The Complete Persepolis, an autobiographical novel by Marjane Satrapi, tells the tale of Marjane’s childhood in Iran. In this story, Marjane (Marji) is brought up by communistic parents. Evidence of this Marxist upbringing is displayed several times throughout the book, most especially when Marji exclaims that “it was funny to see how much Marx and God looked like each other” (Satrapi 13). The audience can analyze Persepolis through a Marxist lens to see how particular ideas, specifically the ideology of consumerism, oppress Marjane, her family, and Iranian civilians overall. The main principle behind Marxism is that the acquisition of wealth and goods is what motivates all political and social activities. The audience can see how the Iranian regime utilizes this ideology to subjugate the proletariat in Iran, and how the lower class turns to religion for reprieve. By analyzing Marjane’s family specifically, the reader can realize that the Satrapi family is driven and oppressed by this system of obtaining and maintaining economic power. This analyzation of the Satrapis also sheds light on the rest of Iran and how this consumeristic lifestyle and reliance on religion hurts the country’s citizens.
The idea behind Marxism is that consumerism makes people feel as though their self-worth corresponds with what they buy (Furnham). This philosophy has two purposes: it creates an artificial sense of empowerment for the citizens while helping to placate sentiments of rebellion. To see how Marjane and her family are affected by consumerism, it is necessary to take into account the family’s status in the social hierarchy of Iran. Though Satrapi never states her family’s economic standing outright, the audience can easily conclude that her family is financially comfortable. Even in light of a raging war and a tyrannical government, Marjane’s parents still have money to buy her expensive items from America and even send her to Austria so that she can receive the benefits of a Western education.
However, not everyone in Iran enjoys this comfortable status. The reader is frequently exposed to the struggles of the lower class, like when the destitute boys of Iran are persuaded by the regime to join the war, while the upper class children who are the same age get to attend parties and not have to worry about such matters (Satrapi 99-102). Even at a young age, Marjane realizes that she belongs to a class that is much better off than those who surround her. She even feels guilty about basic things around her, like the fact that “our maid did not eat with us” and “my father had a Cadillac” (Satrapi 6). As for these manipulated boys, the regime uses consumerism to exploit them, promising material goods in heaven in exchange for their lives sacrificed in war. Because of this consumeristic attitude, these boys are quick to give up their lives for the oppressive government, ruining their futures and tearing apart their families.
Analyzing the relationship between the different social classes in Iran and Marxism is critical to understanding how consumerism influences Marjane and her family. Her family’s status in the upper class means that Marjane and her parents are more likely to adhere to Karl Marx’s ideals because, as Marjane’s uncle solemnly acknowledges, “In a country where half the population is illiterate you cannot unite the people around Marx. The only thing that can really unite them is…a religious ethic” (Satrapi 62). That is, the citizens who are most affected by oppression (the lower class) do not have the necessary education and skills to fully appreciate and understand Marxist theory, which focuses on the problems of oppressive ideologies and class struggles. Instead, as Anoosh notes, they often turn to religion for comfort, with thoughts of a pleasant afterlife offering relief from present-day issues.
This theme of a reliance on religion can be traced back thousands of years to ancient Athens. Socrates faced much criticism for his belief that people should question everything and shouldn’t rely on religion to explain everything. He believed that people should be inquisitive about the natural world around them and use this curiosity to further advancements in science, philosophy, and more, instead of attributing everything to the will of the gods. In the same way, Uncle Anoosh serves a similar role as Socrates, lamenting the Iranian lower class’ inability to fully understand the issues causing their oppression and the way to relieve it. Instead, people tend to turn to religion for guidance and support through periods of hardship, which isn’t inherently bad, but does little to fix the systematic oppression they face.
Naomi Mandel, a professor of marketing at ASU, furthers this discussion about the relationship between consumerism, religion, and class. In studying religion’s effect on consumerism, Mandel discovered that “religion helps people to cope with fears such as death, or other life challenges — instead of turning to compensatory consumption [or spending to deal with]” (Worshipping at the Altar of Consumerism). In other words, the upper class liberals of Iran, such as the Satrapis, who adhere to the Marxist ideology may be less oppressed by the doctrine of religion, but the family is more susceptible to suffer from oppression by the principles of consumerism. Naturally, this ironic relationship leads to the hypocrisy that Marjane begins to recognize within her own family. The best example of this occurs when Marjane recalls the time when their maid fell in love with the neighbor’s son. The pair sent each other love-letters until Marjane’s father ruined the relationship by informing the boy of her social status. Marjane’s father explains to her that “in this country you must stay within your own social class” (Satrapi 37). Although Marjane’s father believes in Marxism, he apparently does not adhere to the ideals strictly enough to attempt to change the oppressed status of the lower classes surrounding him. Even though her parents champion liberal values, they still fall victim to discriminating people by their social status and living extravagant lives while the proletariat suffers. Here, the graphic nature of the book is particularly useful in conveying this message by accentuating the emotional pain endured by the maid and the evident indifference of the father and neighbor (once he found out his lover was from a lower class).
This consumeristic attitude also harms upper class families like the Satrapis in the sense that their desire for and acquisition of goods helps placate their need for a rebellion. By purchasing Western goods like t-shirts, posters, music, and more, many Iranians could fall prey to complacency, as they use these objects as a way to escape their current condition. Similar to how the citizens in the lower class use religion as a means of freedom from their oppression, the upper class can begin to satiate their need for rebellion and liberation through small, rebellious acts like throwing a party, that do nothing to improve the current political climate and risk their own lives.
Persepolis craftily highlights some of the issues with Marxist ideology and religion that pervaded late 20th century Iran. Marjane Satrapi artfully portrays how the prevalent consumeristic attitude of the time led to a preservation of economic inequality, and the detrimental effects consumerism and religion had.
Furnham, Adrian. “Affluenza: The Psychology of Wealth.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 28 Aug. 2014, www.psychologytoday.com/blog/sideways-view/201408/affluenza-the-psychology-wealth.
Maloney, Suzanne. “Iran Primer: The Revolutionary Economy.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 26 Oct. 2010, www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/tehranbureau/2010/10/iran-primer-the-revolutionary-economy.html.
Satrapi, Marjane. The Complete Persepolis. New York: Pantheon, 2007. Print.
“Worshipping at the Altar of Consumerism.” Research and Ideas, 23 May 2017, research.wpcarey.asu.edu/worshipping-at-the-altar-of-consumerism/.