So Long a Letter is a novel written by Mariama Ba, a black Sengalese author. It was assumed that she had lived a life that was very similar to the two main female characters of her story. Mariama Ba is an educated woman, who attended school at Ecole Normale Institution, an exclusive Western school situated in her own native country. During the publication of her work, she was a schoolteacher who is doing her share to help ease the society’s unrest caused by their transition to freedom from being France’s colony for a long time.
Mariama Ba is an active feminist and a women’s rights activist. And as a divorced woman herself, she is against polygamous marriages. And it is primarily because of the many difficulties that it causes women.
“So Long a Letter” was a novel that is presented in a form of a letter. The main character in the story writes a very long epistle to her friend, narrating all the pains and hardships that she had been through from the time her husband took a second wife up until his recent death and thereafter.
The literary work touches on Muslim-African culture and traditions. It was written against a backdrop of a turbulent society where women are inferior to men.
So Long a Letter follows an episodic type of a plot. The book is composed of several series of stories included in each chapter that narrates the lives of the main characters in the story. All these stories are linked to each other.
They were all about trials, difficulties, and the choices people have to make. Each chapter has its own climax that slowly builds towards an end. Generally, there were no overall high point or plot to the entire story. Instead, everything was a smooth and steady narration of the events that happened in the storyteller’s life in a reversed chronological order, starting from the death of his husband and back to the time he took a second wife, where most of the story’s tragedies occurred. But the story doesn’t stop there. It pushed forward into the future towards the time when the main character dealt with her loss and the things she did to live with a new life following her husband’s death.
The story is set during the time that Senegal was in transition to become an independent country. Senegal was previously a colony of France; and as they move towards liberty, the society is in total unrest. Politics was always brewing and trade unionism was very rampant. New Africa is expected to be on the rise. And it is also during the said point in time that the society follows the strict Islamic tradition of putting men in a pedestal much higher than the women. It is the time where the husbands are supposed to provide for their wives and their children and the women’s main job is to merely take care of their husbands.V. Social or Political ContextIt was only in 1960 that Senegal has gained its independence from France and became a separate entity. Senegal was under the French colony since the 17th century. And during that period of time, there were civic disturbance everywhere. It is also in the same year that only a few African women were given a chance to education.
Most of privileged few that were able to study came only from the elite society, as not many believe in the importance of education for African women. A lot of it is because women are given a role in the society that doesn’t require much of education. With the great influence of Islam in the nation of Senegal, the only thing that a woman should do for the country is to rear children. And it is not important that she be educated to do that well.Mariama Ba, like the main characters of her story, were one of those few educated women of Africa. As a result, she was able to teach in schools and was able to give back to the younger generation what she had attained. With this story she had written, she unconsciously aims to raise the position of Senegalese women in a rank that’s closer, if not within the same level, as with the men.
The main characters of the story are as follows:RamatoulayeRamatoulaye is the main character of the story. She is also the same one who wrote the letter to her friend, Aissatou. It is her life story that was the main focus of the novel. Ramatoulaye is a schoolteacher in Senegal and when she wrote the letter, she was 55 years old and a widow.Ramatoulaye is a strong woman and was able to live through the pain and struggles associated with the Islamic traditions and the transformations in the society. Despite the infidelity directed to her by her husband, she was still the same woman who performs most inside a family setting. And as such, she stood by her children throughout the ordeal. Ramatoulaye is the perfect blend of the old and new woman of the society.
She is devoted to her children and yet she is able to hold on a career that enriches her being. And more importantly, she never believes that women were merely meant for the home and has lesser rights than men.AissatouAissatou is Ramatoulaye’s friend who is the recipient of the letter. Ramatoulaye regards her like a true sister, as both of them had shared childhood went to the same school and together. And like Ramatoulaye, Aissatou had gone through the same hardships when his husband took a second wife. Being educated and liberal, Aissatou left Senegal after she requested for a divorce and served in the Senegal Embassy in the U.S. She lived independently and provided for her son then after.
If Ramatoulaye is a showcase of a woman both of the past and of the present, Aissatou is a picture of the modern liberated female. She doesn’t want to conform to the beliefs that the society unresistingly accepts, more particularly about polygamous marriage. Instead, she came out and openly asserted herself and her right. She lived liberally after which.Modou FallModou Fall is the husband of Ramatoulaye. He was the object of love and obsession of Ramatoulaye for a whole twenty-five years. And she was equally adored by Modou Fall up until he decided to marry a much younger woman. Modou and Ramatoulaye had twelve children and all of them had suffered from the day their father was absent in favor of his new wife. Modou Fall died of heart attack years after he had remarried.
Modou Fall is but society’s regular male. He does according to his whims and tries to justify it with the law. He had not the courage to even face Ramatoulaye when he abruptly decided to marry another woman. He is basically weak and had merely used religion as a weapon. He is a coward who can’t even face his wife under his supposedly muscular build.Mawdo BaMawdo Ba is Aissatou’s husband. He is a doctor by profession and a man who is well regarded by a society where herbs and potions are next best thing when it comes to finding a cure for common sicknesses. However, Mawdo Ba’s elitist mother is not in favor of his marriage to Aissatou, even if it is very clear that Mawdo loved her so much. Mawdo Ba is Modou Fall’s friend. He is also the one who had introduced the two to each other.Mawdo Ba is the type of a man whose resolve is not absolute.
He succeeded in going against her mother’s wishes when he chose to marry Aissatou. But he merely threw that resolution away the very moment he blindly fell into her own mother’s trap by leading her to take another woman as a second wife. This fact could even go to show that men might just be polygamous in nature.BinetouAlthough Binetou’s actions in the story are not much told about, her role is very important for it is her who caused a turn in Ramatoulaye’s life. Binetou is the second wife Modou Fall had took indiscriminately. She is a much younger woman and actually the friend of Modou’s oldest daughter, Daba. Binetou was not rich and doesn’t have a father to look out for her. And so when Modou proposed marriage, it was mother who was very much in favor of it. Binetou accepted Modou’s proposal for a marriage because of the security blanket that it would be able to provide her and her family. Binetou was merely 19 when Modou Fall died.TamsirTamsir is Modou Fall’s elder brother. He, along with Mawdo and the local Imam, is the person who broke the news to Ramatoulaye about Modou having a second wife.
And on the fortieth day of Modou’s death, Tamsir indicated that he would like to marry Ramatoulaye in regards to the Islam tradition that the younger brother is supposed to inherit another brother’s wife the moment he died. Tamsir intended to use the tradition eventhough he is Modou’s elder brother and not a younger brother just like the custom implied.Daba FallDaba is Ramatouleye’s oldest daughter. She is also the person who took Binetou to their house because she was her friend and schoolmate. It was during those times that Binetou was their guest that their father had developed some affection to the young girl. Modou always volunteers himself to bring her home.
Consequently, Binetou has Daba as confidante when it comes to the things that were happening in her life. But when she talks about her story, she omits Modou’s name and merely referred to him as a sugar daddy. Daba even asked for an advice from her mother to help out Binetou, not knowing that they are actually talking about Binetou and her father all the while.Daouda DiengDaouda Dieng is Ramatoulaye’s former suitor. He is also the same person that her mother wants her to marry. Daouda Dieng is also a doctor and he had reappeared in Ramatoulaye’s life from Modou’s funeral thereafter. And much of it is because he still cares for her. Like Tamsir, Daouda Dieng also expressed his desire to marry Ramatoulaye. But Ramatoulaye openly refused. Daouda Dieng already has a wife and although their law permits taking another wife, Ramatoulaye chooses not to go between him and his family. She doesn’t want to do what Binetou had done to her.
“So Long a Letter” started off with Ramatoulaye reminiscing the events that happened to her the past few days. She created the letter with the main intention of telling Aissatou about the death of his husband, Modou. And along that path, Ramatoulaye had begun a journey back in time, starting from when she and Modou met.Modou died from heart attack while dictating something to his secretary in his office. He was a lawyer. He studied in France and went back to Senegal to practice. But he wasn’t like any regular lawyer who merely works for money. Primarily, he does his job for the community. This is what makes Modou a person of great dignity and social position.
Ramatoulaye had described him as the perfect man during their courtship stages. And despite her mother’s disapproval of Modou, she chose him to be her husband because she felt that he was the man that was meant for her.Ramatoulaye and Aissatou were best friends and even treat each other as sisters. They both went to the Western same school and are one of the few women who were given the elusive opportunity to finish a degree. Ramatoulaye became a schoolteacher. And in the long twenty-five years that she is married to Modou, she had balanced her time between her work and her family with great success.Everything was perfect in Ramatoulaye’s household up until her oldest daughter, Daba, brought a classmate with her in the house. And just like any mother, Ramatoulaye merely shrugs the fact that her husband is especially fond with Daba’s classmate, whose name is Binetou.
But she was able to see the young woman’s transition from wearing plain and basic clothes to something that comes from an expensive clothes store. The once shy and timid girl is no longer one either. And she had made it very apparent every time she was in their house.But despite that, Ramatoulaye never had once doubted Modou’s love for her. That was up until her brother-in-law Tamsir, Mawdo, and the local Imam had paid her an unannounced visit one day. They have all come to inform her that Modou had, just a few seconds ago, married another woman, giving himself a second wife. And that woman was indeed, Binetou.During those years that Modou left them abandoned, Ramatoulaye had tried to live in the exact same way as she does. But even so, she started to question the whole idea surrounding polygamous marriages.
She even would like to shout out the fact that even if a man is allowed a second wife, each wife should be treated as equal. It is as if his husband had forgotten that he still has a lot of responsibility to her and her children. But even so, Ramatoulaye and her twelve children had managed on their own. And despite their hardships, she still want her children to think well of their father. It is just that they all fail to understand what was happening to them and why it did. The biggest pain of all was with their oldest daughter, Daba.But as Ramatoulaye recounts her story, she can’t stop writing about Aissatou’s ordeal along with it. Like her, Aissatou was a victim of a polygamous marriage. Mawdo Ba, who eventually became Aissatou’s husband, was a doctor. It was Modou who introduced Mawdo to their circle of friends and that had included Aissatou.
When the two of them decided to get married, Mawdo’s mother was very much against it. Mawdo’s mother used to be a Princess of the Sine and she could not dwell on the fact that her only son is marrying an ordinary woman without wealth, title, and social prominence. Despite being educated, Mawdo’s mother regarded Aissatou merely as a goldsmith’s daughter. But Mawdo was resolute. He married Aissatou against her mother’s wishes.But her mother was not soon to be defeated. She actually devised a ploy to make Mawdo marry Nabou. Nabou is the daughter of Diouf and Diouf is her younger brother. Mawdo gave in and in essence, he took his cousin as his second wife. When that happened, Aissatou didn’t sit back and merely watch thing befall her. She asserted herself, asked for a divorce, and fled to a different land to start a new life. Since then, she had worked in the Senegal Embassy in the U.S. After the divorce, she had lived independently supporting herself and her son.Ramatoulaye’s reaction to her husband’s second marriage was different though.
She chose to stick with the situation in the hope that Modou will assume his forgotten responsibility to her and her family in due time. But all her thoughts were disrupted with the death of her husband. And it is only during that time that she started to break free from the idea that women are merely created to serve, act, and think, behind the shadow of men.During the days of seclusion and mourning, Ramatoulaye was able to realize a lot of things. And on the fortieth day following Modou’s death, Modou’s elder brother Tamsir asked for her hand in marriage. Ramatoulaye knew that he was doing this merely for economic reasons. So she outwardly turned down the offer telling him that he cannot simply ask that of her because she is a woman with her own mind, body, and dignity. And that marriage and companionship means a lot to her so she wouldn’t marry anybody she doesn’t have affection for.Ramatoulaye has another suitor, Daouda Dieng.
Daouda Dieng is the man who had cared for her tracing back from the day she had first met Modou. In fact, her mother voted for Daouda Dieng instead of Modou. And after Modou’s death, he became visible again. He even shared Ramatoulaye’s the ideas about feminism and believed that there should be more laws that protect women in the same way as men. In their resurrected friendship, Ramatoulaye had rekindled her fondness for Daouda Dieng. And much of it is because they share parallel views on a lot of things. Daouda Dieng never lost his love for her either. And one day, he asked for Ramatoulaye’s hand in marriage. But being the woman who learned so much from her own experiences, Ramatoulaye had refused his offer for the reason that Daouda Dieng already has a family. And even if Islam allows men to have up to four wives, she did not choose to come between him and his family.
The novel “So Long a Letter” is an accurate overview of Senegal circa 1970. It can even be used as a historical basis of what was happening prior to the development of New Africa. But digging deeper in the social and political context of the literary work, it is depicts as a mesh of African culture with a Muslim religion in a semi-European context.The overall tone of the letter is remorse and pain. And the feminist ideas integrated in it cannot be left ignored. This is because a woman wrote the novel – a woman who has long been regarded as merely a face without a name and a shadow instead of a person. But more importantly, that woman is black. History has it that African natives have long been suffering the pains of inferiority over the white race. Therefore, it can be said that the narrative is spoken with the voice of a black woman who has been victim in many ways. And being so, you can never underestimate the magnitude of her cry.
What the whole story would like to impart were the choices that are presented to a woman. With the society, tradition, and culture all seemingly working in favor of the men, women are left with nothing but their own strength to drive their selves upon. In a society where polygamous marriages are allowed, it has become easy for the man to put the woman in her position – and it is a position that was way below where he is. In 1960 Senegal, that position is somewhere down the deepest remorse of her own soul.Through her novel, Mariama Ba had shown those choices to the many women who had gone through the same circumstances similar to her and her two main characters. When a woman’s husband takes another wife, she is presented two options – you can either stick by him and do what was expected of you; or leave him and reclaim your own independence.
And those are exactly what Ramatoulaye and Aissatou had done. Ramatoulaye had chosen to sit back and wait for everything else to be how it used to be while her husband is in the company of another wife. Aissatou, on the other hand, is different. Instead of choosing to do what everybody had anticipated, she body did otherwise, went against the current, and liberated her own self from the claws of the society.The novel had also clearly depicted the mentality of African Muslim women. The characters in the story have represented the varied frame of thinking women have – while all of them being influenced by all the events transpiring around them. Ramatoulaye is the ever trusting and faithful wife.
Aissatou is the liberal woman ready to face the world, with or without the company of men. Binetou is the woman ready to give anything and do anything in exchange for financial security and social standing. Modou’s mother is much the same. All she wanted to do was to clothe herself in what her son had attained and make it the subject of envy to all her friends– even if she was never material in any of it. All she could do was to associate her own success to anything that her son possesses. On the other hand, Mawdo Ba’s mother is the woman who clutches firmly to what was used to be hers – and that would be her fame and glory of long ago.These are the type of women that Mariama Ba would like to identify her own women audience with. Indirectly, the author is infusing change in the way society thinks by showing them the errors in their mentalities.
The major theme of the story is the depiction of the clash between African-Muslim traditions and French-European ways. African-Muslim traditions say men are allowed to have multiple wives while the French-European culture indicates that the answer to infidelity is divorce. And much of that is because a woman is free to do what she wants. The idea behind that new-found freedom has a lot to do with the fact that a woman should decide whether she would like to delegate herself as one of the wives or not.And this theme leads us to yet another, which is the feminist tone of the novel.
A lot of ideologies that are added in the story are subconsciously evoking to empower the rest of the women readers – black, Muslim, or neither, to break free from the clutches of tradition and be their own person. The novel is also a call for all women to unite – because with their varied ideologies and mentalities, it is near impossible to achieve the change that all women wanted to attain. The novel attempts to make a woman realize her important role in the society, including all the common situations she is involved in. The novel presents the woman her options. And the story’s theme greatly implies that she has the ability to do whatever she wanted to do. Her very existence gives her that right.
“So Long a Letter” is a type of an epistolary novel. Epistolary novels are literary works that use long narratives, mostly in the form of a correspondence, a diary, or news clippings. In this particular work, the main character, Ramatoulaye, relates the most recent and past events of her life to her friend, Aissatou in a very long missive. The author even referred to it as a diary in the first few pages of the narrative. As the story progresses, Ramatoulaye conveys both the events and her feelings about it. She broadcasts her thoughts to the letter’s recipient, as well as quotes important conversations that had transpired between her and others.
The author’s choice of using this format must be the fact that she would like to make her work appear as real as possible. The subject is certainly close to her heart, because she has been through the same pains and aches as the main story of the character had. It is also very apparent that both of them almost share the same ideas and principles when it comes to the role of the female in the society. And this is why the main character of the story is directly compared to her. Though it, readers can see and feel through the realism, or at least the appearance of it, that echoes out of from the pages of the literary work.
The choice of the author’s literary techniques and devices are all very effective in this novel. Being an epistolary novel, which is a literary technique on its own, the work had clearly relayed all the events that happened before and after the main character’s husband has died. The main purpose of writing the letter was to inform Aissatou that Modou had died – but as she did so, Ramatoulaye was not able to resist the temptation of recounting the events that happened since the time she and her husband met, up until he decided to leave her in favor of a younger second wife. She also cannot stop herself from point out the fact that she and Aissatou had experienced the same fate in the hands of their husbands. Ramatoulaye had related not only her own story as she goes along, but the life story of Aissatou, the letter’s recipient, as well.Ramatoulaye’s and Aissatou’s characters are a juxtaposition, which is another literary technique.
The author had placed two people with the same experiences in one story. But their ways of solving the conflicts that were presented to them were different. When Aissatou learned about her husband’s second marriage, she revolted and moved away. Ramatoulaye, on the other hand, went along the situation and continued her life as is. It is the purpose of the author to make readers compare the two women in the hope that they can identify themselves with them.In this story, it is also clear that Mariama Ba had successfully used another literary technique, the author surrogate technique. Clearly, one of the two characters of the story is an idealized version of the author. Mariama Ba, known to be divorced and a feminist herself, had wanted to show her audience the things that she had been through and how she should have handled it. It is also possible that Mariama Ba is a little bit of the two main characters combined, and she is merely conveying the choices women like her has, given the same situation.
“So Long a Letter” had effectively captured the sentiments of all women, not merely the Africans or the Muslims. Reading the novel had allowed a lot of people to realize the emotions of a woman and how hard it must have been for them to be given limited choice and be virtually powerless over the men. Through her work, Mariama Ba’s had indeed found a creative way of voicing out her feminist views. As a result, this work was written along the refreshing views of a woman writer. There have been quite too few of them before. This, added to the fact that the author is a true African in her own right, made the whole story a lot more realistic that it ought to be.The words and lines used are all rich and clear.
The thoughts conveyed are straightforward. And the events in the story are related in a highly logical and comprehensible manner. Mariama Ba’s style of writing is simplistic. And it allows readers to easily understand the things, ideas, and concepts that she is trying to point out. There was never any event and information that can be considered irrelevant to the main story. Simply stated, the novel was concise and true to its form.Overall, the novel is written with the voice of a victim – but it is the type of a victim who would like to see changes. The story is not about a victim who merely sits and laments. The story is about the victim who tries to struggle out from where her place is supposed to be.
This is a story of empowerment. And even if it is a storyline that is expected of black authors, the power of it has never diminished. The victim-perpetrator type of a story can still captivate and move, especially if it is done in the same heart-felt way as this story was.From my own critique of the story, “So Long a Letter” can be considered as a masterpiece. It will never cease to touch the emotions of both the women and even men for that matter, who had seen, much more gone though, the same instances that the characters of the story had. And because the story deals on the three popular sectors of the society, namely the women, the Blacks and the Muslims, it definitely had a universal appeal as expected.Outline“So Long a Letter” started off with Ramatoulaye reminiscing the events that happened to her the past few days. It is a novel that is presented in a form of a letter.
The main character, Ramatoulaye, created the letter with the main intention of telling Aissatou about the death of his husband, Modou. And along that path, Ramatoulaye had begun a journey back in time, starting from when she and Modou met.Modou died from heart attack while dictating something to his secretary in his office. He was a lawyer. But he mostly does his job for the community. As such he is a person of great dignity and social position.Ramatoulaye and Aissatou were best friends and even treat each other as sisters. They both went to the Western same school and are one of the few women who were given the elusive opportunity to finish a degree. Ramatoulaye became a schoolteacher. She was married for long twenty-five years to Modou.Then Modou abruptly made the decision to have a second wife. And worse, it was in the person of his daughter’s friend.
He didn’t even have the courage to face her that he did remarry. Instead, he just sent his bother, his friend, and the Imam to tell her wife about it.Even so, the story had shown that Ramatoulaye was a strong woman and was able to live through the pain and struggles associated with the Islamic traditions and the transformations in the society. Despite the infidelity directed to her by her husband, she was still the same woman who performs most inside a family setting. And as such, she stood by her children throughout the ordeal. Ramatoulaye is the perfect blend of the old and new woman of the society. She is devoted to her children and yet she is able to hold on a career that enriches her being. And more importantly, she never believes that women were merely meant for the home and has lesser rights than men.On the other hand, Modou Fall is a portrait of society’s ordinary male. He does according to his whims and tries to justify it with the law. He had not the courage to even face Ramatoulaye when he abruptly decided to marry another woman. He is basically weak and had merely used religion as a weapon.
He is a coward who can’t even face his wife under his supposedly muscular build.In her letter, Ramatoulaye also wrote Aissatou’s ordeal that was very much like her. Aissatou was also a victim of a polygamous marriage. Mawdo Ba was Aissatou’s husband. When the two of them decided to get married, Mawdo’s mother was very much against it. Mawdo’s mother used to be a Princess of the Sine and she could not dwell on the fact that her only son is marrying an ordinary woman without wealth, title, and social prominence. Despite being educated, Mawdo’s mother regarded Aissatou merely as a goldsmith’s daughter. But Mawdo was resolute. He married Aissatou against her mother’s wishes.But her mother was not soon to be defeated.
She actually devised a ploy to make Mawdo marry Nabou. Nabou is the daughter of Diouf and Diouf is her younger brother. Mawdo gave in and in essence, he took his cousin as his second wife. When that happened, Aissatou didn’t sit back and merely watch thing befall her. She asserted herself, asked for a divorce, and fled to a different land to start a new life. Since then, she had worked in the Senegal Embassy in the U.S. After the divorce, she had lived independently supporting herself and her son.If Ramatoulaye is a showcase of a woman both of the past and of the present, Aissatou is a picture of the modern liberated female. She doesn’t want to conform to the beliefs that the society unresistingly accepts, more particularly about polygamous marriage. Instead, she came out and openly asserted herself and her right. She lived liberally after the ordeal.
The overall tone of the letter is remorse and pain. And the feminist ideas integrated in it cannot be left ignored. This is because a woman wrote the novel – a woman who has long been regarded as merely a face without a name and a shadow instead of a person. But more importantly, that woman is black. History has it that African natives have long been suffering the pains of inferiority over the white race. Therefore, it can be said that the narrative is spoken with the voice of a black woman who has been victim in many ways. And being so, you can never underestimate the magnitude of her cry.The story’s author, Mariama Ba had successfully used the author surrogate technique in her work. Clearly, one of the two characters of the story is an idealized version of the author. Mariama Ba, known to be divorced and a feminist herself, had wanted to show her audience the things that she had been through and how she should have handled it. It is also possible that Mariama Ba is a little bit of the two main characters combined, and she is merely conveying the choices women like her has, given the same situation.