Persepolis 1: The Story of a Childhood
Note: The summary of the English editions of the novel is divided into two sections, one for each book.
Persepolis 1 starts with an introduction to the life of the ten-year-old protagonist, Marji. Set in 1980, the novel focuses on her experiences of growing up during the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Her story details the impact of war and religious extremism on Iranians, especially women. Belonging to an upper-class family, Marji has access to various reading materials and is exposed to Western political thought at a very young age. By discovering the ideas of numerous philosophers, Marji reflects on her class privilege and also uncovers her family's political background. This inspires her to participate in popular demonstrations against the Shah's regime where people are asking for his exile as a way to safeguard their rights. Unfortunately, after the Shah's departure, Marji notices the rise of religious extremism in her society and is unhappy about it. However, her uncle's visit deepens her interest in politics when he tells her stories of being imprisoned as a communist revolutionary making her value ideas of equality and resistance.
After an abrupt family vacation to Europe, Marji returns to Iran where the government has declared war against Iraq. As Tehran comes under attack she finds safety in her basement, the bomb shelter. Amidst the chaos of an ongoing war her family secretly revolts against the new regime by having parties and consuming alcohol, which is now prohibited in the country. Two years of war force Marji to explore her rebellious side by skipping classes, obsessing over boys, and visiting the black market that has grown around the shortages caused by war and repression.
As the war intensifies, Marji rushes home one day to find a long-range ballistic missile has hit her street. She is traumatized at the sight of her friend's dead body and expresses her anger against the Iranian political system. Her family begins to worry about her safety and decide to send her off to Austria for further study. The novel ends with her departure to Europe.
Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return
The second part of the series takes place in Vienna where Marji starts her new life at a boarding house. Since she cannot speak German upon arrival, Marji finds it hard to communicate but eventually overcomes it and makes friends. She assimilates into the culture by celebrating Christmas and going to mass. Away from home, Marji's Irani identity deepens and she is expelled from the school after an altercation with a nun who accuses her of being ignorant.
No longer in school Marji starts living with her friend Julie and her mother. Here, she experiences more culture shock when Julie talks about her sexual endeavors given that such topics are a taboo in Iran. Soon enough, she undergoes a physical and ideological transformation by abusing drugs and changing her appearance while continuing to move homes. Marji finally settles on a room with Frau Dr. Heller, but their relationship is unstable. Issues also arise in her relationships and she again finds comfort in drugs. Finally as the fights worsen, Marji leaves Dr. Heller's house after an accusation of stealing a brooch forcing her to become homeless for over two months. As her condition worsens, Marji reaches out to her parents who arrange for her to move back and thus after living in Vienna for 4 years, she returns to Tehran.
At the airport, she recognizes how different Iran is from Austria. Donning her veil once more to go out, she takes in the 65-foot murals of martyrs, rebel slogans, and the streets renamed after the dead. At home, her father tells her the horrors of the war and they talk deep into the night. After hearing what her parents had gone through while she was away in Vienna, she resolves never to tell them of her time there. However, her trauma from Austria makes her fall into depression forcing her to attempt suicide twice. When she survives, she takes it as a sign to live and starts her process of recovery by looking after her health and taking up a job.
Following her return to Iran Marji meets Reza, also a painter, and they soon begin to date. In 1991 Reza proposes marriage to Marji, and after some contemplation, she accepts. Her mother, Taji, warns her that she has gotten married too young and she soon realizes that she feels trapped in the role of a permanent wife. Later on in 1994 Marji confides in her friend, Farnaz, that she no longer loves Reza and wants a divorce. Farnaz advises her to stay together because divorced women are socially scorned, but her grandmother urges her to get a divorce. After much contemplation, Marji decides to separate with a reluctant Reza. She goes to her parents and tells them about her and Reza's divorce and they comment on how proud they are of her and suggest that she should leave Iran permanently and live a better life back in Europe.
In late 1994 before her departure for Europe, Marji visits the countryside outside of Tehran, the Caspian Sea, the grave of her grandfather, and the prison building where her uncle Anoosh is buried. In the autumn, Marji along with her parents and grandmother go to Mehrabad Airport for their final goodbye as she heads off to live in Paris.