Persepolis Summary

Marjane Satrapi


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Persepolis Summary

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Persepolis is an autobiography told in graphic novel form by Iranian-born French cartoonist Marjane Satrapi, first published in the US in 2003 with a second volume released in the U.S. in 2004. Following Satrapi’s tumultuous life in Iran from childhood, during and after the Islamic revolution, Persepolis explores themes of women’s rights, religion, rebellion, and the lives of ordinary people as history changes around them. The first book covers Satrapi’s childhood up until she is sent out of the country to study in Europe. Persepolis is considered one of the greatest works of graphic fiction of the modern era, having been named the fifth best nonfiction book of the decade by Newsweek. A film adaptation co-directed by Satrapi was released in 2007 and was nominated for best animated feature at the Academy Awards.

Persepolis begins in 1980, when Marjane – called Marji in the book – is 10 years old. It is the year after the Islamic Revolution. Girls are now obliged to wear the veil and segregated by sex in school. Secular education is banned. Marji chafes under the veil and attempts to speak out against injustices in society. She reminisces about the Zoroastrian traditions that are now banned. As she observes the oppression going on around her, she studies up on other revolutions in history and becomes more anti-authoritarian. She wants to attend protests, but is barred due to her youth. Her father tries to tell her about her historical and family background as opposed to the propaganda she learns in school. Her father tells her about the brutality of the Shah, and how her grandfather was tortured by the radicals. She’s shocked to learn that the man who the shah overthrew was her great-grandfather. She learns more of this story from her grandmother, who comes to visit. She lived through a lot of these experiences, and Marji is shocked to learn how much she doesn’t know about her country’s history.

As Marji continues to read as much as she can, including socialist literature, she becomes more and more aware of class structure around her. She remembers how her nursemaid, Mehri was treated and how her heart was broken by a boy she loved when he found out she was a maid. She talks to Mehri and asks her to join the protests on the anniversary of Black Friday, a day commemorating a massacre during the Shah’s time. They are sternly reprimanded by Marji’s mother when they return. Marji continues to read up more on the Shah and the revolution, and begins advocating action against her classmates who were children of the Shah’s enforcers. Marji’s mother urges her to be more tolerant, and she later gets to meet two family friends who were tortured by the Shah and were only released a year ago. She is later excited to meet her Uncle Anoosh, a former communist revolutionary who was imprisoned for nine years and later escaped to the USSR where he became a communist scholar. Anoosh believes that the only way that Iran will be free is if more people become literate and learned like she wants to be. However, with the creation of the Islamic Republic, the place becomes increasingly hostile for people with radical views. Many of Anoosh’s friends are found dead, and Anoosh is arrested as a Russian spy and executed. Marji begins to lose her faith in her grief as the political situation in Iran deteriorates and the conflict with the United States begins to ramp up.

As fundamentalist students seize the US embassy, the chances for Marji and her family to leave Iran to join friends and family in the US slam shut. The Universities are closed, and Marji is crushed at losing the chance for an education. Marji’s mother is assaulted by fundamentalists for not wearing a veil, and the family begins to pretend that they have always been religious. The family travels on a vacation to Spain, only to return when war breaks out with Iraq. F-14s fly overhead, and Marji’s friends lose family members to the bombings. Strife comes to their neighborhood, and people begin hoarding food. An old childhood friend of Marji’s mother has her home destroyed, and comes seeking refuge at their home.

As the war rages, Marji continues to wrestle with her growing distrust of her government and her hatred for the system that sends so many people to their deaths. She becomes more and more interested in the illegal subculture of punk rock, which her mother is horrified by. The family is frequently threatened by Iraqi air raids. At one point, the Guardians of the Revolution search their house, and Marji’s parents are terrified that their daughter’s illegal activities will be discovered, but the family manages to convince them to leave. This leads to further conflicts between Marji and her mother, as her mother becomes more traditional and Marji more rebellious. Marji smokes her first cigarette as an act of defiance. Marji’s uncle dies of a heart attack when he is not able to get a passport for treatment in time, and it’s another year before the borders are fully reopened again. When this happens, Marji’s parents go alone on a vacation to Turkey and bring back many forbidden western items.

As the Iran-Iraq war continues to rage, Marji grows more rebellious and clashes with the women’s branch of the Guardians, who threaten to arrest her for her western gear and music. She manages to convince them to let her go. Tragedy soon strikes Marji’s street, when a Scud missile from Iraq hits the home of her Jewish neighbors. The young daughter of the family is killed, and Marji is overcome with rage. This leads her to openly rebel against the government, leading to her expulsion from school. Marji’s mother fears that she will be executed if she continues to defy the government, so the family decides to send Marji to Austria to attend French school. Marji’s story continues in Persepolis 2.

Most of the events in Persepolis were based directly on the life of Marjane Satrapi. Since the release of Persepolis, Satrapi has become an internationally regarded figure in modern literature. Her follow-up to Persepolis, Chicken with Plums, follows the last days of the life of Nasser Ali Khan in 1958. Khan was a relative of Satrapi’s. She is a three-time winner of the Angouleme award for her French-language originals, and is active in political causes worldwide, especially relating to Iranian politics and the oppressive government structure.