WT2 Q4 (Persepolis)

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi is a popular graphic novel that many schools use to meet their Part 3, Prescribed Literature in Translation (PLT) requirement. There are good reasons for its popularity among teachers and students (see blog post). If you are going to write a written task 2 on this text, have a look at what other students have written first.

As suggested in the lesson on quote hunting (which also deals with Persepolis), it is best to start with the themes of the literary work and find a question that lends itself well to these. If you are familiar with Persepolis, then you can see how several of the prescribed questions might be relevant. This student decided to respond to question 4:

"Which social groups are marginalized, excluded or silenced within the text?"

Before you read the sample critical response, be sure to read and understand the assessment criteria for the written task 2. Compare your marks to the examiner's marks below. You will also want to read the primary source below. Although this is only one of many pages that are referred to in the student's work, it gives you a frame of reference when reading the sample response.

Remember - You may wish to include a passage from the primary source when you upload your written task 2. This will help the examiner gain a sense of the text on which your critical response is based. This way he or she can make a more informed decision when awarding marks.

Primary source

Page 3
Marjane Satrapi

Sample critical response

Sample written task 2 - Question 4 (Persepolis)


Prescribed question: Which social groups are marginalized, excluded or silenced within the text?

Title of the text for analysis: Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi 2000

Part of the course to which the task refers:Part 3: Literature – text and context

My critical response will:

  • show how Marjane Satrapi grew up under oppression during the Islamic Revolution in Iran,
  • show how secularists, like Satrapi’s parents, also suffered and made sacrifices during this period,
  • show how others, such as nationalists and even Muslims, were tortured, executed and locked up,
  • demonstrate how the Marjane Satrapi uses various conventions of the graphic novel to achieve these ends.

Written task 2

It is often said that literature is a voice for the oppressed. Marjane Satrapi proves this point in her graphic novel / memoir Persepolis, in which she shows how children, secularists, nationalists and even Muslims were marginalized, excluded and silenced in Iran during the Islamic revolution in the 1980s. Her work serves as a voice for those who were oppressed.

From the first page of the graphic novel the author explores the theme of growing up under oppression. She introduces herself and the troubles of the Islamic revolution through the symbol of the veil. The first frame of the first page presents a portrait of Marjane Satrapi wearing the veil, looking expressionless and without identity. The caption reads, ‘This is me when I was ten years old. This was in 1980’ (p. 3). The text and image could not be simpler or more to the truth. The reader hears the voice of the author, looking back on her childhood, showing us a picture of herself, veiled and depressed. In the next frame, you cannot tell Marjane from the others in her ‘class photo’, as they are all covered and depressed. Through cartooning, the author is able to exaggerate these features and simplify complicated matters. Furthermore the graphic novel allows her to explore this theme further in the splash at the bottom of page 3, where the reader sees many children on the playground, jumping rope with several veils tied together, using the veil as a ‘monster’ mask, and taking off the veil because it is too hot. One veiled ten-year-old chokes an unveiled ten-year-old and says ‘execution in the name of freedom.’ From this point, the reader knows that Satrapi is going to juxtapose the innocence of childhood with the seriousness of the Islamic Revolution in order to show how oppressive the Iranian regime was.

In her memoir, Marjane Satrapi continues to explore the theme of oppression. Besides focusing on her own troubles of growing up during the Revolution, she also sheds light on her parent’s struggle with the ruling Islamic Party. She comes to realize that her parents’ beliefs are opposite to those of the regime. While her parents drink alcohol, read intellectual books, have parties and enjoy a wealthy lifestyle, the Guards of the Revolution police this behaviour, execute such secularists and hate any signs of wealth. In one frame Marjane helps her mother pour alcohol down the toilet, as the police threaten to search their apartment (p.110). In another frame, Marjane’s mother puts tape on the windows, as a safeguard against the Iraqi bombings, and black curtains over the windows, to prevent the neighbours from seeing their parties (p.105). She tells this story of her parents living in fear through very stark, black and white drawings, which show the contrast between the evil theocratic regime and her good secular parents. This contrast culminates in the final page of the novel, when her parents send her to Austria to protect the life of their only child from the horrors of war and the dangers of the Islamic regime. In one frame a bearded guard is searching through her suitcase at the airport. In the next frame her mother faints from sorrow as she says goodbye to her daughter (p.153). This scene shows the sacrifices that the elite secularists had to make at the hands of fundamental Muslims.

As one reads this graphic novel, one understands how so many people in Iran, not only Marjane and her secular parents, were systematically silenced. When the Islamic Revolutionists overthrew the Shah in 1979, they imprisoned Persian nationalists and the Shah’s military, including the fighter pilots who were needed during the Iraqi attacks (p.83). This is one of several stories that Satrapi tells of people who were hurt, killed or locked up by the extremists in government. These stories are signs of the times in which she lives, which she can easily tell through voiceovers, jumps between comic frames, dialogue bubbles and iconic images. She depicts how even devout Muslims were oppressed by their own beliefs, as one frame shows a man flogging himself and another frame shows an army of veiled women beating their chests and making chants about martyrs (p.96). Through these devices she is able to give the reader a bird’s eye view of the atrocities that everyone suffered and the frenzy in which society found itself. One starts to feel sorry for the children who brag to each other on the school square about how often they pray each day (p.75).

To conclude, Marjane Satrapi tells how she, her parents and so many others were silenced and oppressed in the 1980s in Iran. The graphic novel, as a medium allows her to depict black and white, stark images that emphasize the conflicts of the times. It makes such atrocities very accessible, and it allows the reader to easily identify with the narrator and main character. For an outsider, Satrapi’s images of Iran and the stories she tells are very shocking, because one’s sees how such injustice can happen in the name of freedom and religion.

(937 words)

Works cited

Satrapi, Marjane. Persepolis. New York: Pantheon, 2003. Print

Examiner's comments

Criterion A - Outline - 2 marks

The outline clearly states the focus of the task

2 out of 2 - The outline gives a good indication of which social groups will be discussed in the structure of the critical response.

Criterion B - Response to question - 8 marks

Student explores all of the implications of the prescribed question chosen. The critical response must be focused on and relevant to the prescribed question. Furthermore, the response is supported by well-chosen examples from the text(s).

6 out of 8 - To a great extent the student explores the implications of the question by focusing on secularists, Muslims and elitists in Iran in the 1980s. However, the candidate could have commented on and defined better the notion of 'silence, marginalize and excluded'. The response mentions the veil and imprisonment, but only in passing. Not all paragraphs had the depth of the first body paragraph, which analyzes the importance of the well-chosen examples from the text.

Criterion C - Organization and argument - 5 marks

The response must be well organized and effectively structured in order to score top marks for this criterion. The response should make a case and develop it thoroughly.

4 out of 5 - Generally speaking the essay is very well organized. Each paragraph is directed by a topic sentence. The final body paragraph, however, seems vague in its focus. It is not clear how the fighter pilots contribute to the main argument. It is also not clear how Muslims are oppressed under an Islamic regime.

Criterion D - Language and style - 5 marks

The response must be written effectively and accurately. Students should use an academic register and strong style.

5 out of 5 - The essay uses appropriate terminology to describe the features of a graphic novel, including words such as 'splash' and 'voiceover'. Furthermore, sentence structures are complex and fluent.

Teacher talk

This written task raises several questions about the analysis of graphic novels and the nature of the prescribed question. Furthermore you may wonder which questions work well for Persepolis.

Graphic novels, prescribed questions and Persepolis

How does one write about a graphic novel? As you can see the candidate incorporates several text-specific terms into the critical response, i.e 'splash' and 'voiceover'. However, these are not the main focus of the essay. Instead the candidate is wise to focus on answering the question and discussing the notion of marginalization within the context of the text. If question 5 or 6 from the prescribed questions had been chosen (on the conventions of the text type and the use of 'borrowing' from other texts), then there would have been a case to explore graphic novel terminology further. This point raises a question about the questions: How must we interpret them? Let us see how they apply to Persepolis.
  1. How could the text be read and interpreted differently by two different readers?
    The problem with this question is the 'two different readers'. Does this ask you how your grandmother would read the text? Does this ask how a policeman would read the text? Most likely, examiners are looking for solid interpretations from traditions of literary analysis (i.e. Marxist, feminist, psycho-analysis) or contextual backgrounds (i.e. Americans vs. Iranians). In the case of Persepolis, you could see how the American/Iranian or Marxist/capitalist dichotomies would work well in answering this question. It's really the teacher's job to steer students down these routes.

  2. If the text had been written in a different time or place or language or for a different audience, how and why might it differ?
    This is really a throw-away question. There is a serious problem with it: the word 'might'. Students are not expected to analyze a hypothetical text. If Persepolis had been written about a boy growing up in the United States during the Bush years, for example, it would not be called Persepolis. It would not make much sense to compare these two contexts, unless one is trying to prove a rather biased agenda. Teachers may want to stear clear of this question.

  3. How and why is a social group represented in a particular way?
    This question invites students to think about the decisions of the author. There is a lot to draw out of this question. With regards to Persepolis, one could explore the depiction of Muslims. The teachers at her school are presented as idiots who are obedient followers of the regime, failing to educate the children at Marjane's school. The Guardians of the Revolution are depicted as hypocritical warmongers. Fundamental Islamists are regarded as destructive. Why does Satrapi depict these people in this way? You tell me!

  4. Which social groups are marginalized, excluded or silenced within the text?
    Notice that there are two vastly different interpretations of this question, both hinging on your interpretation of the word 'within': On the one hand there is the interpretation that is used in the sample written task; The fundamental Islamists marginalize the secularists within the graphic novel. On the other hand, there is the interpretation that Satrapi silences Iraqis by not letting the reader hear their voice in this work. The first interpretation has more potential for a good critical response, since you can hardly comment on those who are left out of Satrapi's novel.

  5. How does the text conform to, or deviate from, the conventions of a particular genre, and for what purpose?
    Graphic novels are very relevant to this question, as they are really comic books with a literary theme. See pages 188-192 in English Language and Literature for the IB Diploma, Cambridge University Press, for a sample response that explores the conventions of a the graphic novel genre. Notice that much of the terminology that is applicable to novels is applicable to graphic novels, i.e. narrative voice and characterization. Notice that terminology from film is rather relevant, i.e. camera angle. Notice that 'gutter', 'splash' 'bleed' and 'frame' are more terms that need to be pretaught now.

  6. How has the text borrowed from other texts, and with what effects?
    Texts are either very applicable to this question or they are not applicable at all. If you are working with a text that seems to parody another text, act as a pastiche on a particular genre, or allude to another regularly, like an extended metaphor, then this question may be appropriate. See texts on this page for several non-literary commercials that would work well. Persepolis is rather original.

All materials on this website are for the exclusive use of teachers and students at subscribing schools for the period of their subscription. Any unauthorised copying or posting of materials on other websites is an infringement of our copyright and could result in your account being blocked and legal action being taken against you.