Reading Lolita in Tehran

Reading Lolita in Tehran Summary and Analysis of "Lolita" (Pages 1-79)


Part I of Reading Lolita in Tehran, called "Lolita" after Russian author Vladimir Nabokov's most famous novel, begins in 1995 when author and narrator Azar Nafisi resigns from her professorship at University of Allameh Tabatabai. Rather than backtrack to the events leading up to her resignation, Nafisi plunges readers in medias res, detailing the private class she begins to hold for select female students in her own home. After briefly alluding to the personalities of a few students, Nafisi skips multiple years down the line to when she is packing to leave Tehran. She decides to take two photos with her students: one with them wearing robes and head scarves, and one with them not. In the second photo, writes Nafisi, "each has become distinct through the color and style of her clothes, the color and the length of her hair; not even the two who are still wearing their head scarves look the same" (4). She uses this second picture as a device for introducing the students in her private class, some of the major characters from her book.

Manna wore jeans, a T-shirt, and no head scarf; she "made poetry out of things most people cast aside" (4) and had a "private nature" (4). Mahshid wore a head scarf and was dainty and sensitive "like porcelain" (4). Yassi was young, wore yellow, and acted shy, funny, spirited, and curious. Azin had blonde hair and a pink T-shirt, was "outrageous and outspoken" (4), and liked to talk about troubles she had with her husband. Mitra was a calm painter. Sanaz is described only as being pressured by her family and society. Finally, the two students missing from the photo are mentioned: Nima, Manna's husband and Nafisi's only male student, who took the photo, and Nassrin who "didn't make it to the end" (5). Nafisi then goes on to describe Nassrin in more detail than the other students, noting that in all the pictures she has of her, Nassrin poked out from behind something impishly. Nafisi decided that "she was her own definition. One can only say that Nassrin was Nassrin" (5).

The private class focused on the relation between fiction and reality in world literature, including many works of Western literature, the subject Nafisi taught at Tehran University. Nafisi challenges the reader to imagine them hiding away from the harsh politics and culture of 1980s Iran to experience life's simple pleasures: listening to music, falling in love, reading and discussing books. In other words, "reading Lolita in Tehran" (6). When the women entered Nafisi's home for class, each girl took off her robe and head scarf.

The class met every Thursday in Nafisi's living room. Nafisi describes her living room as "symbolic of [her] nomadic and borrowed life" (7), noting where certain elements came from, calling forth in the process her relationships with her mother and her husband, Bijan. Their home was an apartment on the second floor of a building; her mother inhabited the apartment on the first floor and her brother, before moving to England, occupied the apartment on the third floor.

Over the next few chapters, Nafisi describes both her and the students' actions and emotions on the first day of class and throughout their classes together. On the first day of class, Nafisi woke early but felt anticipation without tension, as she often did when preparing to teach at the University of Allameh Tabatabai. Though the university was the most liberal in Iran, regulations on females, especially female students, were very strict. Nafisi briefly reflects on why she resigned from the university, citing instances in which they told her she could not teach certain books because of their language or content. She writes that she sees her resignation and teaching of a class from her home as a retreat from reality.

Nafisi writes that she chose her students not based on their religious or ideological backgrounds, but for "the peculiar mixture of fragility and courage [she] sensed in them" (12). She describes them each again as they entered her house on the first day of class. Mahshid arrived first, followed by Manna who discussed colors and paradise with Nafisi while helping prepare tea and pastries in the kitchen. Azin and Mitra arrived, also shedding their robes, followed by Nassrin. Finally, Sanaz arrived with a screech of the car of her "obnoxious brother" (15); Nasifi notes that Sanaz's life was controlled by two men: her overprotective brother and her childhood sweetheart.

The first work that the class discussed was A Thousand and One Nights, a Persian folktale about a king who slew virgin after virgin because of his queen's betrayal but was finally halted by the storytelling of one virgin, Scheherazade. Nafisi writes that there are three kinds of women portrayed in the story, all of them victims: those who betray, those who are killed before they have the chance to betray, and Scheherazade who uses her imagination to give her the courage to risk her life. Yassi called out the word "upsilamba" (18), a word from the Nabokov story Invitation to a Beheading that Nafisi once discussed with Nassrin, Manna, Nima, Mahshid, and Yassi after a lecture she taught at the university, asking the students what they thought the word meant. Nafisi takes a break from remembering her class to discuss Invitation to a Beheading, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, and Nabokov's penchant for creating words and worlds for himself and readers to retreat into, a necessity at times when reality is too miserable to face.

Returning to the present time in which she is looking at the two photographs of her students, Nafisi points out the irony in the fact that the chief film censor in Iran until 1994 was blind and required film and TV scripts to be sent to him on audiotape, and in the fact that the following censor required the same treatment though he was not blind. She writes that her private class was a direct response to this kind of society, "an attempt to escape the gaze of the blind censor for a few hours each week" (25), creating a pocket of freedom and insubordination just like Lolita.

To describe life in Tehran at the time the private class was going on, in Chapter 8, Nafisi asks the reader to imagine they are following Sanaz as she departed from class. She had to change her entire demeanor, walk past armed militia patrolling the streets watching for women acting out of line, get on a gender-segregated bus, and get home likely to fight with her brother once again. Switching to another student, in Chapter 9, she describes her relationship with her youngest private student, Yassi, who wrote poetry, including a poem about the inability of female students to walk through the "green gate" (29), instead forced to walk through a black curtain and have their appearance and belongings checked before being let into the university. She and Yassi discussed a class that lectured about the difference between Islam and Christianity by describing Muslim girls as virgins and Christian girls as not virgins. They went out for ice cream to continue their conversation and the mood turned serious, with Yassi discussing the troubles and arrests faced by her mother, aunt, and female cousins. Yassi rebelled in her own small ways since adolescence and came to feel that she would never marry, preferring the men in her books. They discussed two of Nabokov's stories - Lolita and "The Magician's Room" - relating them both to life in Tehran. Lolita, she says, is about a person's life being confiscated by another, and through "The Magician's Room," she introduces the concept of her own "magician," an old academic man she knows in Tehran.

In Chapter 10, Nafisi further discusses her thoughts on Nabokov's Lolita, focusing on a particularly descriptive scene from the point of view of Humbert and on a scene in which he cannot differentiate a moth from a butterfly. Chapter 11 focuses on when Nafisi prepared for and took notes during and after her classes, having specifically written down particular quotes said or written by the girls. Chapters 12, 13, 14, and 15 combine these ideas, documenting class discussions of Lolita, when the girls sat in a circle with Xeroxed copies of the story because of the difficulty of accessing certain books due to censorship. While Chapter 13 focuses on the way Humbert uses increasingly vulgar language to define Lolita and the fact that she has "nowhere else to go" (44), Chapter 14 skips back and forth from class discussions to the memory of being called home from boarding school in Switzerland because her father, the youngest mayor in Tehran's history, had been jailed. He was held in jail for four years, during which the family was not sure if he would be killed or released at any moment; all but one charge - insubordination - were eventually dropped. Nafisi also discusses nightmares she and the girls all had about not being veiled, and an "illegal dream" Nima, her one private male student, had as a ten-year-old about people kissing.

A few major points arose during these drawn out scenes of classroom discussion: the question of why tragic novels bring people pleasure, the idea of novels as fairy tales completely distinct from reality and thus not governed by its rules of offense, and the crux of many great novels as "the question of doing what is right or what we want to do" (51). Mahshid spoke about her religious upbringing and judgement of adulterous women, Azin fired back about hypocrisy, Yassi asked Dr. Nafisi to command Mahshid to laugh, and Nassrin talked about the fact that she knows "what it means to be caught between tradition and change" (53), describing the story of her parents and early childhood. Chapter 16 takes a break from describing classes, instead describing her relationship with the magician, the way that she tried to get him to read the writing of her students, to meet them, and to get his approval. Chapter 17 returns to her private class, describing their conversations about Invitation to a Beheading and Madame Bovary as well as the way her students got to know her house and her family. Nafisi describes an instance in which her daughter, Negar, burst into the room crying because of a bag search and fingernail cutting carried out on female students at her school. Chapter 18, one of the briefest chapters with only two paragraphs, departs again from the class to describe the way she is surprisingly "drenched" (59) by memories at times and again reflects upon the way their classroom space departed from reality.

Chapter 19 jumps farther into the future than any previous section of the book, describing an incident in Washington D.C. during the writing of the novel itself. While reminiscing about Tehran, Nafisi notices that her children distinctly separate themselves from the people and memories of Iran, repeating "'they,' 'they over there'" (60). When she asks her children about this, they say that their memories of Iran are fading, but they do perk up to a memory from 1996. Yassi had stayed the night and two plainclothes officers showed up wishing to raid someone else's apartment by going through Nafisi's yard. Two more men in uniforms soon showed up, saying that they would also shoot at the neighbor, and they pushed their way inside while Nafisi's family worried about the fact that they had a contraband satellite dish. In the end, the man was dragged off and Nafisi, her mother, her children, Tahereh Khanoom, Yassi, and the guards had coffee together and discussed the neighbor who was taken away. This discussion repeated itself often in the coming days as they, especially Nafisi's children, relayed the story to her other students.

In Chapter 20, Nafisi continues to discuss satellite dishes, describing a conversation she had with Manna and Nima about how they wished to buy one. She describes the way in which they met at university, their courtship and attachment, and in a rare moment, she breaks the fourth wall to describe why she has given them rhyming names even though their names don't rhyme in reality. She, Manna, and Nima also discussed a professor at the University of Tehran who had a habit of putting problems of literary criticism to a vote; Manna and Nima often voted against his views. They reported that he expelled them from his class after a particularly heated debate. The couple also noted that one of his students wrote a thesis on Lolita without even reading the work or any other literary criticism on the work, writing about how Lolita ruined Humbert's life; ironically, he criticized Nabokov's young vixens while he himself courted a second wife two decades younger than himself.

In Chapter 21, the students discussed Sanaz, who hadn't come to the last class and was now late for another, perhaps due to trouble with her brother. They discussed the absurdity of fully covering women to quench men's sexual appetites. Nassrin said that she has been translating a large work by Ayatollah Khomeini, the man who took power after the success of the Iranian Revolution and who has not been mentioned frequently in Part I of the novel. During the discussion of Khomeini's work, Sanaz arrived, looking ready to burst into tears and holding a big box of pastries as an apology for missing class. She reported that the morality squad surrounded her and her friends while on a short vacation by the sea, holding them for two days in a room without the ability to call anyone. They were given "virginity tests" (73) by a gynecologist who had her students observe the procedure and then they were each given twenty-five lashes. Once home, Sanaz had to suffer further injustice in the form of her brother's and parents' victim-blaming, telling her that maybe she and her friends shouldn't have gone.

Finally, Chapter 22 talks about Nabokov's own memoir, Speak, Memory and the essays, poems, and drawings the students made regarding her prompt to describe their image of themselves. Sanaz drew a picture of a naked girl in black and white; Manna saw herself as a fog; Yassi described herself as a figment; Nassrin gives the definition of the word paradox. To finish Part I, Nafisi returns once more to Cincinnatus, the character in Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading, who dances with his jailer.


It is important to take Nafisi's "Author's Note" into account when reading Reading Lolita in Tehran. Nafisi writes that aspects of the characters and events have been changed to protect individuals from the censors and even their peers, who might seek to use the book's contents against them. She writes that she has changed and combined these characters and events to the extent that they might not even recognize themselves. It must also be noted that Nafisi says the facts of her story are "true insofar as any memory is ever truthful" (ix). Much of Nafisi's family is centered around memory and the separation of novels from reality, alongside her narrative focus on building characters and relationships. The reader must be sure to understand that this story is being written through Nafisi's eyes, memory, and narrative control.

Gender and censorship are at the forefront of this story from the first paragraph of Part I. Nafisi writes that, even in a secret class in the confines of her house, it would have been too dangerous to have females and males present at the same time. She made a conscious choice, then, to teach women, and specifically ones she saw as misfits in Iranian society, hurting and yet stubborn and courageous. However, perhaps in part through intellectual curiosity and in part through the male privilege one sees throughout the novel, Nima was able to get Nafisi to teach him the course separately. Because of this separation, Nima's relationship with Nafisi and with the literature they read are of especial interest throughout the story.

The narrative device Nafisi uses to take the reader back into her memories is looking at two pictures of her students, one where they are veiled and one in which most have taken off their body and head coverings. However, perhaps even more importantly, Nafisi notes that "not even the two who are still wearing their head scarves look the same" (4). Now that it is a choice, the women wearing head scarves have been rewarded with definition, just like their peers who have chosen to show their clothing and hair. Nafisi often uses descriptions of women's clothing and hair choices to create and underscore personalities, noting especially those who chose to wear bright clothes and nail polish under their body coverings, rebelling in their own private ways.

A moment of irony verging on satire occurs when Nafisi writes about the blind censor presiding over theater, film, and TV in Tehran over a matter of years. This man, truly near-blind, required TV scripts to be sent to him as audio so that he could make the binding decisions of what to censor. The fact that someone so unsuited to a job could control the lives of citizens through the ability to consume art and entertainment demonstrates how hierarchical and oppressive Iranian society had become. Furthermore, the person succeeding the censor in this role is written to have not been blind but to have continued practicing censorship in this way, further irony representing the continuation of the status quo.

In Chapter 10 of Part I, Nafisi makes a brief, fourth-wall-breaking aside. Nafisi writes, "I want to emphasize once more that we were not Lolita, the Ayatollah was not Humbert and this republic was not what Humbert called his princedom by the sea. Lolita was not a critique of the Islamic Republic, but it went against the grain of all totalitarian perspectives" (35). As a professor of literature, Nafisi is careful not to imply this far-fetched meaning through the novel, but only to draw links between the characters, scenarios, and themes. She is also particularly wary of people misinterpreting her story, reading assertion and drawing parallels where there are none. Though she relates the story and character of Lolita to herself and her female students, she makes the distinction that they are not one and the same, once again making the point that literature is a separate realm from reality.