Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi, is a depiction of the Islamic revolution through the eyes of a child. The book has won a series of prizes, including “Best Book for Young adults” and a “New York Times Notable Book” title, however, it’s artistic characteristics transform it into a graphic novel and therefore they are restricted (by many) from being considered “true/great works of literature”. This argument raises the question: “What makes a true work of literature?”.
Literature is the representation of the culture and tradition of a language or a group of people, but its precise definition is something that cannot be determined. According to Esther Lombardi, a journalist and expert in the matter, literature refers to “any creative written or spoken work of the imagination, whether that means poetry, fiction, drama, or nonfiction”. Good literature however, requires a different approach, as not everything can be considered as such. Good literature requires facility of language, engagement of the reader, avoidance of cliche, creativity, invitation of discussions, and above all some part of the timelessness of the human condition. According to these definitions, graphic novels do fit in the “true work of literature” category because, assuming all other requirements are present, if well placed and drawn, imagery can intensify the content of words and therefore give other dimensions to the work.
The use of visual art with literature can be an essential factor to help the readers understand deeper meanings in a novel. Marjane Satrapi used images to create metaphors in Persepolis, for example; when the Satrapi family mention they can live in freedom (straight after the deposition of the Shah) the comic box has a snake surrounding it, demonstrating that they are still surrounded by evil, which will slowly suppress their lives. These types of artistic techniques create visual literary techniques which books with paragraphs cannot deliver. This suggests that visual art is meaningful assuming it is constructed in a well-thought manner, thus, using it as much as words in a novel should not remove it from being considered a great work of literature. Graphic novels are simply a different method to deliver a creative work of the imagination, and since “any creative work of the imagination” may be considered literature, then graphic novels do fit this argument. Moreover, just like some regular books cannot be considered great works of literature, the same thing goes for a few graphic novels, however, if a graphic novel does touch all the aspects required for such title (of a great work of literature), then why should it be disregarded?
Some people may suggest that the greatness of words cannot be substituted and combined by images, however, words combine perfectly with well-thought images as they end-up complementing each-other. The combination results in a work of high value, and gives the story a deeper meaning which could not be transmitted if one of the two features was missing. The five essential elements of a literary story are; The development of the characters (especially the main character throughout the whole story), the setting, the plot, the conflict, and the resolution. These elements certainly are present throughout the whole story of Persepolis. The development and growth of the characters is accompanied by the reader throughout the whole novel, for example, Marjane Satrapi uses fluid language that is surgically combined with images in a creative, intelligent and unique way. All the conditions to be considered a true work of literature.
That said, the graphic novel Persepolis takes the readers to meet real characters who express real feelings and dramas before the events of their daily lives. The novel captivates the readers because while the reality of life in Iran is not very particular, the contradictions and questions of human nature involve them not only as spectators but as interveners. The novel poses complex-questions regarding human relations, power and cultural identity which provoke reflections. This demonstrates that all the characteristics required for being considered a great work of literature are present in Persepolis. In conclusion, graphic novels with the same quality as Persepolis should be considered great works of literature because they clearly contain all the characteristics to being treated as such. When the words in a comic box match the images in perfection, the meaning created is worth a thousand words.