Azar Nafisi's memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran, deals with the changing and increasingly oppressive conditions in Iran after the revolution and subsequent rise of Ayatollah Khomeini. When teaching this book, you might want to provide information on the history of the Iranian Revolution, how this event affected women's rights, and the Iran-Iraq War. This will help students understand society in Iran at the time and events taking place under the new regime.

Much of the memoir involves a book club that conducts literary analysis. Nafisi references many books, but focuses primarily on Lolita, The Great Gatsby, Daisy Miller, Washington Square, and Pride and Prejudice. These novels can be assigned along with the corresponding sections in the memoir; at the very least, students should be familiar with the plots and themes. This bookish aspect of Nafisi's work is a great way to introduce students to intertextuality and deeper literary analysis. Class discussion can involve Nafisi's interpretations of the works, her students' responses, and how the novels highlight other events within Nafisi's story.

Summary

Nafisi returned to Iran during the revolution in the late 1970s. As Islamic morality squads conducted arbitrary raids in Tehran and she was expelled from her teaching position at the University of Tehran for refusing to wear a head scarf, Nafisi formed a book club. In secret, she and seven dedicated female students gathered once a week to discuss forbidden Western literature. This memoir interlaces events in Iran with the personal stories of the book club members and the texts they read.

Content Warning

Reading Lolita in Tehran contains some violence and sexuality.

Objectives for Teaching
Reading Lolita in Tehran

  • Consider the role and importance of books and fiction.
  • Discuss how the books Nafisi discusses parallel her life, her students' lives, and the situation in Iran.
  • Comment on what the women's perceptions of the fictional word "upsilamba" indicate about their personalities.
  • Compare the attitudes toward the veil held by women, men, and the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
  • Explain how Nafisi and her magician cope with their irrelevance or self-imposed exile.

Key Elements and Techniques

  • Allusion
  • Ethos
  • Imagery
  • Intertextuality
  • Irony
  • Metaphor
  • Paradox
  • Personification
  • Symbol

Themes and Motifs

  • Books and Freedom — Characters dream and feel liberated while reading fiction. Literature and creativity keep people enlivened.
  • Oppression — The Islamic Republic of Iran persecutes members of the opposition and bans books and clothing deemed inappropriate.
  • The Role of Women —  After the Iranian Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini decreed that women must wear the veil. The book discusses how women are perceived and restricted by society.

Related Works

Theme of Books and Freedom

 

Theme of Oppression

 

Theme of the Role of Women

Key Facts

  • Length: 368 pages
  • Publication Date: 2003
  • Recommended Grade Band: 11 – 12

Awards

  • New York Times Bestseller
  • Book Sense Book of the Year Award for Adult Nonfiction
  • Frederic W. Ness Book Award
  • Latifeh Yarsheter Book Award

Your students will love:

  • Learning about Iran from a personal perspective
  • The idea of literature as liberating

Students may have problems with:

  • Keeping track of shifts between discussions on texts and discussions on actual people or events
  • The literary criticism within the book, which may be more in-depth than some students are expecting

More Teacher's Guides to Literature:

See all our Teacher's Guides to Literature here.