Marjane is ten years old in 1980 when the novel begins. She goes by the name Marji, and she's not your average girl. You might think of girls her age still playing with dolls or racecars (hey, we're not strict adherents to gender norms here)—the point being that they're playing. Not Marji, though. She thinks she's going to be a prophet. "I was born with religion," she says, accompanied by an illustration of her as a baby with a seemingly glowing head, like a mini Mr. Clean. Maybe it's her halo, or maybe her bald baby head has just been polished to a nice shine (1.19).
So, yeah, instead of doing kid things, Marji is having conversations with God. Her teachers and classmates shame her into thinking this is a silly career choice. (We don't remember "prophet" being on our career skills assessment either, to be honest.) Marji tells her parents she wants to be a doctor, but she feels like she has betrayed God. "I wanted to be justice, love, and the wrath of God all in one" (1.45). This is only the beginning of her identity crises.
Growing up in Iran makes it difficult to Marji to express herself. She's growing up at a time when Western culture is being demonized, and if Iran has any media of its own, we don't see it. Marji mentions no music, no films, no theater. Instead, she secretly uses American rock music to express herself.
When she's not rocking out, Marji reads a lot. This is primarily how she broadens her worldview, because it's not like Iranian education is big on teaching students what life is like in other parts of the world. Reading serves her well later in life too. When living in the boarding school in Vienna, Marjane studies philosophy in her spare time, which she has plenty of since her friends are always gallivanting off for tons of holidays.
Maybe it's because of the reading (or the whole prophet thing) but Marjane is a very empathetic child. She sits in a bathtub for hours to try and figure out how her grandfather felt in a water-filled torture cell. She tries to understand that a child is not responsible for the actions of his father. And she gets mad at the plight of those who are a lower social class because she sees how anguished they are.
Social justice isn't Marji's only passion. She loves heroes. Not that terrible NBC show, but actual people who have been imprisoned for war crimes. That's her narrow definition of hero. "There are lots of heroes in my family. My grandpa was in prison. My Uncle Anoosh too: for nine years!" (8.57), she boasts. Marji is almost the type of girl who, if you told her your dad was in prison for five years, she'd tell you that hers was in prison for ten… and he was tortured.
She doesn't change her hero ideal until the day when her friend's father dies, and she tells Marji, "I wish he were alive and in jail rather than dead and a hero" (11.53). Being a hero isn't always what it's cracked up to be.
Her hero worship morphs throughout her life, later becoming a love for punk rock and anarchy. She loves her first boyfriend, Enrique, because he knows anarchists, even if they aren't the anarchists of her dreams—these people are more like the free-loving hippies of the U.S. in the 1960s, but with more hide-and-seek. Janis Joplin's music and bonfires even make appearances, but we guess free love is a form of anarchy, huh?
In chapter 20, which marks the beginning of Persepolis 2 if you were to buy the books separately, Marji starts going by Marjane. This is like a Becki going by Rebecca, or a Patti going by Patricia, or a Tiffani going by… well, we guess there's no hope for Tiffani to ever be taken seriously.
Marjane's talents from her youth come in handy when she has to make new friends in Vienna, having been sent there by her parents when Iran is its most tumultuous. She gets good grades and makes fun of her teachers. Students of all types love both those things, so she quickly falls into a group of people: "an eccentric, a punk, two orphans, and a third-worlder" (21.23). Isn't that the plot of a new CBS sitcom?
Although she makes friends fairly easily, she has trouble keeping them. She's never able to truly connect with them because she's so unsure of her own identity. This difficulty maintaining a connection applies to boyfriends, too. Her first boyfriend, Enrique, turns out to be gay; her second, Markus, cheats on her on her birthday. And although she gets married when she moves back to Iran, the union quickly ends in divorce. It's hard to tell if she finds herself in these kinds of relationships because of a typical teenage lack of self-esteem, or if she's even more prone to this pattern because of Iran's extreme objectification of women. It's hard for any Iranian woman to find a sense of self-worth.
Low self-worth comes with little-to-no self-esteem. When Marjane hits bottom, she has a tendency to hurt herself. It happens in Vienna, when she chooses to be homeless until she starts coughing up blood. She's hard on herself about it too, saying "it was a banal story of love that almost carried me away" (28.56). Not to kick her while she's down, but for real, girl, why'd you let this get to you so much?
We think that the real reason isn't the breakup. The reason is the breakup plus the fact that she has no support system. She also has trouble with shame. "I preferred to put myself in serious danger rather than confront my shame" (29.79), she says. Maybe this is because her parents put such high standards on her? She has a difficult time admitting that she has disappointed them… and she never does tell them.
Instead, she seeks medical care for her depression. The mental health care system in Iran is about as good as you'd expect it to be (i.e. not very), and they simply dose her with pills. The side effect of the anti-depressants is that Marjane tries to commit suicide. She can't knife herself, so she takes all her pills, which makes her hallucinate a bunch of rats, but she lives. After that, she decides to take control of her identity, so she does what any woman her age would do: becomes a Jazzercize instructor. That's not a joke—she starts teaching aerobics. Work it, girl! Step touch!
There's one more aspect to Marji's coming-of-age we have to mention: laughter. There's a lot of slaughter in Iran, and you can't have slaughter without laughter, right?
Marjane says, "Every situation offered an opportunity for laughs" (13.20). Faced with required self-flagellation in school, Marji decides she has to make fun of it. It's just too ridiculous not to. It helps that her classmates eat it up. Becoming the class clown is a sort of therapy for both her and her classmates. Her classmates show their appreciation by not turning her in; they all take the punishment together, and get suspended—as a class—for a week. As Marji said earlier, revolutions only succeed if everyone is on board.
She continues using humor to balance out the horror in her life. To achieve adulthood, Marjane has to find a balance between family and freedom, humor and horror, career and relationships, Iranian and Western. Her whole life is a balancing act, but we think she's found her center of gravity by the end of the novel: her heritage, her family, and her ideals.