Reading Lolita in Tehran

Reading Lolita in Tehran Summary and Analysis of "Austen" (Pages 257 - 339)


Part IV, "Austen," returns to the private class, opening to a scene in which the girls satirically adapted the first line of Pride and Prejudice to describe the situation in their own country and time period: "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Muslim man, regardless of his fortune, must be in want of a nine-year-old virgin wife" (257). The class had been meeting long enough that they "could easily shift from light banter to serious discussions of the novels" (258), and the girls eagerly awaited the arrival of the final student missing, Sanaz, who reportedly had a surprise for the rest of them. While they waited, the girls discussed love and marriage, and touched upon a decree by their current president, President Rafsanjani, that stated men could have up to four official wives and as many "temporary wives" (259) as they desired. Sanaz finally arrived and revealed that her boyfriend asked her to marry him in Turkey. In light of this, Nafisi details for the reader a bit of history about women's marriage rights and customs in Iran and particularly in her own family. The Iranian Revolution was different than other totalitarian revolutions in the 20th century, writes Nafisi, because it "came in the name of the past" (262), linking generations of women in interesting, complicated ways. As the girls attempted to calm Sanaz's anxieties, Nafisi is brought back to thoughts of an activity she had the students do while reading Pride and Prejudice at Allameh Tabatabai in which they danced with one another to symbolize and understand the structure, and to some extent the social context, of the novel. The students involved in this activity were surprisingly connected by it and started to dream of creating a secret group together called the "Dear Jane Society" (266). Nafisi continues to elaborate for the reader how Austen's protagonists are private individuals moving in and out of public spaces, moving backward and forward like a dance to shape the plot, being brought together and pushed apart by events.

In Chapter 4, Nafisi returns to the private class setting, with Sanaz having already left for Turkey and sending back good news. "Nowadays," writes Nafisi, "all my girls seem to want to leave Iran" (270). Nafisi noticed Azin's nails, bright red nails that were against the law, and Azin responded to her questions about them that she wore gloves to hide them, keeping them painted because it kept her happy by distracting her. She burst into tears, surprising everyone and calling them immediately forward to comfort her in their own ways. This incident reminded Nafisi that she will never know how many wounds Azin, and her other students and friends, were hiding. Besides the problems of the revolution and society, Azin had marital problems - her husband was jealous of her books and time spent in class and he often beat and verbally abused her. The girls found ways to joke and cope with the awful reality of widespread marital violence, saying it was one of the only things in their society that "knew no religion, race, or creed" (273).

In Part III, Nafisi begins to write meta-textually more frequently, and in Chapter 6, like Chapter 3, she addresses the way that she interweaves memory and dramatization, perhaps leading to overdramatization in the minds of readers. However, she protests that she is not overdramatizing; rather, life in the Islamic Republic truly was dramatic and there was even a disconnect when living in the Republic between what was said or believed and what was reality. Nafisi discusses the politics of the recent years, noting especially that some women like Sanaz and Mitra were being somewhat more daring with their scarves due to some small amount of liberalization in the government. Though "this was a period of hope" (276), the government was still warring against its own citizens, particularly those it saw as representing Western influence and decadence.

Later, Nafisi went for a walk with her magician, describing the recent events for her students. Sanaz came back from Turkey, at first elated and then, two weeks later, crying during the class break because her fiance had called to say he didn't know how he could support her or make her happy. Sanaz tried to be calm while the other girls sounded rallying cries against men. Zooming back out to Nafisi's conversation with the magician, he asked her how this related to the Islamic Republic, ranting for a while in a way that clarified something for Nafisi that she had been thinking about recently - the fact that her students did not seem to feel the "pursuit of happiness" (281) is within their rights. The magician fired back that Nafisi, for all her ranting about the separation of reality and fiction and desire for "personal and creative spaces" (282), needed to "stop nagging and focusing [her] energy on what the Islamic Republic does or says and start focusing on [her] Austen" (282). At this, Nafisi thought of how the magician warned her that by quitting the university and teaching only a secret class to a select few students, she was withdrawing even further, supposedly having already withdrawn from some people and activities. With thoughts of what she wanted to do with her class soon, she returned home as the sun went down.

Chapter 8 opens with the fact that Yassi's family has been trying to get her married; they recently sent her on a date to walk and talk with a man in the park, the family members of both following not far behind. Mischievously, Yassi at one point sped up and then stopped suddenly, causing the family members walking behind to almost bump straight into her. She looked for a sign that the random man she had been set up with found what she did humorous or even saw it at all, but he would not meet her eyes and she did not see him again. Yassi seemed to have her heart set on moving to America like her uncles, and generally being allowed to live the life her male family members have been able to. Sanaz, too, had been dating after her engagement was officially called off by the beau she went to Turkey to see. Azin encouraged them both to have some fun with this forced dating, and Nafisi reminds the reader of Azin's own situation, living in an abusive marriage that she stayed in so she could keep ownership of her daughter. Sanaz, Yassi, Mitra, Azin, and Manna all seemed to agree that moving to America or Canada was the best thing, but Mahshid argued, her eyes to the ground, that "If everybody leaves... who will help make something of this country" (286), and Nafisi mentally agreed that she and her husband have been thinking the same thing. While the girls continued to discuss America and the standards for dating and beauty there, Mahshid remained silent and Nafisi worried about the future of each girl.

Chapter 9 begins with an unattributed quote from a scene in a 1957 novel called The Big Heart by Antonov and likely familiar to Nafisi because of its use by Nabokov. The quote, about not being able to love another person because of one's overwhelming love for "the Party" (289), leads into further discussion and examples of the inseparability of the harsh reality of warring ideologies and the fiction read in Nafisi's classes at Allameh. Mr. Nahvi in particular continually approached Nafisi after class to call Austen anti-Muslim and colonialist. This same man, writes Nafisi, once reported Nassrin to the disciplinary committee, adding that once when his name came up in her private class, a surprising story came out: he had once approached Mitra with a perfumed, overwritten love letter, leading the girls to call him "the Mr. Collins of Tabatabai University" (291). Mitra told him no repeatedly, after her first rejections had only led to more letters and poetry; finally, she told him she was engaged to a distant relative, knowing that would put him off for good.

Nafisi skips an indeterminate amount of time again, telling a brief story about when Mrs. Rezvan gifted her a few of the hairclips women used to keep their headscarves in place because she used to fix Nafisi's headscarf before class. Skipping in time again, she tells the story of Mrs. Rezvan following in her footsteps on a vacation to Cyprus and the way her friend described it to her. Nafisi says that they fell out of touch for a long time as Mrs. Rezvan attempted to get her PhD in Canada, finally finding out when she moved to the States that Mrs. Rezvan had cancer. She talked to her a few times on the phone before she was too weak to do so. Around and after her death, Nafisi thought of her obsessively, regretting that the woman died "so near to reaching her goal" (295) and guilty for having the health to continue living while her colleague could not.

In 1996, writes Nafisi, Nassrin had a "metamorphosis" (295), one day coming into class without her robe and scarf, revealing a T-shirt and, for the first time, her long black hair to the other women. A few weeks later, Nassrin asked to meet with Nafisi and over ice cream and coffee Nassrin revealed that she had a boyfriend. Nafisi laments that her young cousin knew more of love than she and that in general a woman in Tehran may be well-educated in literature but still know nothing real of love. Nafisi comforted Nassrin, telling her about her own inexperience going into her first marriage, and Nassrin invited Nafisi and her family to see her boyfriend Ramin's students in a concert. Nafisi convinced Bijan to go and when they got there the audience was packed. Before the concert, they were reminded harshly to behave like good Muslims, especially the women in the audience. Nassrin criticized the concert, which she found not particularly impressive and discolored by the ideology in the air, saying that "Nabokov would have had nothing to do with [it]" (301).

One day, Nafisi grumpily brought up menopause to Bijan, who said he was not interested. Nafisi uses this encounter to segue into her memory of the last class session she held with the students in her private class, where they discussed the girls' mothers and the trials of womanhood, especially menopause. Nafisi writes that she had the eye-opening experience of learning that almost all of her students viewed love and sex as entirely separate: love was good and sex was not good. Others said that sex was not important in a relationship and that sexual satisfaction never mattered to them. Back in her kitchen with Bijan, after she accidentally cut her finger and had him get her a band-aid for her and some vodka for himself, she thought that their culture was not pure from sex but rather so involved with it that it needed to "suppress [it] violently" (304). In Chapter 14, Nafisi turns to an analysis of Pride and Prejudice, pausing momentarily on Charlotte Bronte's dislike for Jane Austen and addressing some of Bronte's claims that Austen's stories are common and unexciting.

Skipping to an unknown time, in Chapter 15 Nafisi describes a party scene: a terrace in a garden, alcohol, and a story about friends that took the bus to a conference in Armenia and were almost murdered, which the people at the party seemed to take very lightly. Not long after, a friend called Nafisi to ask if she could take care of their son and alert the BBC that they were being forced to leave Tehran. As Nafisi writes, "this incident was preceded by many others" (309), detailing continued attacks on Westerners and Westernized people in Iran even while Western intellectuals were being invited to Iran throughout the 90s as a kind of cultural outreach.

In Chapter 16, Nafisi's magician invited her to a coffee shop, saying he had a surprise. He had found her an English edition of A Thousand and One Nights. He also gave her a copy of an Auden poem, and they discussed some events from Nafisi's recent private class discussion. Suddenly, as they discussed literature, there was a commotion - a raid. The waiter suggested that if Nafisi and her magician were not related, they should move to different tables to avoid having to explain what they were doing together. Nafisi told him that they would not move, but her magician called her foolish for inviting a scene; she tried to give him back his present in retaliation but he told her to keep it. She went home angrily, ate more ice cream, and threw up all night.

Chapter 17 is short, beginning with another unattributed quote, this time the Auden poem given to Nafisi by her magician, a poem about Jane Austen. Citing so much hardship in the world, especially young women being raped, killed, betrayed, Manna asked "What about Austen?" (314). Briefly, Nafisi tried to answer this question, looking to Austen's heroines and coming to the conclusion that people survive all of this hardship in the world "through love and imagination" (315).

As when she announced the beginning and end of the Iraq-Iran War, Nafisi writes that the decision to leave Iran for America came out of the blue, casually even. Bijan and she began to have serious fights, and he realized how badly she wanted to leave. Putting his personal allegiance to Iran aside, he decided that they should leave for a few years. Nafisi never really discussed leaving with her private class or her family, causing everyone to act normal but brood with tension. Nafisi says that her magician encouraged her to leave, playing the role of "patient stone" (317) to others by absorbing their anxieties so they did not reach her. He saw, she says, the way her attachment to her private class and students was making her more detached from Iran. At his house one night, Nafisi, the magician, and Reza talked of Mohammad Khatami and the political posters she recently saw. During the course of this typical conversation, debating criticisms about the government, the magician revealed to Nafisi that he did not want to be in contact with her after she left: "Call it self-defense or cowardice; I don't want to be in touch with those of my friends who are lucky enough to leave" (319).

One day, Nassrin visited Nafisi to talk to her again in private. She said that she was going to London to live with her sister and, at Nafisi's questioning about her boyfriend, paled and said that she was done with him. Her father said she was on her own, though he agreed to pay for part of the trip, and her sister called it her "rescue operation" (321). They talked about the trip a little, and then circled back to the subject of Ramin. At Nafisi's gentle prodding, Nassrin said that Ramin was "no better than the others" (322), saying that though he was well-read and respectful, he clearly wanted to have sex with other people though he was too much of a coward to do so. "He stared at women in the way... in the way my uncle touched me" (323), she painfully explained. Nassrin asked Nafisi to tell the class that she wouldn't be coming back, and Nafisi fulfilled her wish. The girls were curious and generally kept a light attitude in the way they always attempted to do in the face of adversity, but Manna's tone was dark: "Nassrin has gotten the message from Dr. Nafisi... That we should all leave" (324). The girls argued about this, as did Nafisi, but Manna soon admitted that the reason she thought this was to convince herself that it was okay for others to leave since she too wanted to leave if possible. The conversation turned after that to all of their anxieties for Nassrin and themselves. Mitra expressed discontent with the fact that at the Damascus airport, people from Iran were separated into a special line to be searched thoroughly "like criminals" (326). Again and again, Mahshid was the only one who voiced a moral obligation or allegiance to Iran. Mahshid finally lashed out in a way unusual for her, making clear that though she was devout, that did not mean she was not sad or scared; she clung to her religion exactly because she was scared of the way things were in their lives. At the end of their meeting, Mahshid stayed behind to give Nafisi something from Nassrin - a folder with perfectly transcribed notes from all of Nafisi's last three semesters at Allameh and, the only personal touch, a note reading, "I still owe you a paper on Gatsby" (328).

Chapter 22 starts off boldly: "Living in the Islamic Republic is like having sex with a man you loathe" (329). She explained this to Bijan one night, describing the way both rape and living in the Islamic Republic forced one to forfeit one's body and escape into one's mind. Reflecting that she and Bijan had become surprisingly closer after their period of fights and silences, she writes about telling Bijan the events of her class that evening. She told him that going away wouldn't take away the memories and "stain" (330) of Iran, but he responded that she was always worried about the effect of others on her while forgetting that she had an impact on them as well. Some weeks after this conversation, Nafisi was in a coffee shop when she recognized a former student, Miss Ruhi. They talked about her classes, specifically about Wuthering Heights, and Nafisi recalled how Miss Ruhi once followed her after class to passionately rant about the immorality of the characters in the book. They talked also about Daisy Miller and Miss Ruhi admitted that she called her own eleven-month-old daughter Daisy secretly. Another day, Nafisi went to a coffee shop to meet her students. The girls talked about their lives like usual, though Mitra is described as having acted "subdued" (334); they were especially excited that Manna and Azin brought their cameras, and they took a picture of their waiter while he wasn't looking as part of their collective desire to document their last times together. At the end of the encounter, Manna predicted Nafisi's fortune from her coffee cup, predicting good news, agitation, a road that looks bright and a road that looks dark, a problem to be solved, no money, and "a small ship that is still in the harbor and has not yet started to set sail" (337).

In Chapter 25, the second to last, Nafisi writes meta-textually, explicitly crafting a scene in which she visited her magician, had him go to the kitchen to bring out tea and chocolates, and talked to him about her idea to write Reading Lolita. Chapter 26, however, seems more grounded in reality, and is mostly made up of a two-paragraph quote supposedly lifted directly from Nafisi's journal after her last meeting with the magician in 1997. The book ends quickly and with surprising hope: "I went about my way rejoicing, thinking how wonderful it is to be a woman and a writer at the end of the twentieth century" (339).


Nafisi clearly states her view on fiction and reality in the story - they are mutually exclusive, and though reading and discussing literature can reveal the complexities of life, reading is perhaps always a means of escape from reality. However, questions that Nafisi does not and perhaps cannot give a precise view on are whether one should retreat into this fantasy, and how far this escapism should go. At one point, Nafisi's magician scolded her, telling her that she should be more like Jane Austen, ignoring politics since it limits her ability to work and imagine: "You keep talking about democratic spaces, about the need for personal and creative spaces. Well, go and create them, woman! Stop nagging and focusing your energy on what the Islamic Republic does or says and start focusing on your Austen" (282). This quote is complex, as it feels at once authentically motivating and quite patronizing, likely because of the use of the word "woman" to address Nafisi emphatically and the parallel of this flippancy to Mr. Bahri's treatment of the veil as "a piece of cloth" (165). In any case, the magician seems to have argued for further retreat into fantasy, which might be expected from his relative reclusiveness, but as Nafisi did not take his advice, she probably does not believe a further retreat into fantasy is a solution.

In Part IV, Nafisi gives a nod to "intersectionality" when she and her students discuss domestic violence, particularly the situation of her student Azin. Nafisi writes almost playfully, mirroring the light conversation the women have about the unfair legal system. "In our case, the law really was blind; in its mistreatment of women, it knew no religion, race, or creed" (273). While this sentiment demonstrates that Nafisi felt women's issues trumped all other divisions within Iran at this time, this idea must be approached with caution. Throughout the story, Nafisi presents situations of female friendship and understanding tempered by scenes of arguments and, importantly, significant silences. In some cases this is literal silence, while in other cases, women refuse to make eye contact or recognize one another in a crowd. In these cases, it seems that differences, especially religion, played a role in separating women, and it is extremely likely that factors like religion, race, and socioeconomic status influenced the prevalence with which women faced discrimination and bodily harm.

A delicate topic that comes more and more into question in Part IV is the relationship between Nafisi and her magician. This special nickname, her desire for approval, their frequent meetings and gift exchanges, and Nafisi's concurrent marital problems point to a romantic relationship between the two. However, Nafisi makes a point never to directly address this question - never describing moments more intimate than heated conversations. A key moment for readers in understanding this relationship is when guards raided a coffee shop where Nafisi and her magician were meeting and a waiter told them that if they were not related, they should move to separate tables so as not to incite scandal. Nafisi wished to protest this by staying at the same table, while the magician saw this as childish and moved. They both left this encounter disgruntled, and at home Nafisi ate ice cream and then threw up all night, demonstrating her oscillating emotional state in response to this direct confrontation of the bounds of their relationship.

Paralleling Nafisi's unceremonious departure from Iran, told blithely to students and family and treated with only an undercurrent of tension until the end, the memoir lacks a discernible climax, except for Nafisi's decision to leave Iran and idea to write the book itself. In the falling action, Nafisi continued to do the things that she did best: talk with her students about literature and love, argue with her magician about the same, and take up collecting as a coping mechanism (this time photos, likely leading to the photos examined at the beginning of the memoir). She showed little qualm with leaving her life and family behind once her mind was made up, revealing to the reader, her students, and even her husband himself that she was willing to leave everyone behind to get out of the country. However, it is clear from her memoir that she needed the space of a book to explore her thoughts, feelings, and memories through writing, meaning she couldn't have truly been so blithe internally at the time.

Her self-discovery of wanting to write a memoir about her experiences is interesting in itself. Nafisi writes that she said to her magician, at least in the scene she created with him, "that I wanted to write a book in which I would thank the Islamic Republic for all the things it had taught me--to love Austen and James and ice cream and freedom" (338). It seems unexpected that Nafisi, after all her criticism and detailing of the air strikes and expulsions and rapes, would say that her memoir was written to thank the Islamic Republic, but if so, it is important that she says so explicitly. With that complex idea on the table, the reader is forced to look further into her justification - that she could not have learned to understand and love the things she does without this hardship.