Summary: The Joke

Ten days after Marji returns home, her parents arrange a gathering of her large extended family, and Marji is obliged to meet with them one-by-one, much to her discomfort. Finally, after greeting all the others, she sees someone that she actually missed while she was away—her grandmother. Marji is pleased that her grandmother is still as irreverent as ever. Later, Marji meets with a group of her old female friends and finds them even harder to put up with than her relatives. Marji compares their gaudy, made-up looks to those of heroines on American TV shows and gets annoyed when they ask her about the nightclubs in Vienna. Marji admits that years later she realized she was judging them too harshly and that getting made up and focusing on Western ways was a way of resisting the regime. As Marji’s mother points out, it’s not like society wants women like them to be intelligent—just the opposite, in fact. Still, Marji wonders why she was ever friends with the women to begin with.

Disappointed in her friends, Marji asks her mother and grandmother about the kids she played with on the streets when she was very young—especially a boy named Kia. This elicits sad looks on their faces, and they tell Marji that Kia tried to flee the country to avoid military service but was caught and sent to the front lines as punishment. Marji asks if he was killed and they say no, but Kia received severe injuries and is now living in another part of town. 

Marji travels across town and meets with Kia. She finds that he lost limbs in the war and that he is in a wheelchair. Despite his circumstances, he’s very glad to see Marji and quite upbeat in contrast to Marji’s nervousness. Kia tells Marji that he’s in the midst of arranging to leave for the US, where he has an uncle who is a doctor who can help him. Kia proceeds to tell a long, involved joke about a man who is severely injured during the war, with its punchline predicated on the surgeons having reattached his penis to the wrong place on his body. Marji and Kia laugh hysterically, and Marji learns that when our misfortunes reach the point of being unbearable, we can no longer feel sorry for ourselves; we can only laugh.

Summary: Skiing

Having no real plans for what to do with her life, Marji is subjected to the unsolicited advice of others, including going back to school, joining a gym, and finding a husband. This depresses Marji even further because all she really wants to do at this point is take some time to recover from her harrowing experiences in Vienna—experiences that she’s vowed to not mention in deference to what she feels was the far-greater suffering of the people around her who stayed in Iran when she fled to the West. In response to all this inner turmoil, Marji retreats further into herself and her unhappiness. To cheer her up, Marji’s parents arrange for her and a group of her friends to make a visit to a family friend’s ski chalet outside Tehran, and Marji reluctantly agrees to go. The trip ends up backfiring when Marji’s supposedly sophisticated friends are horrified and behave judgmentally after she tells them that she’s had sex—and more than once. 

Returning home, Marji agrees to her mother’s suggestion that she see a psychoanalyst. After consulting several psychoanalysts in search of one who can help her, Marji finds one who suggests that her depression would be best treated with medication. After a promising start to the anti-depressant drug regimen, Marji finds herself feeling even worse. As she puts it: “I was a Westerner in Iran, an Iranian in the West. I had no identity. I didn’t even know why I was living.” Marji decides that she will commit suicide, and she picks a time when her parents will be away in which to do it. Finding herself unable to successfully die by slitting her wrists in the bathtub, Marji impulsively swallows the entire contents of her bottle of anti-depressants. 

After unexpectedly surviving her suicide attempt, Marji goes to see her therapist, and tells him what she did. The therapist is astonished that she didn’t die given how many pills she’d taken and suggests to her that—even though he is not a man of faith—perhaps she should see her survival as some sort of sign that she’s supposed to live. Marji quickly embraces this interpretation and vows to take charge of her life and improve herself. She undergoes a complete beauty and wardrobe makeover. Deciding that a healthy mind is found in a healthy body, Marji takes up a rigorous exercise program. Thus, in short order, Marji goes from being depressed and suicidal to being a “strong and invincible” aerobics instructor ready to meet her “new destiny.”

Analysis: The Joke–Skiing

This section revisits the theme of a search for identity. While Marji previously struggled to fit in as a foreigner in Vienna, she now struggles to fit in at home. Marji has nothing in common with her old friends. While they look like TV stars from the U.S., they tell Marji she looks like a nun. This is ironic and humorous considering her earlier accusation that nuns are all former prostitutes. Marji’s inability to remember what she and these girls ever had in common reinforces the notion that she can’t go home again. The skiing trip only highlights and widens the divide between them. While Marji’s attitudes about sex were too conservative for her Western friends, her limited experience makes her too permissive for her Iranian friends, who accuse her of being a whore. Too Iranian for the West and too Western for Iran, Marji’s attempt to take her own life highlights her deep suffering from the notion that she has no identity and no place in the world.

The means to resist despair look different for everyone. After her suicide attempt, Marji alters her outward appearance to rebel against despair and the oppression of depression. For Marji, the body hair removal, new wardrobe, makeup, and hairstyle are not just superficial changes. This physical transformation mirrors an inner transformation which allows Marji to work through her emotions, move away from the past, and push into the future. Marji realizes that her friends’ obsession with Western looks and behavior is a means of survival as well. With makeup and nightclubs forbidden by the fundamentalist government, their fashion-forward ways and interest in her European experiences symbolize rebellion and the hope for freedom. Humor offers another means of survival, standing in stark contrast to the dark times in Iran. When Marji’s childhood friend Kia is able to laugh at an off-color joke about a soldier in spite of his own disabilities, it highlights the power of humor to fight against despair and trauma.  As the author of the graphic memoir, Satrapi shows she learned how to use humor to tell her story of survival. Bolstered by lipstick or laughs, the will to survive in the face of trauma and suffering is powerful.