Reading Lolita in Tehran

Reading Lolita in Tehran Symbols, Allegory and Motifs

A Thousand and One Nights (Symbol)

The many books mentioned in Nafisi's memoir are all important symbolically, since Nafisi uses them as launching points for stories and analyses of her memories of Tehran. One of the most important, especially notable as it appears at the beginning and end of the book (though it does not get its own section of the book for analysis), is A Thousand and One Nights. A Thousand and One Nights is a Persian folktale about a king who slew virgin after virgin because of his queen's betrayal but is 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. While it is important to remember Nafisi is never trying to directly equate the fictional texts she discusses and the reality of her life in Iran - writing, "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" (35) - Nafisi's introduction of A Thousand and One Nights as the first book read together by her private class and one of the last gifts given to her by her magician make it an important symbol of the importance of women using their intelligence and imagination to save themselves, perhaps even representing Nafisi's personal feeling on why she created the secret class and eventual decision that she needed to leave Iran altogether.

The Green Gate (Symbol)

Nafisi notes that one of her strongest memories of working at Allameh Tabatabai is the green gate one walked through to get into the university. However, by the time Nafisi began to contemplate leaving the university, the green gate was closed to all female students. Instead, they were required to walk through a small, curtain-covered opening nearby and have their appearance and belongings checked completely before they were able to enter the university. These separate entrances symbolize the gender-segregation and differing treatment of females in Iran at the time. As Nafisi writes, Yassi, the young poet, wrote about the green gate in her poems as "a magical entrance into the forbidden world of all the ordinary things she had been denied in life" (29).

Names (Motif)

Names are incredibly important for understanding Nafisi's memoir because in her author's note and throughout the book she informs the reader that she has changed people's names. Her decision to change people's names helps her protect her friends politically and socially, and also allows her the same freedom many fiction writers have in naming people in ways that allude to their character traits or relationships. For example, Nafisi writes about Nabokov naming his young heroine "Dolores," which means pain or sorrow, but her captor Humbert never calls her by this directly. Similarly, Nafisi writes that she rhymes Manna and Nima's names to demonstrate their closeness. In one instance, Nafisi implies interestingly that characters might not want to be renamed, but she wields that power over them anyway, as participants in her memories: "I have forgetting their names and they will have to endure the unpleasantness of being renamed" (192). Perhaps Nafisi's most important use of names is "her magician" or "Professor R"; this character, a quite important one to Nafisi, receives two special names, one serving as a stand in for his actual name (Professor R), while the other (her magician) representing how Nafisi perceived him and their relationship.

The Chair (Symbol)

When Nafisi has trouble getting her students to understand a work of Henry James, Mina, the James scholar, encouraged Nafisi to try a certain metaphorical exercise in class. This exercise was to place a chair at the front of the classroom, situate students in different places in the room, and have the students describe what the chair looks like. The chair symbolizes all works of literature and perhaps all people one comes into contact with; one must understand that the interpretation of this work or person comes from one's own perspective and does not change the nature of the chair or necessarily mean others will see it the same way.

Collecting and Compulsions (Motif)

Some of the most memorable scenes in the novel are those in which the anxiety of revolution and war drove Nafisi to odd compulsions and extremes. For example, Nafisi collected pictures and news stories of martyrs, binged with her friend Laleh as a coping mechanism for the changes and expulsions being made at the university (163), and seemed almost manic on a trip to an English bookstore (166). This tendency to obsess and hoard provides a window into Nafisi's overwhelming anxiety, her facade of normalcy breaking during these moments and compelling her to attempt to supply her body and mind with sustenance while she could.