A Grandmother’s Wisdom: The Power of Family in Persepolis

In the graphic memoir Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi discloses her experiences as a young girl growing up under the oppressive regime of the Iranian revolution. Throughout the novel, she faces moral dilemmas, suffers culture shock, and struggles to adapt to constantly changing societies, forcing her to turn to her family, as many do in times of chaos. The grandmother’s influential voice and guidance plays a pivotal role in shaping Marji into the women she becomes. Growing up under such dire circumstances pushes Marji to mature at a rate too rapid for most children and teenagers, but with the thoughtful aid of family, she is able to build a life of peace for herself, contrasting the violence and destruction she witnessed on a daily basis in Iran. In Satrapi’s, Persepolis, the grandmother embodies Marji’s cultural roots and values through her comforting support, memorable advice, and reminders regarding ancestral pride, demonstrating the significant role family plays in shaping identity.

The grandmother represents hope in Marji’s life, emphasizing the way relatives provide a reliable support system, while simultaneously shaping character. As Marji is growing up, she dreams of becoming a prophet, because her “grandmother’s knees always ached,”(6) and she did not want to see her loved ones in pain. Instead of laughing at the seemingly absurd concept, the grandmother responds,“In that case, I’ll be your first disciple” (7), revealing the security Marji is lucky enough to find in her family. Marji can be stubborn at times, but also incredibly selfless as she strives to help those she cares for most- her family specifically. She complains about how her maid did not get to eat at the dinner table with her and how others were not privileged enough to drive a cadillac like her father, but her motivation to end the suffering of her grandmother proves just how much she cares for her relatives. The grandmother is an authority figure that Marji feels safe sharing ideas with, as a child and throughout her teenage years; however, it is also evident that Marji feels the need to repay her grandmother for all she has done, and becoming a prophet appears to be her way of doing this. The grandmother remains a steady role model throughout the memoir, while concurrently providing an abundance of warmth and safety. Before Marji leaves for Austria, her last moment with her grandmother seems to be one she cherishes and remembers, as she explains how, “When she undressed, you could see the flowers fall from her breasts” (150). Marji almost idolizes her grandmother, seeing through her age to the radiance that lies underneath. As Marji deals with puberty later in the novel, she struggles with femininity, so it would make sense that she would appreciate the steps her grandmother takes to feel feminine, from picking “jasmine flowers to put in her bra” (150) to soaking “them [her breasts] in a bowl of ice water for ten minutes” (150). Family plays a fundamental part in guiding their children through their confusing, awkward teenage years, but because Marji moves away from her parents at such a young age, she is forced to soak up all the advice she can before departing. Breasts can be used to symbolize nurturing, growth, and transformation, as they are a necessity for babies who breastfeed, but after a certain age they are no longer an imperative resource. In an unconventional way, the grandmother’s breasts amplify the way Marji desperately relies on her grandmother as a child, but slowly becomes less dependent on family as she progresses through life. Although the grandmother vastly contributed to the foundation that allowed Marji to grow and develop away from home and ultimately shape her identity.

As Marji’s journey to adulthood progresses, she transforms, learns, makes mistakes, and faces consequences for them, but the thoughtful words of her grandmother consistently hold her morally accountable for the decisions she makes. The grandmother gives Marji powerful advice before she leaves for Austria, whispering, “Always keep your dignity and be true to yourself (150). This notion obviously strikes a chord with Marji as it follows her throughout her Austrian experiences and pulls her back to her Persian roots when she begins to stray from them. The wisdom exerted on that night is referenced many times as Marji’s story progresses, acting as a moral compass. In order to find her place in Austrian society, Marji begins to avoid discussing heritage in order to distance herself from stereotypes; however, when she does this, she feels immense guilt. In Austria, she attends a school party in which a boy asks her where she is from and she introduces herself as French. Marji then comes to the realization that it is much easier to lie about being Iranian than to bear the burdens of telling the truth, though later that night she thinks to herself, “I remembered that line my grandmother told me” (195). In a new community surrounded by new people, Marji holds her grandmother’s words close to her heart, exposing the universally experienced impact family can have on growing minds. The grandmother’s single piece of advice evokes feelings of guilt in Marji that fortunately hinder her from betraying her background. While disregarding her heritage seems like the simplest solution, it was bound to have caused inevitable feelings of self-reproach if it had not been for the guidance of the grandmother.

By the time Marji returns to Iran, she has become her own person, though the acceptance of her family remains a primary concern, grounding her in confusing situations. When Marji frames an innocent man in order to distract the guardians of the revolution from her controversial lipstick, she finds the situation comical. Though this humorous attitude is abruptly stripped when she explains it to her grandmother who responds, “It’s the blood of your grandpa and your uncle that runs in your veins! Shame on you!” (291). This is a turning point in Marji’s life, a situation in which she decides she never wants to feel the guilt of dishonoring her family again. She makes showing respect to her ancestors a top priority in order to gain her grandmother’s forgiveness, which is more easily attainable than Marji expected. The significance of family is depicted through the inevitable reconciliation between Marji and her grandmother, alongside Marji’s sudden urge to better her character after the argument. When Marji becomes more independent in her decision making, her grandmother appears less and less. The guardian angel of the novel begins to fade as Marji gets married and continues on with her life. During her final departure from Iran (341), the grandmother does not start crying until the last panel, when everyone else is smiling. Marji had viewed her grandmother as a figure of strength and wisdom throughout her childhood and this vigor falters for the first time as the novel concludes. The tears of the grandmother reveal that Marji no longer needs the stabilizing factor of her family as much as she used to, because she is now an independent women with a future of her own. Marji then reflects on her grandmother and the pivotal role she has played, narrating, “I only saw her again once, during the Iranian New Year in March 1995. She died January 4, 1996… freedom had a price” (341). To be free, Marji had to leave her family, causing her to be unable to say goodbye to her grandmother, but Marji does not seem to express severe sorrow, because she now has a firm grasp on life and is done learning from her elders. This is the final separation between Marji and the family that provided her foundation, expressing how the grandmother further represents the Satrapi past, family pride, and cultural values.

For Iranians during the era Marji grew up in, poverty, death, and brutality was conventional, so civilians—especially children—had no choice but to turn to family when hopelessness began to take its toll. As a child in Iran, a teenager adapting to Austrian society, and a young women moving to Europe, family, especially the grandmother, reminds Marji to honor her heritage and be proud of her moral values. Society teaches the younger generations to conceal anything abnormal, creating insecurities for many, and leading those with distinct cultures, like Marji, to distance themselves from their roots. This not only leads to undiversified communities, but it can be tormenting for those whose values define them. Marji was fortunate enough to have the stable foundation of a close-knit family during the turmoil caused by the Iranian revolution, though without the wisdom, support, and hope put forth by the grandmother, Marji would not be the resilient, self-sufficient women she became.