Reading Lolita in Tehran

Nafisi, Azar
Publisher:  Random House
Year Published:  2003  
Pages:  356pp   Price:  $21.00   ISBN:  0-8129-7106-X
Library of Congress Number:  PE64.N34 A3 2003   Dewey:  820.9--dc21
Resource Type:  Book
Cx Number:  CX8662

Abstract:  In the stifling moral environment of Iran in 1995, Nafisi and seven of her most dedicated female students met weekly in secret to discuss forbidden Western classics. This memoir is the account of these meetings and the lives of those who participated.

On the first page of her first chapter, Nafisi warns that works of fiction must not be belittled by trying to turn them into carbon copies of real life. She then, however, claims that if one novel were to most closely resemble the lives of those living in the Islamic Republic of Iran, it would be Nabakov's Lolita. What follows are four sections which explore the relationship between life and literature. Each section is set within its own literary context, being directly affiliated with the characters Lolita and Gatsby and authors Henry James and Jane Austen.

In the exploration of Lolita, a parallel is drawn between the solipsistic character Humbert and the Islamic regime of Iran. Humbert appropriates Lolita's self and past in the same manner as the identity and history of Iran became immaterial under the new regime. According to Nafisi, it is the concepts of "victim and jailer" which underlie the true nature of this controversial novel. When the women undertake Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, staging a mock trial, the American and Islamic dreams face each other, with Gatsby representing all that is wrong with American society. Yet Nafisi questions if Gatsby's fate is not indeed the fate of their own revolution. She then calls upon Fitzgerald's own words to highlight the similarity between the two worlds: "The burden of this novel is the loss of those illusions that give such color to the world so that you don't care whether things are true or false as long as they partake of the magical glory." In Henry James' novel Washington Square, Nafisi notes that the unlikely heroine, Catherine, learns to stand up for herself not conventionally but rather in her own unique ways subject to her circumstances - a meaningful example for women trying to define themselves in the Tehran of the time. And finally, as Nafisi is confronted with one student who passionately loathes the ideals of America, she recalls Elizabeth Bennett's extreme and constant search for criticism of Mr. Darcy in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice - a relationship which after the clarification of gross misunderstandings becomes most amiable.

Through contrast and comparison, Nafisi weaves together the lives of literary characters with the very real experiences and realities of the women in her class. Concluded with an epilogue and Reader's Guide, this work offers a revealing depiction of the liberating power of literature and asserts that resistance can thrive even under repression.

[Abstract by Theodora Millward]

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