GradeSaver (TM) ClassicNotes: Persepolis The Story of a Childhood Study Guide

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood Themes

by Marjane Satrapi

Major Themes

The Graphic Novel

The medium of storytelling is as important as the story itself in a graphic novel. By using frames of drawing with minimal text, the graphic novel calls on the reader to enter into a different kind of textual interpretation. A reader must read the captions of the frames and interpret this text within the context of the paneled art. Artistic style becomes as important as text for relaying narrative to the reader.

Persepolis brings a particular graphic style to the autobiographical narrative. Satrapi draws in a minimalist style: black and white, often only six to eight panels on a page. This style is meant to represent a childlike understanding of the world since the novel follows Satrapi's own childhood. The black and white symbolizes both the past and how the Islamic revolution left Iran devoid of its rich colorful cultural history. The medium of the graphic novel is also important here because iconic representations of Islam are forbidden by the Islamic regime. The novel is, thus, a form of protest as well as art.

Tension between Past and Present

Throughout the novel, Marjane feels a tension between the great and glorious past of the Persian Empire and the violence and problems of modern Iran. In the novel's opening chapters, she identifies herself with the great prophets of the past dating back to Zarathustra. She imagines herself as a symbol of love and tolerance. When the Iran-Iraq War begins, she vehemently defends it as a just cause and relates it to a 1400-year conflict that has been waged between the Arabs and the Persians.

This unwavering belief in the past is put in tension with the novel's present day political intolerance and religious fundamentalism. Marjane's pride in her history is in direct conflict with the imprisonment of political revolutionaries and, later, the execution of those that speak out against the strict cultural demands of the Islamic regime. Marjane's journey through the novel is an exploration of how one can love one's past while denouncing its present condition.

Bildungsroman

The bildungsroman is a genre of literature in which the protagonist undergoes a process of intense moral growth and self-actualization. For a work to be considered a bildungsroman, the protagonist must progress from childhood to adulthood, leave home to undergo a journey, and develop a more mature understanding of his or her self.

Satrapi's novel, especially if considered in the larger context of the second volume of the series, falls into all of these categories. Marjane begins Persepolis as a child and by the end of the novel declares her independence from her mother and father through the ritual of smoking a cigarette. Marjane's parents force her to leave her war torn home for her safety and this begins her journey. Throughout the novel Marjane must reconcile her own beliefs and understanding of the world with the strict cultural rules of the Islamic regime.

Class Conflict

Class conflict is an underlying tension throughout the novel. At the beginning, Marjane cannot quite grasp how her father can drive a Cadillac and her family can have a maid while also preaching the virtues of class-consciousness and equality. Iran's history is seen as a history of both great wealth and great poverty. The 1979 Revolution is characterized by Satrapi as largely a Marxist revolution undertaken by the urban cultural elites on behalf of the impoverished people of Iran's countryside.

This conflict is more clearly seen in the chapter "The Letter." In this chapter, Marjane's maid is forced to abandon her love for a neighbor. They cannot be together, Mr. Satrapi tells his daughter, because their social classes are not supposed to marry. Marjane sees a great injustice in this belief because, at the same time, her parents march in the streets for a Marxist revolution in the nation.

Modernity vs. Fundamentalism

The inability of the Marxist and Socialist revolutionaries to gain political power after the 1979 Revolution causes a great strain for families such as the Satrapis. These families see themselves as modern people. They hold Western political and social beliefs. This is not just seen in the kinds of Western material things that Marjane and her family seek out -- things like rock posters, jean jackets, hamburgers, and Cadillacs. It is also seen in the social values that they hold -- a belief in the rights of women, liberal education, and human rights.

Religious and ideological fundamentalism is portrayed as a hindrance to the development of Iran. This fundamentalism represses its people. It not only takes away the material things that the people enjoy but it also takes away their identity and dignity. According to the author in the book's introduction, one of the chief reasons for writing Persepolis is to show the perspective of a modern Iran persecuted and punished by a few "extremists."

The Abandonment of Faith

Much of the novel's first half is a recounting of the author's loss of naivety and faith. As a child, Marjane sees herself as a prophet in the line of Zarathustra, Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed. Her imaginary friend is her vision of God as an old man with a long flowing beard. In these scenes from childhood, God encourages Marjane to become a prophet and to stand up for love and justice.

As Marjane begins to confront the political and social realities of her world, the reader sees her slowly detaching from her faith. As she hears stories of political imprisonment and torture, she finds that God no longer gives her comfort. As the Islamic regime comes into power, she feels that she cannot defend a faith represented by such fundamentalism. The imprisonment and execution of her Uncle Anoosh causes a break in her faith and she describes herself as lost and alone in the universe.

The Relationship between Parents and Children

Throughout the novel, Satrapi uses her own relationship with her parents as a metaphor for her relationship with her country and the wider world. The conflict and love she experiences with her parents is a necessary part of her growth as a person. Her relationship with her mother and father is both tender and full of tension. Her parents love her and seek to provide her with the best in education and upbringing. They hope to provide her with a life full of privileges.

At the same time, however, Marjane feels a great tension between her parents' political views and their actions. Their belief in equality and liberation for the working classes conflicts with the privilege that they hold and seek in society. On one occasion, Marjane compares her mother to the Guardians of the Revolution, the secret police force of the Islamic regime. The end of the novel is a representation of the eventual break that all children must have with those that raise them. In Marjane's case, she also breaks with the country and culture that raised her.

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