Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood Summary and Analysis

"The Water Cell," "Persepolis," and "The Letter"

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Summary

The Water Cell

An angry mob gathers in the street. They are shouting “Down with the King!” Marjane’s parents are a part of the mob. The police shoot at the mob and the mob throws stones at the police. At the end of every day, Marjane’s parents return from the demonstrations with aches and pains in their bodies. Marjane asks her parents to play the game Monopoly with her but they laugh. In defiance, she tells her parents, “I love the King, he was chosen by God.” She tells them that her teacher, as well as God himself told her this. In addition, she says, it is written in the front of their schoolbooks.

Her father then tells her the story of how the King came to power. He tells her that Reza Shah, the father of the current King, had been a soldier who had helped organize an army to overthrow the Emperor of Persia and install a republic. Her father’s history is a flashback to Reza Shah’s rise to power: Reza Shah and his conspirators sit around a campfire and plot their attack. Reza declares, “If it is God’s will, we will reach the capital in 19 days.” One of his co-conspirators thinks, “And even if [God] isn’t, what can stop us?”

Marjane’s father tells her that during this time there had been great movements all over the world to install republics; Gandhi had advocated for peace to overthrow the British in India, Ataturk had declared that Turkey should be a Western nation. Reza Shah had wanted to follow these men’s example but he had not been a lawyer like Gandhi or a great General like Ataturk. Instead, he had been “an illiterate low-ranking officer.”

He tells her that the British had learned of Reza Shah’s desire to overthrow the Persian emperor and had decided, because of Persia’s great wealth of oil, that they would help him. They had approached Reza and told him that he could be Emperor, a political situation that would be much better for him personally. The British had dissuaded Reza Shah from starting a republic because, as they said to him, “The religious leaders are against it...a vast country like yours needs a holy symbol.” Reza Shah had asked what he needed to do and the British tell him that he must give them the oil when he becomes Emperor and that they would do everything else.

Marjane wonders if God had helped Reza Shah nevertheless. Her father then tells her that her grandfather had once been a prince, a son of the Emperor. Marjane imagines a fantasy in which her grandfather, as a young man, rides an elephant with symbols of royalty – castles, the sun, a lion with a sword – all around him. When the Shah had come to power, he had taken everything of her grandfather’s. Then, because her grandfather had been an educated man, the Shah had made him Prime Minister. Her grandfather had begun to read Marx and to meet Bolshevik intellectuals. These Bolshevik’s had persuaded him of the political fraud of the new Persia and he had become a Communist, disgusted that “people are condemned to a bleak future by their social class.”

Her mother then comes in and tells how her grandfather had been imprisoned for his political beliefs. When her mother had been a girl, soldiers had often come and taken her grandfather to prison where “sometimes they put him in a cell filled with water for hours.” Her mother had sometimes visited him, but his health had deteriorated quickly. He had had rheumatism and suffered in pain. Ending the story, her father asks her if she would like to play Monopoly now. Marjane tells him that she only wants to take a long bath. She sits in the tub with God beside her, trying to understand what it was like to be in a water cell. When she gets out of the tub, her hands are wrinkled, just as her grandfather’s hands had been in the water cell.

Persepolis

After school one day, Marjane returns home and finds her grandmother visiting. She asks her grandmother about her grandfather and about his arrests. Her grandmother does not want to talk about him and instead tells her about the poverty she and her family had had to endure. Sometimes, she says, she had simply boiled water on the stove so that the neighbors would not know that they had nothing to eat.

Her grandmother tells her that Reza Shah had been very harsh, but that his son had been “ten times worse.” Every king since the dawn of time has kept their promises to the people, but the Shah had not. He had spent his time throwing celebrations of the past dynasties of Persia. He had visited the tomb of Cyrus the Great and bowed before the headstone while the giant man lied in the ground under him. The people, however, did not care about any of these celebrations. Now, her grandmother tells her, there is a revolution.

When they go to the kitchen to eat, they learn that Marjane’s father has not come home. He had left to take pictures of the demonstrations, something that is strictly forbidden. They wait and worry for hours. Finally, he returns and they all tell him that they thought he was dead. He tells them that he saw something incredible. He had gone to the hospital to take pictures and he had seen a great crowd carrying out the body of a young revolutionary. The crowd had called him a martyr. Then, an old man being carried out on a stretcher had also been picked up by the crowd. They had called this old man a martyr. The old man’s widow had stopped them, telling the crowd that he was not a martyr but that he had died of cancer. The crowd had told her that it is okay and that he can be a martyr anyway. The old woman had then joined in their chants: “The King is a Killer!”

Marjane’s parents and grandmother start to laugh at this story. Her grandmother says, “If I die now at least I will be a martyr!! Grandma Martyr!” Marjane does not understand why they would be laughing at a story about an old man dying of cancer. She decides to find out what she is missing and begins reading a book entitled The Reasons for the Revolution.

The Letter

Marjane reads constantly of the reasons for the revolution. Her favorite author is a Kurd named Ali Ashraf Darvishian, “a kind of local Charles Dickens.” Darvishian writes stories of children that have been forced into hard labor. Because of these stories, Marjane finally understands why she feels ashamed when riding in her father’s Cadillac. “The reason for my shame and for the revolution is the same: the difference between social classes.” Then she remembers that they have a maid at home, which also makes her ashamed.

She recalls Mehri’s story. Mehri had been only eight when she had come to live with the Satrapis. Mehri’s parents had given her up because they had too many children at home to feed. When Marjane was born, Mehri had been ten and she had taken care of the new baby. She had played with her, cooked her food, and told her stories. They got along well.

At the beginning of the revolution, in 1978, Mehri falls in love with the neighbor’s son. They begin to write letters to each other, but because Mehri is illiterate, Marjane has to write the letters for her. Mehri tells the boy that she often talks to her sister about him. Marjane asks who her sister is and Mehri tells her that she is her sister.

One day, Mehri talks with her real biological sister who works as a maid for Marjane’s uncle and tells her that she has a fiancé. Mehri’s sister becomes jealous and tells Marjane’s uncle who then tells her grandmother who tells her mother. Eventually the story comes to her father. Her father goes straight to their neighbor’s son. The boy is wearing a Bee Gee’s t-shirt when he answers the door. Mr. Satrapi tells the boy that Mehri is not really his daughter but is, instead, his maid. The boy decides that he does not want to continue seeing her and give Mr. Satrapi all the letters they had written to each other.

Seeing that the letters are in Marjane’s handwriting, Mr. Satrapi asks his daughter why she had not told him of the situation. He explained that Mehri’s love is impossible because “in this country you must stay within your own social class.” Disgusted with this answer, Marjane goes to Mehri and tells her that the next day they will go and march with the demonstrators. They sneak out of the house and spend the next day marching and protesting. When they return, Marjane’s parents are furious and her mother slaps both of them across the face. It is revealed that they had decided to protest on the most dangerous day of the Revolution, “Black Friday,” when there had been “so many killed in one of the neighborhoods that a rumor spread that Israeli soldiers were responsible for the slaughter.” Marjane and Mehri sit on her bed, both with dark hand marks across their faces from the slap, and Marjane thinks that it is “really our own who had attacked us.”

Analysis

“The Water Cell” is written as a narrative of Iran’s political past. The chapter starts with a scene of ironic humor. Marjane’s parents had been in the streets all day supporting the Marxist revolutionary forces. When they return home, Marjane wants to play “Monopoly,” a board game that symbolizes Western children’s indoctrination to Western capitalist values. It is a humorous situation but, by the end of the chapter, Marjane begins to come to a nascent understanding through her mother and father’s stories of why symbols of capitalism, such as the game, are looked down upon in her household.

Throughout the novel, Satrapi plays with techniques of point of view. She relates the history of Iran and the persecution of its people not just from her perspective but also from the perspectives of her parents, her grandmother, and from others with firsthand knowledge of the political and social situation of Iran during this period. These points of view, however, are always interconnected to the author’s own point of view. Satrapi connects and interweaves the stories of those around her into her own process of self-actualization and growing up.

The historical narrative that Marjane’s mother and father present to her is an alternate telling of the historical fall of the Persian Empire and rise of the Shah. It is important to note how official history is often only loosely connected to the personal experiences of history. In this way, Persepolis offers a particular perspective on history, largely a political and leftist retelling of Iranian history. This historical understanding is shaped not by an outside, subjective understanding of the events occurring in the country during this period but, instead, by those who are directly affected by the political turmoil of the twentieth century.

Satrapi uses alternating tones of seriousness and humor to play with the notion that the novel involves serious themes of violence, persecution, torture, and corruption all seen from the viewpoint of a child. In these chapters, one can see these themes in the imaginative reconstructions of history that Marjane envisions while her parents and her grandmother tells her the stories of her people. Much of the adult humor, however, such as the old man being proclaimed a martyr, is over the head of the young child and it will not be until later that she will understand the ways in which dark humor pervade the people’s situation. Humor, thus, becomes a tool of sanity.

The dissonance between social classes becomes a central theme in these chapters. Marjane first learns that her own family has suffered through poverty and social disadvantage. Her grandfather had been a political enemy of the Shah and so Marjane’s mother had spent much of her childhood with little food or clothing. She feels a certain kind of pride, knowing that her family had suffered for the ideals that it believes in. As the novel progresses, the theme of suffering and dignity will take on more resonance. Marjane will begin to question her own family’s sacrifice in the light of the forced sacrifice of so many of the poor and underprivileged people of the nation.

Marjane first becomes aware of this class dissonance in “The Letter.” This chapter tells the story of Marjane’s maid, Mehri, who comes from an impoverished family and is adopted by the Satrapis. Marjane has a difficult time coming to grips with the idea that Mehri’s adoption was not a completely benevolent act. Mehri becomes the housemaid for the family and does not receive the advantages of education or upbringing that Marjane receives. Mehri remains illiterate; illiteracy is often seen as a symbol of control because the illiterate are often not able to come to a self-understanding of the systems of power that govern their lives. The idea that Mr. Satrapi would deny Mehri a chance at love with a neighbor highlights the nuanced, yet confusing, circumstances of class conflict in Iran. In this chapter, Marjane has not yet come to understand it fully, but it does add to the general sense of injustice that she feels in her childhood self.