By: Rebecca Ann Menezes
Persepolis is an autobiographical graphic novel written in Marjane Satrapi’s point of view. It is about how she was raised in Iran before and during The Islamic Revolution that started in 1979. During this time, Iran experienced great turmoil and suffered political unrest. Regarding the revolution, her parents were in support of the Marxist foundations against the monarchy of the last Shah, but then against the Islamic Government. They also frequently attended political protests. So, influenced by her socio-politically involved family, Marjane grew up with interests in social activism.
What Exactly IS Adulthood?
Adulthood is when one has reached physical/sexual maturity or a certain age. However, this essay looks at the definition of adulthood in its psychological sense, which is often synonymous with having “reached maturity,” being “fully grown/developed” and/or being “sensible: not childish.” This is interesting as considering we are a constantly developing race, is it possible to truly be fully developed? Moreover, how do we define the distinction between ‘childish’/childlike behaviour and a misguided decision? E.g. when Marjane, as an ‘adult’ in terms of age, distracted enforcers of the constrictive religious law, from seeing her make-up, by accusing an innocent male bystander of verbal harassment. Was this a childish act because of its lack of careful/decisive thought even though Marjane was at a ‘mature’ age?
In The Book
Marjane experienced two opposite atmospheres in which to grow up; Vienna, Austria and Tehran, Iran, posing an interesting exploration of her journey into adulthood. I feel it is extremely important to note that Marjane did not simply reach adulthood. Instead, her journey there was a long and eventful one, which I think is one of Persepolis’s main themes. In my opinion, this theme, is the heart of what the novel portrays, adding to its value as a bildungsroman.
At age 10, Marjane sees her mother disguising herself because she was photographed protesting against a movement that made wearing the veil compulsory. Conflicted about being scared for or proud of her mother, Marjane recognises her inner conflict of religion versus modernism, despite the fact that she had not developed an opinion about the veil yet. One might say that this recurring theme of inner conflict in the novel can be portrayed as an inner turmoil that reflected the outer one Iran was under at the time. This shows this conflict by illustrating Marjane as half religious and half modern.
However, what I find interesting about this frame is that her modern side is shown as calculative and measured, perhaps implying a more thoughtful yet factual idea of it from her point of view. Her religious side is drawn artfully, perhaps implying an increasingly abstract relation to it. At this point in the book, she is not considered an adult, she shows maturity in her thinking as she recognises the importance of making her own decision. The journey to adulthood is all about vital experience, which is something Marjane does not lack. This is perhaps why she often displays this characteristic maturity in terms of how she handles the ongoing war, riots, conflict, etc. i.e. she has explored and experienced her different perspectives of it be it modern, religious, cultural, patriotic etc..
A prominent scene to consider when exploring adulthood, is when Marjane, aged 12, goes down to the basement, her ‘hideaway’, after an argument with her mother that involved some questioning about her skipping class and what Marjane will do in the future if she doesn’t learn as much and as well as she can. There, Marjane compares her situation against her mother’s ‘dictatorship’ to the repressive, systematic arresting and execution of those who opposed the regime. She tells herself that she seals her act of rebellion with a cigarette she stole from her uncle. This, to me, was youthfully ironic because as she declared “with this first cigarette I kissed childhood goodbye,” she did so with exaggeration as she compared her case to a far graver one i.e. the regime. She also performed her ceremony in a childlike manner as she used smoking as symbol of adulthood, which is what she thought to be a grown-up thing to do (we know this because she stole the cigarette from her admired uncle). I think, the fact that she now deems herself a grown-up through this childlike act shows that she has a lot of maturing to do and that there is innocence left in this ‘rebel’.
The technique of putting the events of this scene in a continuous yet fast paced series of pictures by using equal sized illustrations placed in the same row on the page is effective, as it allows the reader to see that Marjane perceives growing up as an instantaneous occurrence; a childlike thought. Here she is still in the midst of her budding and in fact, starts her journey at the very beginning of the novel, at age 10, as mentioned above. Considering Persepolis as a bildungsroman points out that the book is her experiences of coming of age and so in a sense, she, as a character, is growing for as long as the book continues.
Throughout her Iranian upbringing, she learns things about herself and the Islamic Revolution. She goes from wanting to be a Muslim prophet, wanting to be a revolutionary to reading everything she can about political affairs, further showing her inner turmoil. But despite all the knowledge she had acquired and her great attempts to be like her parents, she realises she doesn’t understand everything as of yet. We see this through one of my favourite quotes from the book, where Marjane says, “something escaped me. Cadaver, cancer, death, murderer… laughter?” This is said after she hears her parents laughing about an unfortunate event from that day.
What I enjoy about this frame is that she is drawn alone as she thinks about the situation and only admits her incompetence to herself. Here, we see that she does not understand dark humour, which is quite a mature thing to appreciate. She resorts to laughing out loud and acknowledges her lack of comprehension, noting that she needs to improve by reading more. I find her reaction to be rather sweet and quite typical of a child.
All that Marjane experiences in Vienna plays is essential to her development. She not only experiences a vast change in the society, its safety and her mental/physical state and appearance, but also gets to exercise her rebellious side. She acquires her own sense of fashion, which I think, is an important aspect of her growing up, as she learns who she is and is one step closer to being able to identify herself. She explores her sexuality, allowing her to further navigate herself. And after being cheated on, having her heart broken, getting bronchitis from smoking too much and roaming the streets of Vienna, she decides to go back to Iran. Her decision acts as an addition to her collection of learning experiences as she realises her personality was such that she “would rather put [herself] in danger than confront [her] shame”. This again shows her identifying with her personality which is an integral part of maturing into a woman. This is what I think adulthood is; knowing and accepting who you are as a person, accepting flaws and appreciating skills. If adulthood is truly based on experience, an adult should have enough of this to know that fighting their own personality benefits no one.
When back in Iran, she returns home to her old room that has all her old posters and pictures that she realises she has grown out of. She concludes that now, her “Viennese misadventures seemed like little anecdotes of no importance.” She decides “to take this little problem as a sign. It was time to finish with the past and to look forward to the future.” Here, she decides to let go of her childhood. Although this seems to be a minor scene in terms of size, I think it is significant in its simplicity and effective as it is indeed a part of her journey. It is here, that she accepts her changing self and allows herself to approach adulthood. Notice, that I say approach and not arrive or reach because I believe that this novel as a bildungsroman, explores Marjane’s coming of age. This does not necessarily mean she is now “fully developed” or “reached maturity”.
In conclusion, the novel Persepolis acts as a portrayal of Marjane’s journey to adulthood, which does not necessarily mandate that she ends as an adult. She shows characteristics of it such as acceptance of herself, but I think that as a character and a person, Marjane Satrapi is constantly growing and developing, as we are. Though physically an adult, exploring oneself never stops and I think that this is one of the main ideas behind Persepolis.