What does literature represent in the novel Reading Lolita in Tehran? How do Nafisi's students' experiences in Iran shape their interpretation of Nabakov's novel Lolita?

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Literature seems to represent a mirror by which Nafisi and her students aim to  reconcile their revolutionary ideas with the draconian intolerance of the Ayatollahs. Nafisi's book is divided into four main literary sections: Lolita, Gatsby, Henry James, and Jane Austen. The section on Lolita especially deals with how Iranian women can glean wisdom from the work to analyze and determine their personal paths in the light of feminine marginalization by the fundamentalist regime.

In reading Lolita with her seven female students, Nafisi finds parallels between Nabokov's girl protagonist and Iran's state of collective helplessness. Inherent in the national consciousness of Iran is the struggle to define a people's identity apart from westernized ideas of freedom and rule of law. Despite this, Iran finds herself having to choose between the Shah of Iran's oppressive secular regime and the new repressive Islamic caliphate championed by the Ayatollahs. Either way, Nafisi's personal experiences as both student and teacher cement her belief that the Ayatollahs have conjured up an Iranian society based on their imagination and religious fervor, effectively destroying the uniqueness of Iranian culture and heritage. Women are relegated to chattels with no more say in their fates than children. The age of marriage is lowered from eighteen years of age to nine for female children. Temporary marriages are instituted so that men will never know a moment of 'anguished' sexual deprivation.

Religious police routinely patrol the streets to check that both women and girls are veiled properly, do not wear make-up, and are dressed in the obligatory chador. Nafisi tells us that female students are not allowed to enter through the green gates of the University of Allameh Tabatabai. Instead, they must venture through a smaller opening next to the gate. There, the female students are checked to make certain that their attire is in line with proper Sharia Law ordinances regarding the dress of women.

Nabokov's Lolita is a sensual girl likewise fashioned by a perverted older lover, Humbert, who insists that his Lolita become the nymphet of his dreams. Humbert forbids the pre-pubescent girl to play with other children, to have any boyfriends, and in short, to have any active social life apart from him. He coils her in an emotional prison where he is the judge, jailer, and emancipator; however, both his solutions to her happiness and her survival are fashioned out of his perverted and sexually deviant needs.

Even though Nafisi parallels the tendency of both Humbert and the Ayatollahs to fashion their female captors in the image of their solipsistic imaginations, she insists 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 critic of the Islamic republic, but it went against the grain of all totalitarian perspectives...

Nafisi's students refuse to be women with no 'form, no consciousness;' indeed, the action of holding stealthy meetings to read forbidden Western works of literature is in itself an attempt to articulate their own story. While Nabokov's Lolita never had a chance to express her own individuality, Nafisi's students will learn from Lolita. Thus, because of their experiences, their appreciation and reading of Lolita becomes an 'affirmation of life,' an 'essential defiance,' and 'an act of insubordination against the betrayals, horrors, and infidelities of life.' Having experienced the horrific betrayal of the Ayatollahs against Iranian women, Nafisi and her students will not let Nabokov's Lolita fail to empower them in their resolution to exist as sexually and politically viable rebels, something the hapless Lolita was never able to do.

Read the study guide:
Reading Lolita in Tehran

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