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Narrative and Graphic Framing of Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Introduction

Persepolis is a graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi, published for the first time in 2000-2003 in France. The work is autobiographical and depicts the author’s adolescence in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. Ostby notes that the narrative is a “cross-cultural self-representation and misinterpretation that has proved both entertaining and instructive for both academic and popular readers” (558). Persepolis reflects the cultural and political paradoxes of modern Iran through a multi-layered description of the daily life of ordinary people. In particular, Satrapideliberately uses stories of “people and nation traditionally marginalized in mainstream discourses” (Naghibi and O’Malley 305). Literal and graphic framing of individual stories helps the author to depict a conflict between political and personal as well as reveal the contradictory identity of Iran.

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The plot of the story focuses on Marjane herself, whom family and friends call Marji. Her family belongs to the upper-middle class of society and the left political wing. The girl’s childhood passes through a difficult political period when she is experiencing the loss of friends and relatives. In particular, young Marji contemplates the tortures of political dissidents and the dramatic events of the Iran-Iraq war. At the end of the first volume, parents send their fourteen-year-old daughter to Austria in the hope of insulating her from the reality of her home country. Persepolis 2 tells about the author’s life in Vienna and her return to Iran. In the West, she gains a new experience that opens the life of people from the other side for her. However, disillusioned with a freer European life, she decides to return to Iran. After an unsuccessful marriage at home and receiving a bachelor’s degree, Satrapi leaves for France, where he lives permanently.

Persepolis is a phenomenon in the world of comic books, as it is a precedent for the development of this trend in the Middle East. In particular, Satrapi managed to shape a new area of ​​non-Western comics about social justice, war, and revolution (Naghibi and O’Malley 307). In particular, this experience has shaped the genre of comic books about migrants, which, however, cannot be compared with the initial success of Persepolis. Moreover, Satrapi’s work has attracted researchers from various fields to draw attention to comic books as a source of knowledge about the world and society. Ezzatikarami and Ameri emphasize that many critics claim that Persepolis “has significantly released Iran from the confines of oddities attributed to the East” (122). Researchers also note that Satrapi’s work features an Orientalist view of Iranian culture and history (Ezzatikarami and Ameri 123). In particular, the author expresses his negative attitude towards the practice of veiling and the participation of women in the Iran-Iraq war.

Graphic Narrative

The success of Persepolis lies in the hybridity of the genre Satrapi used, as well as unusual features, including a child narrator and graphic framing. Marji acts not only as a participant in history but also as a guide to the world of Iranian culture and politics. The girl tells a Western reader who may not be familiar with the context of the Midwest about important aspects of the history and philosophy of her homeland (Reyns and Lazreg 408). Moreover, Persepolis uses unique graphical storytelling to show the reader how to perceive the comic book. Satrapi presents information and history either through the interaction of text and pictures or exclusively through illustrations when the events are unspeakable (Reyns and Lazreg 409). Thus, the work presents both artistic and semantic context, which makes the book remarkable. Reyns and Lazreg also note that using black and white colors in Persepolis is meant to distinguish between high and low culture (410). However, this choice can also be made because of childhood memories as the basis of the story, the traumatic nature of the events described, or the cultural neutrality of the colors.

Particular attention in the context of the discussed topics should be paid to the representation of new technologies, media, and pop culture in the book. Marji, as a character, does not always understand the difference between the traditional Eastern and the modern Western, which is reflected in the attributes presented in her narrative (Reyns and Lazreg 410). In particular, this aspect is expressed in the image of the author sad when she talks about such a division. Satrapi also emphasizes this by describing the clothes when Marji wears Nike and a denim jacket paired with a traditional headscarf. The author’s inner conflict is built on a “series of shifting affiliations and growing awareness of the complexity of religious, ideological, gender, class, and even literary issues” (cited in Reyns and Lazreg 412). Thus, Satrapi’s desire to avoid the colorful comic book images typical of the West, as well as the traditional Eastern art, is an attempt to express the contradiction she encountered in her homeland.

Through the hybridity of his graphic style, the author expresses her belonging to two different worlds. On the one hand, she lives in the context of the Middle East with its traditions, ideology, and religions. On the other hand, intellectually, she belongs to a more modern and progressive Western society. In this case, framing plays a special role in the story. Through the representation of illustrations of individuals, Satrapi describes the bigger picture. However, the author does this to deconstruct the image of Iran and depict its context in personal stories.

Framing

Framing is an important part of Persepolis as it helps the author to appeal to the reader. Elahi gives an example of how presenting a framed photograph of Marji and her Austrian friend allows Satrapi to identify herself as part of European society (315). Moreover, the image of the narrator’s hands holding the frame and looking at it allows the reader to consider the events from her point of view. Elahi calls it a mirroring that “functions both at the abstract ideological level and at the pictorial level in Persepolis” (315). Thus, the author focuses on how Marji (her autobiographical representation) is searching for her identity. Additionally, the author describes her as a complex individual with which the reader can relate and identify the perception.

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Persepolis also uses forms of interpellation function to portray Marji’s autobiographical identity. For example, episodes of the author’s interaction with the police and the ideological pressure of the state on their personalities are a literal depiction. However, Elahi also notes that they work as a metaphor for the broader processes of ideological suppression in the Islamic Republic of Iran (317). Satrapi uses images of European and Western society, which permeates the Middle East despite state control. The author describes how she embraced the Western new wave and punk culture as a teenager. In particular, she uses posters of Western musicians as a depiction of Marji’s dreams of a different culture. Thus, Elahi calls the central theme of Persepolis “the attempt to piece together a divided identity, a fragmented subjectivity” (318). In more detail, this means Marji’s subconscious desire to combine the ideological perception of traditional monolithic Islam and an inner leaning toward Western society.

The split image of Marjah wearing a hijab on the one side and her free from the traditional headscarf on the other is the most literal representation of the contradiction which the author encounters. This image illustrates the dichotomy between Eastern Islamic tradition and Western ideological freedom. However, it is increasingly difficult for the author to keep them separate, as they become the subjective identity of the author. In particular, she ceases to associate herself with Western culture or with monolithic Islam but appeals to various aspects of her life which construct her personality. Although Satrapi uses her own interpretation of stereotypical images of Iran or Europe, she does not replace them with real objects devoid of political context. Instead, she uses a representation of the subjective perception of society’s propaganda to create a hybrid illustration of her inner conflict.

National Identity as a Basis of Self

Additionally, Persepolis portrays Iran as a complex ideological structure with neo-orientalist stereotypes. This is how stereotypes were formed “at the intersection of discourses shaped by royalists, Islamists, and intellectuals” (Ostby 570). Satrapi comes to the conclusion that the Eastern culture, like the Western one, is heterogeneous and mutually influencing. The author emphasizes that it is impossible to simply define Iran from the point of view of Western orientalism since its image is much broader. The culture and ideology of the Islamic world were not torn apart by the revolution but were formed under the influence of many factors for a long time, including the participation of the West. To represent the complex image of Iran, the author uses “the comic book, the novel, the diary, the travel narrative, the Persian miniature painting, the caricature, and the newspaper” (Ostby 570). All genres have been prevalent in different cultures and at various times, which underlines the heterogeneity of Iran in the representation of Satrapi.

The graphic novel manifests its dualism in many elements, including the use of frames as well as signatures for them as Persian miniatures, as well as in the shift between traditional Tehran and multicultural Europe. The author constantly criticizes Western imperialism along with the regime of ideological oppression in Iran (Menzies 2). This dualistic position is the basis of Satrapi’s work; she does not support any point of view, but she does not reject them completely at the same time. Menzies underlines that “Satrapi takes on the role of “cultural translator” for Western and Iranian audiences alike” (2). Thus, her identity is based on multiculturalism as an Iranian refugee in Europe.

The concept of national identity is inseparable from the perception of oneself for Satrapi, which is described in Persepolis. Throughout the book, one can see how Iranian society is struggling with ideological pressure and absolute power (Maggi 99). The constant disregard for traditional trappings such as the veil is a feature of the society in which Marji lives. Thus, the context of the Middle East in which people stereotypically submit to tyranny and dictatorship creates contradiction and dualism in Persepolis. The reader observes that in everyday life, Iranians do not support and resist ideology and traditions, but they do it covertly. In the same way, the narrator rushes between European and Eastern values, unable to determine her belonging. This aspect creates a framework for the whole work, as Persepolis widely criticizes the nationalism of the Iranian state, which is a lie.

This discussion may lead to the idea that Satrapi denies national identity as well as nationalism. However, Maggi notes that “Satrapi’s work “urges the reader to dissociate the identity of a nation from its government and religion and from the extremists they foster” (102). At the same time, Satrapi also criticizes the process of westernization of the country as its leader seems cruel and unjust. Moreover, being in Vienna, the protagonist is homesick, and her sentiments express her national identity as well.

Despite criticism of the existing order, Satrapi also tries to justify his country in the eyes of the Western public. Nevertheless, Ezzatikarami and Ameri point out that through criticism of Western society, on the contrary, she strengthened a negative position in relation to the East (129). According to researchers, Satrapi offers a culturally and historically blind idea of ​​a multicultural society that is based on human rights (Ezzatikarami and Ameri 129). It is also noted that by rejecting the customs and traditions of other people, the author devalues ​​their experience and significance. However, this point of view does not seem to be justified since Satrapi does not reject either his cultural identity or his Western views. Despite the fact that she is a struggle within the framework of Iranian ideology, she does not deny its cultural and historical heritage. Assimilating certain features of Western culture, the author, on the contrary, presents a more complex dualistic model.

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Conclusion

Narrative lives reflect the fragmented personality of the narrator. Her beliefs and ideas about the world are fragmentary since she cannot fully accept either the Eastern or the Western point of view. Additionally, Satrapi does not reject any of the cultures she interacts with. Her identity is contradictory since, on the one hand, she criticizes the nationalist regime of Iran, but on the other hand, she does not abandon its traditions. In particular, she supports Western culture but fears its introduction to the Middle East. The conflict of the political and the personal in this case develops into the relationship between the ideological and the intellectual, the traditional and the progressive, the eastern and the western. The Islamic Revolution, which is at the center of the narrative, is a watershed moment when Satrapi loses the balance between her multicultural values.

Persepolis is a complex multi-layered work in which Satrapi reflects, through the narrator, the process of constructing his identity. The author tries to simultaneously abandon his national identity and preserve it in the Western world. Like all Iranians, she ignores the ideological oppression from which she has the opportunity to flee to Europe. Although she does so openly, and not covertly like her compatriots, an inner desire for the traditions of the Middle East is present in her, which creates a cultural conflict of her identity. Thus, Persepolis is more of a story about the search for one’s personality within the framework of national self-consciousness than a political or humanistic manifesto. Satrapi, one way or another, declares that one cannot run away from one’s national identity, even if it belongs to an absolutist state.

Works Cited

Elahi, Babak. “Frames and Mirrors in Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis.” Symploke, vol. 15, no. 1-2, 2007, pp. 312-325. Web.

Ezzatikarami, Mahdiyeh, and Ameri, Firouzeh. “Persepolis and Human Rights: Unveiling Westernized Globalization Strategies in Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis.” International Journal of Applied Linguistics & English Literature, vol. 8, no. 5, 2019, pp. 122-130. Web.

Maggi, Diego. “Orientalism, Gender, and Nation Defied by an Iranian Woman: Feminist Orientalism and National Identity in Satrapi’s Persepolis and Persepolis 2.” Journal of International Women’s Studies, vol. 21, no. 1, 2020, pp. 89-105. Web.

Menzies, Sarah. “Retracing Traumatic Experience in Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis – The Entanglements of Collective History and Personal Memory.” Undergraduate Awards, 2019. Web.

Naghibi, Nima, and O’Malley, Andrew. “Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis.” Auto/Biography Studies, vol. 35, no. 2, 2020, pp. 305-309. Web.

Ostby, Marie. “Graphics and Global Dissent: Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, Persian Miniatures, and the Multifaceted Power of Comic Protest.” Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, vol. 132, no. 3, 2017, pp. 558-579. Web.

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Reyns, Chris, and Lazreg, Houssem. “The Discovery of Marjane Satrapi and the Translation of Works from and about the Middle East.” The Cambridge History of the Graphic Novel, edited by Jan Baetens, Hugo Frey and Stephen E. Tabachnick, Cambridge University Press, 2018, pp. 405-425. Web.

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