Persepolis: the Story of a Childhood' Essay

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The graphic memoir The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi portrays the experience from the author’s childhood in Iran to her adulthood in Austria. The story happens with the background of the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Born in a family with advanced and open-minded parents but living under the influence of radical change in society and politics, the main character Marji’s childhood is not the same as other children’s. Marji’s inward world is in dilemma and this situation almost runs through the whole memoir. As the idea raised by memoirist Mary Karr in her book The Art of Memoir says, Marji has her “inner enemy”. Karr mentions the inner enemy is “a psychic struggle against the author’s self that works like a thread or plot engine”, which means that the inner enemy is crucial for the promotion of a memoir (Karr 91). According to that theory, what truly is Marji’s inner conflict? Why would she suffer so much from her inner conflict? Does she conquer this conflicting problem at the end of The Complete Persepolis? We would gain a deep understanding of Satrapi’s memoir and Karr’s idea while we study these problems. From the beginning to the end of The Complete Persepolis, Marji always seeks the balance point between belongingness and freedom. With the Westernized education Marji received, she cannot fit into Iranian society and always seeks freedom; however, she is unable to integrate into society and has no sense of belonging when she is in Austria. Although this conflict exists throughout her whole childhood, she finally solves it by the end of the book.

The Complete Persepolis successfully meets the requirement as “the split self or inner conflict must manifest on the first pages and form the book’s thrust or through line” (Karr 92). In Figure 1 Satrapi draws herself between two different backgrounds as “split self”. Comic theorist Scott McCloud’s theory of communicating the invisible from his book Understanding Comics: “the background is a valuable tool for indicating invisible ideas…Particularly the world of emotions” is embodied by the emphasis on the background of Figure 1 (McCloud 132:1). In his opinion, McCloud underlines that backgrounds could voice the character’s inner thoughts, combining the invisible ideas and the visible expression. As a good example of McCloud’s theory, this panel reflects the two opposites of Marji’s expressive self and her ideal self by dividing herself into two separate parts.Figure 1 (Satrapi 6:1)

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In addition, under the influence of her parents' Westernized education, Marji intensifies her inner conflict. Her parents represent the Iranian people who at the time accepted Western culture and had modern educational ideas. Maggie's mother, one of the protesters who actively opposed the veil during the Islamic Revolution, influences Marji a lot. Under the influence of their mother, Marji is eager to participate in the protests. She longs for justice for her maid Mehri, who was treated unjustly in marriage choices for the sake of her 'inferior social class' (Satrapi 37-38). Marji’s courage in challenging authority is also represented by her opinion of her teacher. By referring to the experience of Uncle Anoosh, a revolutionary, Marji refutes her teacher’s claim that “Iran no longer has political prisoners” for the sake of her uncle’s execution by the Islamic regime (Satrapi 144:1). Even though the principal deemed Marji’s opposition to the teacher as a provocation, Marji’s father encouraged her for telling the truth rather than blaming her to compromise with the school. The supportive attitude and understanding from her father encourage Marji to tell the truth.

Volume two of Persepolis describes the period of Marji’s high school experience in Austria, along with her later return to Iran, when she suffers more from her inner struggle. Considering Marji’s safety, Marji’s parents send her to study in Austria. They also make that choice for the concern of letting Marji accept the Western education, which they believe is more fit for Marji. For that sake, Marji has a chance to get into the Western culture. When she first arrives in Austria, Marji desires to integrate into the new environment. After making friends that have different culture backgrounds and developing several unfavorable relationships, Marji steps on a distorted path. She deems her Iranian identity as “a heavy burden” and even tries to cover up the fact by telling others that she is French (Satrapi 195:4). As shown in Figure 2, Marji is unable to set her spirit free as she does to her body. Nevertheless, Marji somehow gets relief from pressure from her grandmother’s words “Always keep your dignity and be true to yourself”. At the moment that Marji yells “I am Iranian and proud of it!” to her schoolmates who judge her for her denying behavior, she truly accepts her Iranian identity from the deep of her heart (Satrapi 150:6, 197:1). As Karr suggests in her book, the motivation for a memoirist to tell a first-person narrative is usually to “go back and recover some lost aspect of the past so it can be integrated into current identity” (Karr 92). The evolution of Marji’s inner struggle reflects her effort to accept her lost Iranian memories and identity again. For the point of finding her belonging, this shift of attitude means a lot.Figure 2 (Satrapi 194:4)

After returning to Iran, Marji is gradually under the pressure of depression for the sake of the upheaval of environment and culture. Because nobody could understand her psychological struggle and her miserable experience in Austria, Marji feels alienated from Iranian culture and the people around her, “I am a Westerner in Iran, an Iranian in the West. I have no identity” (Satrapi 272:2). Without a sense of belonging, Marji subsequently raises her suicide tendency. Fortunately, Marji’s father encourages her and leads her to the light again. With her father’s inspiration, she transfers herself into an individual and knowledgeable woman and thereafter comes to know herself and the life she yearns for. She finally finds her path in life and ends up with an outstanding final project in college before she begins again in France. Marji’s journey gradually moves towards “self’s overhaul” (Karr 92). “The goodbyes are much less painful than ten years before when I embarked for Austria”, Marji acknowledges when she is about to leave Iran (Satrapi 341:4). At that moment Marji is completely renewed from who she was ten years ago. She is not bothered by her inner conflict anymore. Although she leaves the help of her family when she goes to France, she feels the freedom of spirit and gains rebirth at the end of the memoir.

Here, scholar Babak Elahi would likely be against the idea that Marji’s inner conflict is resolved at the end of the memoir and doubt whether Marji achieves as being unity. He mentions that “(Marji) presents her life as a gradual and incomplete struggle to create a self” in his article “Frames and Mirrors in Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis” (Elahi 325). Although I concede that The Complete Persepolis centers on Marji’s construction of her self-identification, I still insist that she achieves the goal of being a unified self in the end. According to Elahi, the mirrors that Satrapi depicts in the memoir would be supportive evidence to prove his standpoint. He claims that all the mirrors display Marji’s “subjective fragmentation, instability, and uncertainty” (Elahi 322), whereas I would claim that that depiction of mirrors would be a subtle but supportive way for Satrapi to reflect her inner world, and also, her emotions under a mask, which would be better to convey through the form of a picture. With the panel only portraying Marji herself and the reflection of herself in the mirror, readers would be more likely to focus on the gap between Marji’s expressive self and her inner self (Figure 3). When the graph of Marji looking at herself in the mirror shows up, it is a representation of her inner struggle and the consequent growth. Hence I do not think the mirror structure would be supportive evidence of Marji's unresolved inner conflict.

Marji’s inner conflict evolves from a child's perplexity to a female’s unified self-awareness and takes an essential part in illustrating the memoirist’s untellable suffering of her youth and pushing the plot to move forward, just as Karr mentions about the theory of the inner conflict. To generalize The Complete Persepolis is not only a memoir that depicts the memoirist’s own story and her sentiment but also a reflection of Iranian society that includes various social aspects such as gender, culture, religion, and political issues. Marji’s integration with Iranian ideas and Western opinions is a sketch of the whole country’s integration with its history and ongoing changes. As an important example of plenty of Islamic women who are deeply affected by the Islamic Revolution, Marji’s life also represents their inner confusion and conflict caused and led by outer social upheaval. In most situations, people acknowledge the change in the social environment. The Complete Persepolis presents a perfect and representative example of the integration of society and the individual.

Work cited:

    1. Elahi, Babak. “Frames and Mirrors in Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis.” symploke, Vol. 15, No. 1/2, 2007, pp. 312–325.
    2. Karr, Mary. The Art of Memoir. New York, HarperCollins, 2015.
    3. McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York, Harper Perennial, 1994.
    4. Satrapi, Marjane. The Complete Persepolis. New York, Pantheon, 2007.
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