Analysis of Language in "Persepolis"

Marjane Satrapi in
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Marjane Satrapi's "Persepolis" depicts Iran's Islamic Revolution and subsequent war with Iraq from her own perspective as an idealistic young girl growing up in Tehran. Satrapi uses the medium of cartoons in her graphic novel to deal with some very adult issues. Although her illustrations can be appealing and at times humorous, the stories she tells and the language she uses has as much gravity as any other work on 20th-century history.

1 Religion

Although Islam is now Iran's religion, Iranians were Zoroastrians before the Arab invasion.
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There is tension around the issue of religion in Satrapi's novel. As she explains, although she herself had deeply religious inclinations as a child, her parents were committed Communists, even giving her a comic book to read titled "Dialectical Materialism." This comic book, perhaps, helped to inspire Satrapi's theme of adult issues explained through incongruously simple illustrations. As a child, Satrapi talks freely to God, whom she depicts as a kindly old man with a white beard who sits by her beside. Ultimately, Satrapi's emphasis is on experience rather than doctrine, as she frequently shows the truisms of both religion and Marxism to be insufficient consolations in the face of real-life suffering.

2 Revolution

Shahs and emperors, such as the one in this painting, ruled Iran for hundreds of years before the revolution in 1979.
... Dan Kitwood/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Satrapi fills the narration of her story with terms like "Bolshevism" and "Marxism," but never goes into a lengthy definition of any of those ideas. Her own family was unique in that Satrapi was the great-granddaughter of one of Iran's last emperors, so "royalty" and "destiny" are common terms in the story as well. Although the shah before the revolution organized many elaborate demonstrations to pay homage to Iran's heritage, Satrapi shows that the displays were empty, as the shah imprisoned and tortured many Iranians. A certain negativity pervades Satrapi's book, as she argues that the Islamic revolution was an answer to real hardships in society, but that the revolution then went on to become tyrannical itself.

3 Youthful Rebellion

Satrapi, like many other teenagers of her era, loved the band Iron Maiden.
... Karl Walter/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

Rebellion has a double meaning in "Persepolis," as the teenaged Satrapi rebels against her parents and against social mores soon after the revolutionaries rebel violently against the shah. Satrapi's love for punk and metal bands and tight jeans, which might be a non-issue in other countries, earns her the scrutiny of the Guardians of the Revolution, a women's organization dedicated to ensuring that other Iranian women observed proper standards of modesty. Satrapi herself was far more lucky than many other Iranians, as her parent's wealth meant that they could send her to a boarding school in France to escape the harsh rules of the new government.

4 Martyrdom

Satrapi does not depict all religion in a negative light, but sharply criticizes its abuses.
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The city of Chicago banned "Persepolis" from its seventh-grade classrooms for its unblinking references to bloodshed, rape, death and torture. Satrapi's depictions of torture, men being whipped and burned with irons, are fairly minimalistic, but still disturbing. Satrapi also deals with the difficult meanings of the word "martyrdom," as she shows how the Iranian government lured poor youths into the military with the promises of the pleasures of heaven, before sending them to almost certain death on the battlefield. At the same time, Satrapi also writes to honor those she deems true martyrs, like Marxists who were imprisoned and executed for their views by the revolutionary government.

Trish Tillman is a Ph.D. student and adjunct professor in the Washington, D.C. area. She earned her M.A. in history from George Mason University and has more than five years of teaching experience. She often finds that humor is a valuable tool in the classroom.