In Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, how is individual vs. society presented?
In Persepolis, the primary representation of the individual is the narrator, Marjane "Marji" Satrapi. The larger experience shared by many Western-educated, upper-class Iranians in an Islamist theocratic state is distilled through her and other family members. In part because of her age when the Shah was overthrown in 1979, she represents the dilemmas of a generation of young people in the 1980s who had expected to continue their formal education and their experience of liberal, Western-influenced ideas and activities. But she also presents the stories of other members of her family, including her parents, who had outspokenly opposed the Shah and then endured further political repression under the revolutionary regime. Her uncle is executed shortly after she visits him in prison.
One specific way that Marji’s family’s dilemma is shown is through her parents’ decision to send her out of the country, where she attended boarding school in Europe. These steps became necessary as the adolescent girl developed a deeper political consciousness, and became a vocal critic of the propaganda that substituted for factual information at her school. In addition, the Iran-Iraq War not only caused widespread suffering and deprivation, but was used as a political tool for the governing regime. As opposing the war was deemed not just unpatriotic but subversive, those who lacked appropriate public enthusiasm were also censured.
Based on her perspective in Paris, where she was living while writing the graphic novel, we might see Marji as being safe or at least spared the worst excesses. Clearly her memories and impressions remained sharp, and her sense of security could not be restored. The personal coming-of-age story focuses the reader’s attention on the human cost even on those who did not endure physical harm.
The whole point of Persepolis, in my opinion, is to debunk stereotypes about Iran and show how the Revolution affected Marji and her family. Marji is a powerful personality, and her family’s determination to adhere to their Western values in the face of growing Islamicism reveals not only their courage but also the complexity of Iranian history. While most people in the West think of Iran as an Arab nation, Satrapi is very clear about how Islam itself is a colonizer in Iran; any argument that the Revolution is a return to Iranian roots is absurd. Marji’s idolization of her uncle, a political activist who is eventually executed, is one way the larger currents in Iranian history play out on the personal level in the book. Another way is Marji’s own determination to be politically active, even as a child. This becomes clear in the episode when she persuades the family servant to take her (against her parent’s wishes) to an anti-government demonstration. Marji's desire to be part of the demonstration has several sources: she wants to assert herself; she wants to “be where the action is"; and she wants to emulate her uncle and stand up for her family. It has to be said, too, that she wants to see what she can get away with. Her ”activism” is enabled by her privileged status, and it comes with real consequences for the family maid, whom Marji manipulates. In this way, the larger events in Iranian society become a catalyst and a backdrop for Marji’s aspirations for personal freedom and her own difficult journey through adolescence.
I think that the backdrop of the Islamic Revolution in the late 1970s and early 1980s is where one sees the collision between individual and community. For Marji, struggling to maintain her own sense of individual identity in a setting where religious conformity is seen as the only notion of the good is where the largest display of individual vs. society is evident. Marji never loses sight of her own individuality and sense of self. While it does evolve as the times around her change, this notion of self is never sacrificed. Her struggle to maintain it in the face of oppressive conformity is where the conflict between individual and society is best demonstrated and most evident. I believe that this is critical as it serves as the backdrop for the conflict and how it plays out throughout the narrative. It is a challenging element for Marji's parents. No doubt proud of their child who asserts her own individual identity at every step, they understand the danger of doing so under the rule of the Ayatollah. In this, the struggle between individual and society is presented as one in which danger exists when one voices their own identity. Yet, like Marji. one is compelled to speak out against that which is unjust and wrong.