Persepolis | Study Guide

Marjane Satrapi

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Persepolis | Plot Summary

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Summary

Childhood in Iran

Marjane Satrapi is eight years old when the Iranian Revolution begins in January 1978. Many people in Iran, including her left-leaning, liberal parents Ebi (father) and Taji (mother), want the shah to step down from his position as leader of the country. There are constant protests, and although Marjane doesn't fully understand the situation, she wants to take part. She abandons her dreams of becoming a prophet in favor of becoming a revolutionary like Che Guevara (1928–67), an Argentinian Marxist known for his political activity in South America and Cuba.

Marjane comes from a long line of rebels. Her grandfather, who had been a prince, began spending time with communists and eventually became one himself. That made him an enemy of the state, and he was repeatedly in and out of jail. On Marjane's father's side, Uncle Fereydoon was part of the movement to proclaim the Iranian province of Azerbaijan a sovereign entity. Her communist Uncle Anoosh was held as an Iranian political prisoner for nine years.

Marjane idolizes Anoosh, who is released from prison shortly after the shah's removal. Unfortunately, the removal of the shah in early 1979—a victory for the revolutionaries—left a political vacuum quickly filled by Islamic fundamentalists. Fearing any threats to its newfound power, the Islamic regime hunts down and executes all known communists, including Uncle Anoosh. Marjane is devastated, and she completely forsakes her relationship with God.

The Islamic regime grows steadily more powerful and begins imposing restrictive, faith-based rules on the Iranian public. Women must wear veils to cover their hair in public, alcohol is banned, and speaking out against the regime is a punishable offense. All trappings of Western culture—including Western music, books, artwork, and clothing—are illegal. Marjane and her family, who are known for being progressive and embracing several aspects of Western culture, are forced to hide their true selves so as to stay on the right side of the government. Marjane has a particularly difficult time with this. She questions the regime at school and talks back to her teachers. Her parents, who believe an education at a French-language school will be the ticket to a life outside of Iran, don't chastise Marjane for this behavior. They, too, find the regime's rules ridiculous.

The tension between Iranian citizens and the Islamic regime is exacerbated by the Iran-Iraq War, which begins in September 1980. Thousands of poor teenage boys are enticed to join the Iranian army thanks to promises of a glorious afterlife. With no training, the majority of them die in battle. In the cities, food and supplies are low, refugees from other parts of the country are pouring in, and frequent bombings have citizens fearing for their lives. Schools begin to close, and adequate medical care is scarce. A nation at war doesn't question its leaders' governing philosophies, and the Islamic regime's laws grow even more oppressive. Ebi and Taji, worried about Marjane's safety in a country at war and under an Islamic government, decide to send her to live in Austria for the foreseeable future. She is 14.

Teenage Years in Austria

Marjane arrives in Vienna, Austria, more confident than scared. She has been coming of age ever since she smoked a cigarette at 12, and she's confident that being 14 is practically like being an adult. But things start going wrong almost immediately. Marjane was supposed to live with Zozo, Taji's best friend, who had moved to Austria years before with her husband and daughter. Things are terrible at Zozo's house—Zozo is cruel to her husband, and her daughter is disgustingly materialistic. Life as expatriates has not gone well for them. After 10 unbearable days, Marjane accepts Zozo's arrangement for her to live in a boarding house run by nuns. Marjane's roommate, Lucia, is very kind but speaks only German. Although Marjane speaks French, English, and Persian, she cannot communicate with Lucia. Surviving her loneliness, Marjane eventually befriends a group of social misfits: Julie, Momo, Thierry, and Olivier. They're enamored with war, anarchy, and everything else on the fringes of society. Marjane's efforts to fit in feel false, but it's nice to no longer be lonely.

Marjane is kicked out of the boarding house for insulting the head nun, Mother Superior. She moves in with Julie and Julie's mother, who thinks Marjane is a good influence on her daughter. Marjane studies hard while Julie cuts class and chases older men. Marjane is shocked to learn Julie has slept with 18 men, and she can't help but be embarrassed by the public displays of affection surrounding her at parties and get-togethers. She may be liberal and rebellious when it comes to the Islamic Republic, but she is still a product of her culture, which reserves such behavior for private moments.

Marjane's changing public persona mirrors the changes in her body. Now in her mid-teens, she cuts her hair into a spiky punk-rock style and starts smoking marijuana with her friends. She feels terribly guilty every time she talks to or thinks about her parents—they're enduring a war while she's engaging in disappointing behaviors and hiding her Iranian heritage. In mid-1980s Europe, Iranians were viewed as the enemy thanks to the media's portrayal of them as dangerous Islamic fanatics. After overhearing some classmates speak disparagingly about her and her family, Marjane finally explodes. "I am Iranian and proud of it!" she yells. She feels more like herself after that.

Julie and her mother leave Vienna, so Marjane finds a room at a communal boarding house. She's allowed to stay there for only four months, but it's the best place she's lived so far. While she's there, her mother comes to visit for the first time in 19 months. Their reunion is slightly awkward, but Marjane is the happiest she's been in a long time. Taji helps her find a new place to live, cooks all her favorite foods, and promises to make her some new clothing. She's outgrown everything she owns.

Marjane moves into Dr. Heller's stately home, which serves as a boarding house. Dr. Heller is mentally deranged, but Marjane doesn't spend a lot of time at home. After dating an anarchist, Enrique, who turns out to be gay, she ends up with Markus, who claims he loves her laid-back, independent nature. They date for two years, though mostly in secret, as Markus's racist mother hates Marjane and Dr. Heller thinks Marjane's a prostitute. Markus encourages Marjane's drug use, mostly marijuana, and even prompts her to start selling marijuana to kids in their school. Her career as a drug dealer is short-lived. Following her postgraduation test but before her college preparation courses, the school's principal tells her drugs on campus won't be tolerated.

Although she's not dealing anymore, Marjane starts doing more drugs than ever. Even Markus, who used to encourage her "decadent" side, distances himself from her. She stops going to class while Markus seems increasingly busy. Marjane hopes the trip she scheduled with a friend for her 18th birthday will make Markus realize how much he loves her, but when she misses her train and goes to his apartment to surprise him, she finds him in bed with another woman.

Marjane is devastated. Markus was her entire support system in Vienna—she no longer had any friends because she spent all her time with him. When Dr. Heller accuses her of stealing a valuable brooch, she lashes out, grabs a few things, and storms out of the boarding house. She is homeless and alone on her 18th birthday.

Marjane lives on the streets of Vienna for three months. She has no money and no place to sleep, so she scrounges for food in dumpsters and rides the city trams for warmth. It's winter, and her smoker's cough turns into something far worse. She passes out after coughing up blood and finds herself in the hospital, where she learns she has bronchitis. After a tearful call to her parents in which she makes them promise to never ask her about the past three months, she agrees to come home.

Adulthood in Iran

Marjane immediately feels the oppressive atmosphere as soon as she enters Iran. Tehran has changed a lot—every other street is named after a martyr, and enormous posters plastered on the sides of buildings depict their faces. Embarrassed about her failure to live abroad on her own, she doesn't want to see anyone except her parents and her grandmother. A reunion with her friends only emphasizes how much she doesn't belong—their blow-dried, heavily made-up exteriors are Western, but their traditional values are unmistakably Iranian. Marjane thinks it would be best if she killed herself. After two failed suicide attempts, she decides God doesn't want her to die. She starts wearing makeup, gets a perm, and becomes an aerobics fanatic.

Marjane meets Reza, a former soldier, at a party. They start dating, but they have to do it in secret—it is illegal for unmarried men and women to be seen together in public. Reza wants to leave Iran, but Marjane, having just returned, wants to stay in the country a little longer. They decide to go to university. To do so, they must pass the national exam. They study hard, and both end up passing the first portion of the exam, which is practical skills in art—their desired subject. The second part of the exam is a theological test. Marjane studies relentlessly, but she just can't remember all the names, dates, and histories. On the day of the exam, she decides to be completely truthful and admits she doesn't pray in Arabic and she doesn't believe women should have to wear the veil. The mullah—a Muslim theological scholar—administering the exam is impressed by her honesty, and she passes. Reza also passes, and they both are admitted into university.

Marjane studies graphic arts at school. It's difficult because female models are required to wear a chador, a billowing robe that obscures the female figure. The students get permission to use male models, who can at least wear figure-fitting clothing; however, a class supervisor instructs Marjane to not look at the male model that she's meant to be drawing. She also has difficulty adhering to the strict dress code. After challenging the code in front of the whole school, she is given the opportunity to design a uniform that meets the needs of her fellow female art students while still adhering to Islamic code. The person who gives her that opportunity is none other than the mullah who administered her theological test.

Marjane continues to rebel against the Islamic regime, this time alongside some of her fellow classmates. They take turns serving as clothed models in one another's homes, and they throw parties almost every night. When one of her friends dies during a raid of one of the parties, Marjane and her friends throw an even bigger party the next night. They don't want the guardians of the Revolution, a branch of the Iranian armed forces charged with protecting Islam, to think they've won.

Reza proposes to Marjane in 1991. They've been together for two years, and she loves him but isn't sure whether she's ready to get married. She's only 21. Her father supports the marriage, but her mother wants more for Marjane. Marjane agrees with her father that she won't really know if she can be happy with Reza until they get married and live together. After wavering, she accepts Reza's proposal. Her mother—trying to put on a brave face—stages a lavish wedding reception and then ends up crying in the bathroom. When Marjane and Reza go to their new apartment that night, Marjane realizes she has made a terrible mistake.

The newlyweds quickly begin arguing about everything, and they're sleeping in different rooms by the end of the first month. They are briefly brought together again in 1993 when the director of the university's art department asks them to collaborate on the design of an Iranian theme park. They're so busy working they forget to fight for six months. Enormously pleased with their work, the director has Marjane present their project to the mayor of Tehran, who appreciates the idea but says it will never be implemented. Marjane is disappointed and realizes the end of the project will also be the end of her marriage. After seeking advice from her grandmother, she asks Reza for a divorce. He still loves her and wants to make things work, but he grants her request.

Marjane's parents are delighted by the news of her divorce. Her father claims he always knew it would never work out, but he wanted Marjane to figure that out for herself. With her family's blessing and encouragement, she decides to leave Iran for good. She moves to France in September 1994 with her mother's strict instructions not to return. Though sweet, her freedom comes with a price—she sees her grandmother only one more time before the elderly woman dies in 1996.

Persepolis Plot Diagram

123456789101112131415ClimaxResolutionIntroductionRising ActionFalling Action

Introduction

1 New Islamic law forces Marjane to wear a veil at school.

Rising Action

2 The Satrapis' friends and family begin leaving Iran.

3 Family friend Mohsen is murdered for being a communist.

4 Uncle Anoosh is arrested and executed.

5 Marjane is nearly arrested for wearing Western clothing.

6 A ballistic missile kills Marjane's neighbors.

7 Marjane moves to Austria by herself. She is 14.

8 Marjane is kicked out of a Catholic boarding house.

9 Marjane walks in on her boyfriend with another woman.

10 Marjane lives on the streets for three months.

Climax

11 Marjane returns to Tehran and her parents.

Falling Action

12 Depressed, Marjane attempts suicide twice.

13 Marjane studies graphic design at university.

14 Marjane and Reza marry.

Resolution

15 Marjane divorces Reza and moves to France.

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