Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood Summary and Analysis of "The Jewels," "The Key," and "The Wine"


The Jewels

Marjane and her mother have a hard time finding food at the supermarket because of war rationing. Marjane’s mother breaks up a fight between two women tussling over a box of food. Marjane’s mother yells at the women, “If everyone took only what they needed there would be enough to go around!” She then tells Marjane that they should go to the convenience store to get as much rice as they can because “you never know!” At the convenience store, Marjane’s mother and father get into a fight over the rationing of gasoline. Her father comforts her and they attempt to find a restaurant, but the roads are so jammed that they cannot get home until 2 am. A gas station attendant tells the family that the oil refineries at Abadan had been bombed by the Iraqis. Abadan is an Iranian border city where Mali, a good friend of the family’s, lives with her husband and children. Marjane’s mother attempts to call Mali but they get no answer. Marjane notes that after Abadan, Iranian border towns had been targeted by bombers. Marjane imagines a glut of cars attempting to leave the border towns, all engulfed in flames.

That night the family’s doorbell rings. They find Mali and her family at the door. Everything they own had been destroyed by the Iraqi bombers. Mali’s husband saves some expensive jewels but complains that his million-dollar home had been destroyed. Marjane says that her father does not like Mali’s husband very much because he thinks he is “too materialistic.” Marjane takes the two boys to her room to sleep and they are disappointed that Marjane does not have any toys. They tell her that they have all the Star Wars toys at home.

Mali and her family stay with Marjane for a week until they sell the jewelry. On a trip to the grocery store, Marjane complains that the boys are “brats” for complaining about wanting things. One of the women finds a can of kidney beans and says that they will make chili. Marjane comments, “We’ll just forget about the flatulence factor.” When one of the boys asks what flatulence is, the entire group of women and children laugh riotously. Their laughter draws the ridicule of two women standing nearby who whisper that all refugee women are whores. As the family drives home, Mali says that it is difficult to lose everything but “to be spat upon by your own kind, it is intolerable!” Marjane is ashamed and feels sorry for Mali.

The Key

Though the Iraqi army has modern arms and equipment, the Iranians have a much larger supply of soldiers. Each time an unmarried Iranian man dies in combat, a “nuptial chamber” is built for him in the streets. The nuptial chamber is an old Shiite tradition. It represents the ability of the dead man to “attain carnal knowledge.” Marjane holds a newspaper filled with pictures of “Today’s Martyrs.” She asks her mother if the dead mean anything to her and she tells Marjane that life must go on. She quotes a line of her father’s: “When a big wave comes, lower your head and let it pass!” Marjane thinks that this is a very Persian philosophy, “the philosophy of resignation.”

At school all of the girls line up twice a day and mourn the war dead. They stand in single file lines and beat their breasts. Marjane reflects that self-flagellation is a national ritual. Many of the men beat themselves, often violently with chains or knives, to prove their loyalty and machismo. Marjane, on the other hand, finds humor in all of the serious rituals. She leads her entire school in defiance of the school’s principal. They make funny masks for the soldiers and decorate a room with toilet paper for the anniversary of the revolution all of which gets Marjane and her friends into trouble.

The girl’s parents are brought in and the principal scolds them for not educating the girls at home. Marjane says that the reason they are so rebellious is that “our generation had known secular schools.” Marjane’s mother and father become defiant as well. The principal simply tells them that they must obey or they will be kicked out of school. When the principal tells the parents to make sure the girls wear their veils correctly, Marjane’s father angrily tells her, “If hair is so stimulating as you say, then you need to shave your mustache!”

One day, the Satrapi’s maid tells Marjane’s mother that her oldest son has been given a key at school. The school leaders tell him that if he goes to war and dies, the key will get him into heaven. In heaven, there will be women and mansions. Marjane’s mother tells her to bring her son over and she will talk to him. When Marjane returns from school, she finds her mother talking to the boy. She tells him that all the talk of women and paradise is nonsense and that one day he will go to college and marry. Marjane goes to her room and calls her cousin Peyman who is the same age. She asks him if he has been given a key to paradise, but he has not.

Marjane’s cousin Shahab comes for a visit. He had been drafted into the military when the war began and he is now home on leave. He tells them horrible stories of how the military drafts young children from the poor parts of the country. “First they convince them that the afterlife is even better than Disneyland, then they put them in a trance with all their songs...They hypnotize them and just toss them into battle. Absolute carnage.” Marjane learns that the keys are given to the poor children. In a violent panel of artwork, dozens of children with keys around their necks are blown up by mines.

Meanwhile, Marjane is allowed to go to her cousin Peyman’s party. Her mother makes her a sweater with holes in it and she wears a necklace with chains and nails because “punk rock was in.” She says, “I was looking sharp.”

The Wine

The Iraqis begin to bomb Tehran and so all of the tenants of Marjane’s building build a shelter in the basement. When the sirens go off, everyone runs down and turns off all lights. Marjane’s mother tells her father to put out his cigarette when they are there because “They say that the glow of a cigarette is the easiest thing to see from the sky.” When the bombings end, everyone returns to their apartments and begins to call their relatives and friends.

Marjane describes how the insides of her house change as well. Her mother puts up big black curtains over their windows. She tells Marjane that she does not want their strict fundamentalist neighbors to see the parties and card games that they hold every week. Tinoosh, one of their neighbors, had been reported and two Guardians of the Revolution had raided his home and found “records and video cassettes...a deck of cards, a chess set. In other words, everything that’s banned.” Tinoosh had been given seventy-five lashes and can no longer walk.

The Satrapis hold a party to celebrate Marjane’s aunt and the birth of her child. The parties are necessary because “without them it wouldn’t be psychologically bearable....” During the party, the power goes out and there is no light. The party continues, however. The guests even have wine because Marjane’s uncle is a self-taught vintner and has set up a secret wine making lab in his basement. The sirens begin to wail suddenly and Marjane’s aunt loses her composure. She hands her baby to Marjane and runs off. After that, Marjane says she has “doubts about the so-called ‘maternal instinct.’”

On the way home from the party, Mr. Satrapi is pulled over by a soldier who makes him get out of the car. The soldier verbally assaults him and accuses him of drinking alcohol. Marjane’s mother begs that the soldier have mercy on him. The soldier follows them home to search the house. Marjane’s father tells her that she and her grandmother must run upstairs and he will delay the soldier. They are to pour all of the alcohol in the house down the drain. When they reach home, Marjane’s grandmother gains the soldier’s sympathy by telling him she has diabetes. She runs upstairs and pours all the alcohol out. Marjane’s father comes upstairs, furious, and tells them that all the soldier wanted was a bribe. He is exasperated and wishes he could have a drink to calm down, but all the alcohol has been thrown away.


“The Jewels” follows a narrative of tragedy interwoven with comic relief. Mali and her family represent the receding Western influence in Iran and the wealth and privilege that evaporate with along with it. Mali loses everything in the war. Her husband and her children seem chiefly concerned with the material things that are lost. Mali, however, is more concerned with the loss of dignity that comes with becoming a refugee. This relates to a running theme of the novel, namely, one of the greatest threats faced by the people of Iran is not an outside invading force but is, instead, the turning of the people against one another.

This chapter also illustrates the way in which women faced an increasing loss of identity and agency in the country. The political and religious leadership of the country set an intolerant tone for the rest of society, and women withstand the worst of this intolerance and violence. It is not only the men, however, who perpetrate this injustice, as Marjane finds out. Instead, the injustice is brought about by those who buy into the ideology of the regime. The jewels, thus, represent a feminine Iranian perspective that is lost by intolerance and injustice, just as Mali’s jewels are sold for the highest price so that the family can survive.

“The Key” moves from narrating the injustice towards women to narrating the injustice perpetrated against children. They keys are the regime’s manipulation of young boys; it is a sexual and materialistic manipulation, a promise of women and wealth if they give their lives in war. Satrapi interprets this as indoctrination. The key is more powerful than the promise of education and college that Marjane’s mother tells to one of the children. The indoctrination, as Marjane finds out, is also a form of class warfare. Only the poor children are given keys and Marjane’s cousin Shahab describes the incredible violence inflicted upon young children.

“The Key” is also a chapter that highlights certain criticisms of the novel. It can be interpreted that Satrapi does not take seriously the religious perspective of conservative Islam. Instead, she understands these teachings only in the view of her politically leftist perspective. Satrapi, critics claim, actually writes from a Western view. Thus, Persepolis has been criticized as a novel that takes only a thin view of religion and the motivations of the people that adhere to conservative Islam.

In “The Wine,” Satrapi explores themes of matriarchy. At a party to celebrate the birth of her cousin, Marjane is suddenly handed her baby cousin, as her aunt cannot handle the stress of caring for her child during a bombing. This incident represents Marjane’s maturation process -- she is handed the reins of matriarchal responsibility before she is ready. While all of the adults see Marjane’s aunt as having lost her mind, the incident carries more meaning for Marjane. It is her first realization of a looming adulthood and the fact that she will be asked to carry on the family’s history. She doubts the “maternal instinct” precisely because she feels as though she will not be able to become the family’s matriarch. This scene foreshadows the novels ending in which Marjane is sent away to Austria to continue her education. She is forced to grow up much sooner than she wants.