Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood

by Marjane Satrapi

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Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood Themes

The main themes in Persepolis are political maturity, people within history, and Iranian culture.

  • Political maturity: Marji's inclination is to rebel against the oppressive, theocratic government. Though forced to wear a veil, Marji continues to assert her individuality by wearing jeans and smoking.
  • People within history: Marji and her family's experiences are not presented as purely statistical or symbolic of historical change. All of the characters have relationships and values that transcend the broad, homogenizing forces of political and historical categorization.
  • Iranian culture: The 1979 Islamic revolution caused a major cultural shift in Iran, placing modern values in conflict with traditional religious practices.

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With any coming-of-age story, the quest for identity is central to the meaning of the work as a whole. In Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, Marji grows up the daughter of deeply political parents who espouse Western values. However, Iran is moving in the opposite direction, for after the Shah is deposed, the revolution rallies around Islamic fundamentalism—and a cultural revolution against Western influences follows. As the work's title suggests, the question of identity here is expanded beyond Marji’s development into an independent young woman to a question of national identity. So while we must ask who Marji is, we must also consider what Iran is, as well as its path.

Political Maturity

It takes time for Marji to connect the abstract theories she reads about to the concrete events that unfold around her. Marji is a child who reads comics about dialectic materialism, and her parents often engage in political debate around the dinner table. Eager to be a righteous revolutionary, Marji is all too willing to congratulate her friends when she finds out that their family members have been imprisoned, tortured, or killed. Not having similar “bona fides” to brag about, she even invents stories about her father, explaining how he has endured torture. Yet she learns from one friend that these “glorious” stories of sacrifice may serve the state, but they come at the cost of families. Marji’s movement from innocence to experience is unusual in that it so directly relates to the political struggles around her.

People Within History

While the subject of this story often centers on the history of Iran in the twentieth century, the heart of the story is concerned with relationships and family. It would be easy for a work that so directly discusses the history of a country to resort to using characters as symbols of historical processes. Yet for Satrapi, the people around Marji are always people first. When Anoosh dies, he dies as an uncle of a little girl rather than a statistical representation of executed political prisoners. This is a story based on real lives rather than real life.

Indeed, it is the family that shapes Marji, rather than the state and its schools. When Marji stands up to her religion teacher (who claims that no political prisoners have been taken since the Islamic Revolution), it is a victory for Marji. It means that she has become an independent young woman who, like her parents, is eager to lead a life of integrity and purpose.

Iranian Culture

In her introduction, Satrapi presents several explicit goals for her work. Among them is distinguishing between the Iran seen by the world and the one she saw in her childhood. There is more to her homeland than “fundamentalism, fanaticism, and terrorism.” The identity of Iran is more complex than these three “isms,” and Satrapi’s story approaches this complexity by showing that there is more to the world than political theories, historical interpretations, and what is shown in the media. In the heart of all this abstraction, there remain human beings with their own emotions, ambitions, dreams, and tragedies.

While Marji grows into a complex young woman, Iran deteriorates under the repressive policies put in place by the theocracy. Marji passionately supports her country when it is bombed, but she balks at the school's giving boys plastic keys that can be used by martyrs to open the gates of paradise. In contrast, the state demands dedication from everyone to its worldview, and it seeks to stifle dissent from the “true path” of Islam. To this end, the Islamic state shuts...

(This entire section contains 883 words.)

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down the American embassy and the universities because they are symbols of Western decadence that threaten the new theocratic state. However, Marji grows up in a world that contains ideas from both Islam and the secular, Western world. Marji is capable of synthesizing these ideas; she stands in stark contrast to the fundamentalists who try to repress symbols of the West.

It is a key point in the political discourse of Persepolis that the Islamic state has repressed and simplified Iran’s culture. In both the introduction and the story, Satrapi points out that Iran has been invaded many times by its neighbors. Throughout this upheaval, a rich and vibrant culture endured. From this perspective, the repressive policies of both the Shah and the theocracy operate like an invasion. For Satrapi, the Islamic Revolution is a story of a minority that has imposed its views on the majority. There is a tendency to suggest that the Islamic Revolution was an expression of Iranian culture, but in Satrapi’s view this is a gross misrepresentation of Iranian culture and identity.

Ultimately, the story of Marjane Satrapi’s childhood reveals an alternative path for Iran. Just as Marji grows up into a mature, complex woman who has formed a strong identity among a variety of influences and ideas, so can Iran overcome its minority of fundamentalists and move toward an open society that recognizes the complexity of its people and culture. Just as the popular conception of Iran in the world is overly simplistic, so is the Islamic Revolution’s fundamentalist vision for Iran. In the interest of making these realizations a reality, Satrapi tells the story of her childhood.