An Analysis of the Symbols and Themes of Persepolis, a Graphic Novel by Marjane Satrapi
Symbol and Theme in Persepolis
One symbol in the latter half of the graphic novel is cigarettes and smoking. In Marjane’s life, choosing to smoke is something she first does with friends, and later with her mother, that connects her to people. When anything to do with smoking is first introduced, it is at Marjane’s first party in Vienna, and she is shown to be unfamiliar with it entirely.
Later, with her friends, she smokes different drugs, and at first she doesn’t truly inhale them. This represents how she acts in order to try to fit in with them, although she isn’t truly being herself. When her mother coaxes her into giving her a cigarette when she visits, the two bond over the enjoyment. Then later, as Mariane becomes friends with Ingrid, she takes part in either smoking or taking drugs. The two spend “time either meditating or tripping.” In all of these scenes, a substance of some sort is passed between Marjane and a friend or family member, and it is a symbol of the type of relationship between them.
An overarching theme in Persepolis is that although our beliefs about the world change, where we came from will never change. As Marjane experiences highs and lows, the way she views the world changes. When she is a child, she believes in God and wants to be a prophet.
When she is a teen, she rebels against the oppressive government and begins to dream of the options a new society could give. When she arrives in Vienna as a young adult, she learns of communist and anarchical ideals, which shape her thinking. Her various relationships have effects on her, and at one point her depression seems to define her. In the end, despite her feelings of being too Western for Iran and too Iranian for the West, she still has the cultural heritage of her youth. Iran is a part of her, and before leaving it for the last time, she takes time to ingrain its beauty and peacefulness in her heart.
Half of a Yellow Sun Characters
Olanna and Kainene are the twin daughters of a wealthy couple from Lagos, both of whom have been educated in Europe. Olanna is a beautiful, down-toearth and character and has a relationship with Odenigbo. She is a key part to the plot when her family is directly impacted by “race”-related murder.
Odenigbo is a professor at the university in Nsukka for a time, but is generally a revolutionary thinker throughout the novel. He is influential in helping Biafra secede from Nigeria, which is pivotal in the plot. Ugwu is Odenigbo’s houseboy, who comes from a small village near Nsukka, and grows into a thoughtful young man and the writer of The Book featured throughout the novel. Richard is Kainene’s lover, an Englishman who is fascinated with Nigerian culture, and later becomes a reporter for the Biafran press. His part in the plotline is providing a somewhat-foreign viewpoint to the events that occur.
Alice is Olanna and Odenigbo’s neighbor in Umuahia who is extremely reserved until Olanna wins her trust by sharing some salt
with her. She has lost everything she had except for her piano, and she is a representative of many like her, although she is also a supporter of Nigeria and not Biafra. Ugwu is the character that is most sympathetic and changes the most over the course of the novel. Just like every human does, he changes as he comes of age. He starts as a fourteen-year-old boy who has known nothing but his family and village for his entire life, and has had no education. He begins to read, gain an education, and learn new ideas from his master, which transform his thinking.
Eventually, he himself becomes a teacher, and later writes a book. His sexuality also changes over time; at first he only indulges in pleasure-focused sex, but later, with Eberechi, he learns that there is much more to a relationship than just sex. Over time, Ugwu changes from a simpleminded village boy to a thoughtful, proud young man.
Essay question: What did you learn about the Biafran civil war from Half of a Yellow Sun characters’ observations?
From the characters of Half of a Yellow Sun, I not only got a more personal perspective on the Biafran civil war, but I also learned how violent and total the bloodshed and death was. Through Olanna and Richard’s characters, I saw first-hand the violence of the Hausa against the Igbo. Through all of the characters I learned how the civil war effected everyone, old and young, and that many people died from illness and disease and not from bullets. Finally, I learned that after the war ended, the injustice towards the Igbo did not end and they became a shamed people for a long time.
First of all, I had only been somewhat aware that African countries had dealt with many different uprisings and civil wars before, but learning about the Biafran civil war was completely new to me. As the war began, the scenes of sudden terrorist attacks by Hausa men were portrayed by the experiences of Olanna and Richard. Olanna, from the perspective of an Igbo person herself, encountered some of the worst circumstances. As she goes to visit her Igbo relatives after the beginning of the massacres, she finds them brutally slaughtered by Hausa men, and has to escape with the help of her Hausa friend, Muhammed.
Through Olanna’s perspective, I learned that this eruption of brutality on the part of the Hausa people included the massmurder of not only adult men and women, but also children. As long as a person was Igbo, they were considered an infidel by this predominantly Islamic group. I learned a little more of a distant perspective from Richard, as he is an Englishman living in Nigeria at the beginning of these violent events. He experiences an Igbo massacre while at an airport, but for days after, he has trouble feeling anything about this violence. His viewpoint shows what many European countries and America felt about the war in general. This explains why they were hesitant to get involved; they were outside of the culture and couldn’t fully understand the true conflict.
I also learned what wartime was like for the average Nigerian. For Olanna, Odenigbo, Ugwu, and Baby, wartime meant
slowly losing all that they had. At first, their only problem is getting away from the conflict, and they are able to lead regular lives despite the war. Then they lose their housing in the interior, and must move into a worse situation, as supplies dwindle as the war continues. People like Odenigbo’s little family not only lived in constant fear of bombings, but also began to fall ill in places with little to no medical treatment available. With supplies cut off by the Nigerian army, both Olanna and Kainene are privy to the world of the refugee camps full of starving, dying people. Through this, I learned that the Biafran civil war had an impact in not just soldier casualties, but also civilian casualties. Ugwu himself learns of the loss of his mother from disease rather than a bullet from the “vandals.”
After the end of the war, I learned from the perspective of Odenigbo’s family the shame and humiliation that was brought upon the Igbo people. First they are mistreated by Nigerian soldiers as they occupy the village that the family has retreated to, and they burn all of Odenigbo’s scholarly books. When things are beginning to return to normal, Olanna goes to Lagos to fetch money from her bank account, only to find that it no longer exists. Her feelings when she discovers this describes what many of the conquered Biafrans must have felt: “It was like being forcibly undressed; somebody had snatched at all her clothes and left her shivering naked in the cold.” From this, I learned that the Biafran civil war not only had consequences during the time of conflict, but left a wounded and torn country for quite some time.
In the end, learning about the Biafran civil war from the perspective of these characters made a more lasting impression on me than just reading about the war in the pages of a history book. I could connect more with the feelings of the characters as they first dealt with terrorist massacres which left them numb. Then, as they continued to try to survive through the war, the images of starving and dying children were also more tangible. Finally, the issues that they still dealt with after the war made me realize that the end of a military conflict does not mean the end of a struggle for a country as it rebuilds.
Going into watching this movie, I had very little knowledge about the relations between European-Australian people and the aborigine people groups. From the very beginning, I was shocked to learn that one man, A.O. Neville, was given the title of “Protector of the Aborigine Peoples,” as that is an extremely large amount of power to have. I also learned that the way he
d this power was to further his racist schemes; he had “half-caste” children (children with one white, and one aborigine parent) taken from their families and sent to boarding schools.
His intentions were to either prepare these children to be good servants for white households, or to raise them so that they could become a part of European-Australian society. In either of these circumstances, his intentions were that the half-caste person would have children with a white person, and that a line of “whiter” offspring would
be produced. And despite the clear injustice of this plan, this man actually believed that he was helping the half-caste people by doing this for them. Until watching this movie, I had not known at all how unjustly the aborigine and half-caste people were treated in Australia.