Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood Summary and Analysis of "The Shabbat" and "The Dowry"


The Shabbat

The family and some of their neighbors sit in the Satrapi living room. One of the neighbors tells them that Iraq now has long-range missiles that can reach Tehran. Marjane tells them all that Iranians “are Olympic champions when it comes to gossip” and they agree that it is probable that Iraq does not have such sophisticated technology. Iraq does have long-range missiles however and soon new bombings begin. The missiles, called Scuds, are able to do so much damage that the family does not even go to the basement when the sirens sound because it would do no good if one hit their building. Many people leave Tehran at this point and the city becomes deserted. The Baba-Levy’s, a family that lives next to the Satrapis, decide to go and live at the Hilton where the concrete reinforced buildings are supposed to be stronger. The Baba-Levy’s are one of the few Jewish families left in Iran.

One afternoon, Marjane asks her mother for money to go buy jeans. There had been rampant inflation in Iran and her mother is shocked that jeans now cost so much. As Marjane is shopping, there is the sound of a loud explosion. The news comes quickly that a missile has hit in the Tavanir neighborhood, the neighborhood where Marjane lives. She rushes home as quickly as possible.

When she reaches her neighborhood, she learns that the missile has hit one of the two buildings at the end of her street. Her home is one of those buildings. As she approaches, she can barely look up. She hears her mother yelling and running towards her. Her mother tells her that the missile hit the Baba-Levy’s building next door and Marjane is glad because she thinks that the Baba-Levy’s are staying at the Hilton. Her mother is not so sure because it is Saturday, the Sabbath, when all Jews are supposed to return home. Her mother tries to change the subject.

As Marjane’s mother pulls her away from the wreckage of the house, Marjane happens to see her friend Neda Baba-Levy’s bracelet sticking out from a pile of rubble. “The bracelet was still attached to...I don’t know what...” Marjane covers her head and cries out, but “No scream in the world could have relieved my suffering and my anger.”

The Dowry

A few years pass and it is 1984. Marjane says that she has now become “a rebel.” When the principal of her school tries to take her jewelry, she yells back at them. One day, the principal attempts to take the jewelry and, in a fit of rage, Marjane hits the principal and knocks her down. She tries to apologize but the principal expels her. Because her grandmother knows several bureaucrats, she can be placed in a new school. Her defiance remains, however. One day, the teacher is lecturing the students on how the Islamic regime no longer has political prisoners. Marjane stands up and tells the teacher that her uncle had been executed by the regime and that the number of prisoners has increased from 3,000 to 300,000 under the regime. The students applaud her honesty, but the teacher is angry.

That evening, the teacher calls Marjane’s parents. Her father is proud of her for standing up to the lies but Marjane’s mother grabs her and shakes her. She tells her, “You know what they do to the young girls they arrest? ...You know that it’s against the law to kill a a Guardian of the Revolution marries her... and takes her virginity before executing her.”

Her father tells her what happened to Niloufar, the girl that had been hiding in Khosro basement. The man that marries a girl is supposed to give the girl a dowry. If the girl dies, the family of the girl receives the dowry. This is how the family knew that Niloufar had been killed. The family received 500 Tumans, the equivalent of $5, for her life.

A week later, Marjane’s parents call her into the living room to talk. They tell her that they are sending her to Austria because it has become too dangerous for her in Iran. She is unsure of this at first, but her parents assure her that one of the best French schools in Europe is in Austria. Her mother tells her, “You’re fourteen and I know how I brought you up. Above all, I trust your education.” They remind her that, when she had been younger, they had sent her to summer camp in France. That had been “real independence,” Marji remembers. Her parents tell her that they feel it is “better for you to be far away and happy than close by and miserable.”

The next day, Marjane gathers some soil from the garden and puts it in a jar. She invites her friends over and gives away her posters. She says that she understands how important her friends are to her. That evening, her grandmother comes and Marjane sleeps in the bed with her. When her grandmother undresses, jasmine flowers fall from her breasts because she puts them in her bra every morning. Marjane asks her grandmother how she keeps such round breasts, and she tells her that she soaks them for ten minutes in a bowl of ice water every day. Her grandmother gives her some advice: she tells her that if anyone is a jerk to her, she must tell herself that the person is stupid so that she will not react to the person's cruelty. “Because there is nothing worse than bitterness and vengeance... Always keep your dignity and be true to yourself.” Marjane smells her grandmother’s bosom and thinks it smells good. She thinks, “I’ll never forget that smell.”

The next morning, her parents hurriedly wake her and tell her they must go. At the airport, there is a long line of people leaving the country. Many of them are young boys being sent away because after they turn thirteen they are no longer allowed to leave. They are considered future soldiers and are needed by the government. Marjane’s parents tell her that they will come see her in six months, but she knows that “they’d come to visit but we’d never live together again.” They hug, cry, and send Marjane through customs. She is cleared at customs but turns to see her parents once more. She looks back through the protective glass to see her mother has fainted and her father is carrying her out of the airport. She thinks, “It would have been better to just go.”


The symbolism of jewelry continues in these chapters. Jewelry represents both an essence of feminism -- the woman as a rare jewel -- as well as an act of defiance since it is illegal for women to adorn themselves in any way. Neda Baba-Levy is wearing a bracelet that Marjane had given to her when she is killed in the bombing in Marjane’s neighborhood. In death, Neda is able to retain her feminine identity even though Marjane is filled with agony. Marjane is then kicked out of school after an incident involving jewelry. She refuses to give up her jewelry to the principal, symbolizing the way in which she has grown into a rebellious youth, now assured of her identity.

In “The Shabbat,” Satrapi uses sparse graphical and textual diction to express the loneliness and impact of the violence of war. Though her neighborhood is bombed, Satrapi uses only one image of a bombed building. Instead, the graphic frames of the last pages of this chapter depict only Marjane and her mother against a blank white background. This represents the idea that the violence of war is a force that disconnects people from their community and exposes the darkness of a person’s own self. War and death have an intense personal dimension, and they can cause more than physical violence to a person. The last frame of the chapter, which is nothing but a blacked out box, is the author’s lowest point and a place from which she cannot fully return.

By the end of the novel, Marjane has entered into adulthood. Her self-actualization journey also finds some resolution, as she is able to name herself definitively in the final chapter as “a rebel.” Her parents understand that their daughter has now come into her own in a fundamental way. Her father sees the potential in this rebellious self, but Marjane’s mother also understands that such rebelliousness could also cause her daughter to lose her life.

This danger is represented by the dowry. In ancient Middle Eastern culture, a dowry was a way for a man to show respect to his wife and to his wife’s family. In the current Islamic regime, however, this symbol of the dowry has lost its meaning. The dowry, now, is given in exchange for a young girl’s life after she is executed. The dowry has become blood money instead of a symbol of honor. This perversion of symbols, Satrapi suggests, is characteristic of the fundamentalist rule in Iran. It is another example of the way in which Satrapi sees a rich Persian history altered and defiled by an errant religiosity.

Because she is able to leave Iran when she does, Marjane is able to leave with a whole self. This is symbolized by her grandmother, whose bosom Marjane snuggles into on her last night in the country. Her grandmother’s bosom is, thus, both a symbol of matriarchal dignity and representative of her Persian homeland. The novel ends with Marjane growing from a childhood perspective into a grown feminist perspective. The essence of childhood remains -- Marjane seems to lose herself in the warmth and comfort of her grandmother -- but she has now become a mature adult and is able to carry her grandmother’s wisdom and abandon her anger and vengeance.

Her grandmother also represents the past that Marjane carries with her. In a literal sense, Marjane’s grandmother is a part of Persia’s past, since her husband was a part of Persian royalty. In a more figurative sense, however, her grandmother represents a Persian heritage that has sustained her through the novel. Her homeland is also her mother and grandmother, in this sense. As Marjane tearfully leaves her home country, she does not take the violent, fundamentalist reality of Iran with her. Instead, she takes the holy, maternal land of Persia from which she was born.