Reading Lolita in Tehran

Reading Lolita in Tehran Themes

Women and Gender

As a final note on a discussion with her private students about domestic violence and divorce options for women, Nafisi writes, "In our case, the law really was blind; in its mistreatment of women, it knew no religion, race, or creed" (273). Reading Lolita in Tehran focuses on the experience of women before, during, and after the Iranian Revolution, and as in this quote, often shows that regardless of education, religion, or social status, all women were negatively affected by the laws on veiling and meeting with men outside one's family, in addition to the the attacks and university closures. Nafisi fought against veiling at two universities, leading to her eventual expulsion from both, and many of her students placed themselves in the line of danger by attending protests and violating rules in small ways. Veiling should be seen not only as a religious and political issue in itself, but as a representation of the confining laws enforced upon women's bodies and identities.


In her author's note, Nafisi writes, "The fact in this story are true insofar as any memory is ever truthful..." (ix). This sentiment, that Nafisi writes from memory rather than promising to tell the exact truth, is important to the story, as Nafisi gives herself room for the same imagination and creativity she lauds in fiction. Nafisi's most intricate moments of imagery and metaphor are often written to represent the way memories from Tehran still crowd Nafisi's head and suddenly wash over her at times in her later life in America. It is useful to note that the word "memoir," as in "A Memoir in Books" comes from the Latin memoria, originally meaning memory and then a written account of a person's life. Nafisi takes this more literally than most, explicitly interweaving memories from different times in her life, narration, literary analysis, and direct notes about things she has created or changed in the presentation of her memories.


“Do not, under any circumstances, belittle a work of fiction by trying to turn it into a carbon copy of real life; what we search for in fiction is not so much reality but the epiphany of truth.” (Nafisi, 3)

“It is only through literature that one can put oneself in someone else’s shoes and understand the other’s different and contradictory sides and refrain from becoming too ruthless. Outside the sphere of literature only one aspect of individuals is revealed. But if you understand their different dimensions you cannot easily murder them..." (Student, 118)

Reading Lolita in Tehran functions as a treatise as much on the reading and study of literature as life in Tehran. With the Iranian Revolution as a backdrop and catalyst, Nafisi explores how literature is wielded erroneously as a representation of or guide for reality, but can nevertheless lead to real-world understanding, empathy, and truth. For example, Nafisi let her students hold a trial for The Great Gatsby, which many of her students saw as corrupt and espousing the Western culture of decadence and adultery. Though Nafisi makes her own view clear that a work of fiction allows you to depart from reality and perhaps learn more about the complexities of social and emotional issues, she was intrigued that some students (especially devout Muslim males) pursue da vendetta against this work of literature, at times even doing so without reading the work itself.


As the story centers around the Islamic Revolution in Tehran, religion is crucial to understanding the story. However, Nafisi focuses little on the religious explanations for the laws and movements, not even once describing a scene of prayer or true religious discussion, and instead emphasizes the social and political ramifications of these religious and cultural beliefs. Often, Nafisi's devout Muslim male students had problems with the literature she discussed in class, though some female students also approached her with their issues. However, as Mahshid explained late in the book, many people, especially women, clung to religion as a means to survive the very conflict caused by it, relying on the idea of a higher power to explain, justify, and protect them from the current situation.

America and the West

America, the West, and especially the spread of Westernization are key ideas in Reading Lolita in Tehran, as Westernization was a major force against which the Islamic Revolution pushed. The key symbol of America and the West in the memoir is The Great Gatsby, which Nafisi taught in her class at University of Tehran, leading students to confront her about the morals in the book surrounding Western decadence and adultery. Nafisi argues back that fiction does not attempt to represent or inform reality, but rather allows a space for readers to work through complex issues, so she offered students the chance to put The Great Gatsby on trial in class, effectively putting the West itself on trial. Nafisi must also deal with her own feelings about Iran versus America, and especially being Iranian in America, when she writes about her memories of living in America in her early 20s (when she was a member of an Iranian student group at a university) and her sudden decision to move her family out of Iran and to America in 1997, where they have lived ever since.


Like religion, politics shapes Nafisi's novel but rarely as its main focus. However, more than religion, Nafisi writes about political meetings and demonstrations, and sometimes even states her political views outright. Though it is impossible to read the novel fully without understanding the political climate and progression before, during, and after the Iranian Revolution, Nafisi obscures the logic and timeline of this progression by skipping around in time throughout the novel and focusing on the social impact of political leaders and decisions. This narrative choice allows the reader to juxtapose different issues surrounding the Iranian Revolution, focus on the experience of political changes rather than the leaders and changes themselves, and experience a sense of anxiety and confusion that helps create the emotional landscape of the story itself.


Nafisi will often directly command the reader to imagine certain things as a way to help the reader connect with memories and emotions and perhaps signal that there is no way for the reader to truly experience them. For example, "How can I create this other world outside the room? I have no choice but to appeal once again to your imagination" (26). The fact that she does so underscores that in writing a memoir, she is writing a story that is part non-fiction and part fiction, allowing herself room as author and narrator to craft characters, images, and symbols that allow one to best imagine and understand. Nafisi's magician encourages her to do this, telling her to be more like Jane Austen and ignore 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). The authentic motivation of this quote mixed with patronizing flippancy reveals the question of imagination through reading and writing the book - is retreat from reality through fiction a solution to the pain of life?