her drive to teach her students to understand their world through literature. Negative criticism focuses on the book’s potential justification of American participation in Middle Eastern affairs.