Azar Nafisi’s account of her time spent in Iran, especially surrounding the period of the 1979 Revolution, creates a vivid glance at Iran’s culture. Furthermore, by relating her life to popular literary works of Nabokov, Fitzgerald, Henry James and Jane Austen, Nafisi casts a social commentary on gender- and intellectual-based oppression faced in the revolutionary times. Thus, Azar Nafisi uses the concept of time and themes of key literary works to relate to the prevalent issues of revolutionary Iran.
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Let us begin by first considering how the organizational structure of the book strengthens Nafisi’s thesis, as stated above. Nafisi splits her memoirs (at least as the subtitle calls her accounts) into four sections. The first two sections are titled after literary works, while the latter two are titled after authors. Aside from her actual accounts of Iran, each section predominantly focuses on a specific author and the famous titles by that respective author.
Although Nafisi references numerous literary masterpieces throughout her memoirs, there are specific pieces that are prevalent throughout each section and these are the works that will be considered for the purposes of this paper. The first section is entitled “Lolita”, after Nabokov’s work, and plays into the title of the book itself. This section focuses on Lolita and Invitation to a Beheading, very fitting works of Nabokov to themes of oppression. The second section is called “Gatsby”, after Fitzgerald’s novel, and is mostly about The Great Gatsby and its focus on the American Dream. The third of Nafisi’s sections is titled “James”, after the author Henry James, and encompasses his Daisy Miller and Washington Square. Finally, the fourth section is called “Austen”, after Jane Austen, and concludes her unfinished stories while looking into the themes of Pride and Prejudice.
The general time in which each section is set is very important for expressing Nafisi’s ideas. “Lolita” is set towards the end of the author’s stay in Iran. She recounts the secret class that she set up in her home for seven of her best female students (Nafisi 12).  The middle two sections offer Nafisi’s background story to the “Lolita” section. These sections recount her first flawed marriage and going to the University of Oklahoma; upon her return to Iran and her second marriage, Nafisi was unable to properly leave Iran for eleven years due to a revolutionary atmosphere, and the changes that ensued as a result of such an environment. The time setting of “Austen”, then, returns to Nafisi’s final years in Iran, with her secret class.
This time setting of the memoirs exhibits a cyclical quality that is reminiscent of the changes in Iran and Nafisi’s personal journey. The memoirs largely emphasize how Nafisi “had a past to compare with the present…[she had] memories and images of what had been taken away”, unlike her students of the younger generation. This “past” references to times when the veil had been repealed and when the rights of women were much greater than those following the revolution. In fact, after the revolution, “the age of marriage was lowered to nineâ€¦[and women] were considered to be half the worth of men” (Nafisi 261). Clearly, gender-based discrimination was immensely seen after the revolution. Still, as stated in the epilogue, Nafisi does end up moving to the United States and some of her special female students also escape Iran, which embodies another cyclical change with the passing of time. Thus, as seen in both the Iranian law changes and in the personal journeys of Nafisi (and even some of her students), the cyclical changes are well supported by the book’s organization.
Nafisi also references specific literary pieces, whose themes coincide very nicely with her accounts of Iran. Nafisi even mentions that the purpose of her private class is to relate the readings to “personal and social experiences” of the students and herself (Nafisi 18). The first section, “Lolita”, calls into question Nabokov’s novels. Nabokov’s Lolita portrays the theme of “the confiscation of one individual’s life by another”, much like, according to Nafisi, the revolutionary regimes of Iran deprived females of many of their rights (Nafisi 33). Also relevant to their oppression is Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading, in which the victim “ultimately sees the absurd sham of his persecutors and â€¦must retreat into himself in order to survive” (Nafisi 23). This actually fits in the “Austen” section of the book, when Nafisi recounts of her final days with the special class, during which the students reflected on their commitment to and impact by Iran.
The ” Gatsby” section of the book alludes to how The Great Gatsby relates to similar themes as above. Throughout the entire section, morality is called into question. To what extent should immoral concepts be included in literature, especially if the society strives to rid itself of major sins? This issue is actually debated in a legal fashion when Nafisi has her university class debate in the style of a court of law. Although no verdict is specifically mentioned, Nafisi suggests that her class became more supportive of the book, even if most students were too afraid to speak out in fear of being reported of expressing anti-revolutionary ideals (Nafisi 135). Thus, The Great Gatsby sparked a heated debate on various ideologies that were prevalent at the time, especially in their relation to the American Dream.
The “James” used the literature of Henry James to correlate literary themes with Nafisi’s experiences in Iran. Nafisi mentions that most of her female students identified with Daisy’s character the most, from James’ Daisy Miller (Nafisi 333). This relation was mostly attributed to lacking something, courage in particular, to stand up for themselves in the face of harsh times. James furthermore showed a struggle for power in his “central character’s resistance to socially acceptable norms in [their] desire for integrity and recognition” (Nafisi 213). This was an important belief exhibited by the oppressed females of Iran at the time – especially Nafisi, who feels “irrelevant” following her return to Iran in the late 1970’s. Also, such resistance was a key purpose for the secret class that Nafisi held with the seven female students.
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The “Austen” section of the book relates Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice to the atmosphere of post-revolutionary Iran. Nafisi held a comparative study class, which examined the relationship between the “structure of Pride and Prejudice [and] an eighteenth-century dance” (Nafisi 264). Dancing can be interpreted as having a metaphorical meaning of relationships, including the relationship of an individual and the ruling regime, the relationship between males and females, and the relationship between an individual and their goals in life. Each of these relationships is expressed in the book as being important while living in Iran.
Azar Nafisi is successful in the defense of her thesis, but, in doing so, she exhibits some weaknesses in addition to the strengths. As mentioned above, one of the main strengths of the book is its organization and proper use of time. However, the emphasis on time adds to certain confusing qualities in the style of writing. The most predominant of these problematic time uses is Nafisi’s lack of quotation and separate paragraphs to express dialogue between characters of the memoirs. Thus, it is at times difficult to distinguish between narrative and dialogue. Also, such juxtaposition of dialogue within a single paragraph, as well as the abundant use of pronouns, adds to the confusion of who is speaking or being referenced. Still, this is only a minor setback for the clarity of the writing because this time reference of everything being jumbled (and running into each other) serves its purpose in the contrasting times of the revolution and the times before and after it.
Another possible issue with the novel is the fact that it is, after all, a memoir. Thus, as clear from the book, Nafisi exhibits generalizations about Iranians and certain biases. First of all, since her father is imprisoned and she has spent time in America before returning to Iran, when the revolution occurs Nafisi is critical of the revolutionary ideals. Granted, she is not the only one who opposes the revolution, her experiences prior to the revolution largely influence her future opinions of the situation. Also, and this is obvious from the main gist of the book, since Nafisi is female she is clearly against the crude treatment of women that coincides with revolutionary changes; this is further demonstrated by her attending protests against the reinstatement of the veiling of women. Nevertheless, Nafisi is highly educated and writes a valid analysis of her experiences. Finally, the most crucial yet subtle issue lies with the lack of sources to support her historical-context claims. Although she mentions using Baqer Moin’s Khomeini: Life of the Ayatollah, relying on literary works of fiction and her personal accounts is often not enough to support her generalizations of Iranians and historical analysis (Nafisi 347).
Still, Azar Nafisi writes an exquisite book. She relates the works of Nabokov, Fitzgerald, James, and Austen to the oppression of women in Iran and to her personal experiences. Furthermore, her organizational display of time works well to portray the cyclical transition experienced by the people of Iran due to the 1979 Revolution. Nafisi is a professor of English literature and is rightfully successful in defending each of her major claims in the memoirs. Through her extreme experiences, she relates the change ensuing in Iran due to the revolution.
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