Trauma in Persepolis: A Catalyst for Change

The autobiographical graphic novel Persepolis follows the journey of Marjane Satrapi’s life as she experiences the dangers of the Iran war. Satrapi’s narrative provides a personal look into life during the Iran war, following her throughout not only her childhood in Iran but into her travels as a teenager up until her departure to France as an adult. Throughout her childhood and adolescence she is faced with many painful events and obstacles due to the consequences of the war, which have shaped her character. Satrapi displays how her personal growth is shaped by moments of trauma, through the execution of her Uncle Anoosh, her survivor’s guilt while in Austria, and her attempted suicide in Iran. These occurrences serve to develop her character and transform her into the person she is by the end of the book.

During her childhood, Marji is forced to learn about death at a young age when her uncle Anoosh is executed. This traumatic event shifts Marji’s perspective on death and religion. The top panel of page 70 (see figure 1) depicts a newspaper with the cover story “Russian Spy Executed,” along with a picture of Anoosh and the two swans made of bread he gave Marji. This image follows after saying goodbye to him, and she thinks, “That was my last time meeting with my beloved Anoosh” (70). Marji is forced to cope with the death of her uncle during a vital point in her development. By being exposed to death so vividly at such an early age, she is forced to face the tragic realities of war, something that children should not have to experience. Up until this point, Marji had only a vague idea of what war encompasses, shifting her perspective of death as she realizes the permanence. She is turning away from her childhood games of “torture and killing” and is beginning to realize the severity of death. The depiction of young Maji floating in space on the full-page panel on page 71 (see figure 2) with the caption “And so I was lost, without any bearings, what could be worse than that? It was the beginning of the war” (71). Marji has just experienced losing a loved one for the first time causing her to feel lost and thrown off balance. On page 70 when God comes into her room, she yells angrily at him, telling him to “Get out!” (see figure 3). She feels betrayed and begins to question why God lets bad things happen, she feels lost after this encounter with God. First, she loses her role model Uncle Anoosh, and now she has banished God who until that point had guided her through the obstacles in her life. She finds herself alone, without anyone to comfort her, neither God nor Anoosh can offer their reassuring advice. The image shows her floating in space, which is representative of how empty and alone she feels. The loss of her uncle leads her to question her faith, shaping her into a person who no longer believes in God’s power to command justice. This trauma serves as a rude awakening to Marji, creating the war and all its consequences to be much more tangible to her as she no longer has God or Uncle Anoosh as her support system.

In her adolescence Marji moves to Austria. There, Marji is haunted by the fact that her loved ones in Iran are in danger while she is safe now in Austria. Additionally, she is forced to hide her Iranian identity for fear of being stereotyped in her new country. The first panel on page 194 (see figure 4) displays Marji looking at a TV set where there is news playing about a bombing in Iran, her face is sad, she narrates, “I felt so guilty that whenever there was news about Iran, I changed the channel” (194). Marji begins to develop survivor’s guilt for being in Austria while her family is left at home in Iran. She feels as though she is not doing anything for her home country and as a result, she begins to perceive herself as a disappointment because of the vices she’s gained. Because of all the sacrifices her parents made to send her to Austria, Marji believes she should be excelling in life. This shame of not doing enough and feeling like she is letting down her parents builds up until she begins to push thoughts of Iran to the side altogether. As she begins to to push away her memories of Iran, in order not to feel guilty, she progressively distances herself from her culture, eventually denying it altogether out of fear of being judged. The top panel of page 197 (see figure 5) shows Marji yelling at the girls who are gossiping about her for being Iranian, the font is exaggerated and aggressive: “You are going to shut up or I am going to make you! I am Iranian and proud of it!” (197). After denying her nationality on various occasions to avoid being targeted, she realizes she needs to be who she is unapologetically. The size of the font symbolizes how she is taking control and saying it loud and proud, this serves as a redemption for continuously denying her Iranian self. After declaring this she feels much more confident and comfortable in her own skin. Through experiencing survivor’s guilt and attempting to disregard her heritage she is faced with the dilemma of being vocal and proud about her roots and risk being discriminated against or remaining quiet and avoid judgement. She chooses to be true to her roots and proclaim her nationality, this helps establish Marji as a strong woman who stays true to the morals instilled in her by her Iranian upbringing.

Marji moves back to Iran as an adult and due to her displacement she feels alienated in her home country and attempts suicide. After Marji attempts suicide, her therapist could not comprehend how she survived after consuming such a large dosage and in response to this she narrates, “I inferred from this that I was not made to die” (273) (see figure 6). Her attempted suicide serves as a catalyst for beginning her “new life,” shortly after surviving she feels a purpose for living. It is as if some higher power has saved her from not dying and this keeps her going. This traumatic moment serves to coax her into changing her life and putting in extra effort. These efforts prove beneficiary in the future. Marji transforms herself and becomes what she describes as a “sophisticated woman” (274). This panel (see figure 7) portrays the “new” Marji, she is wearing a dress, makeup, and has gotten her hair professionally done. It shows how she has gone through a makeover in order to jumpstart the transition into her new life.

All of Marji’s emotions have been repressed for years because of the trauma she has gone through. As she begins to change herself she’s becomes more in touch with who she is, she begins to direct her life towards new goals. She goes back to school and eventually moves to France to pursue a higher education and to be able to live as she yearns for. Had it not been for the trauma’s Marji experienced she would not have developed into the person she is at the end of the novel. In Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi thus illustrates how moments of trauma source growth and change, through three major events in her life. She illustrates how events in life can change people and shape them into who they are, regardless of how much control they have over the situation.

Appendix

Figure 1 (pg. 70) Figure 2 (pg. 71) Figure 3 (pg. 70) Figure 4 (pg. 194)Figure 5 (pg. 197) Figure 6 (pg. 273) Figure 7 (pg. 274)