So Long a Letter

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Custom, Modernity, and Progress Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Custom, Modernity, and Progress Theme Icon
Feminism and Islam  Theme Icon
Motherhood Theme Icon
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Custom, Modernity, and Progress Theme Icon

The Senegal depicted in So Long a Letter is a country on the threshold, passing between two historical eras. Ramatoulaye is born and educated under the French colonial regime, and she lives through Senegalese independence. Hers is the generation responsible for the slow process of Senegalese self-determination. They have taken on the enormous task imagining a new sociopolitical order, and with it a postcolonial future for their country.

Ramatoulaye is extremely politically engaged, and while she herself is not active in the political scene, she is surrounded by those who are—her husband, Modou, works as an adviser to the Ministry of Public Works, and her friend Daouda is a member of the National Assembly. She spends much of the book reflecting on the future of her country.

The people of Senegal have cast off the bonds of colonial rule. No longer beholden to colonial demands of assimilation, they can reimagine and/or reassert a national identity. Yet colonial rule has left an indelible mark on Senegalese society. Modernity, progress, self-determination, the very concept of “nationhood”—all these terms are central to the new Senegalese political discourse, yet in some sense they are also imports of the West and, by that same token, artifacts of a long history of oppression. Independence and liberation mean entrance into an increasingly global economy, participation which is perhaps just another form of assimilation, or, worse, acquiescence to colonial exploitation by another name.

But neither is there hope of returning to a pre-colonial past, nor does that seem like the right path forward. Ramatoulaye is nostalgic for certain Senegalese customs (she mourns the decline of traditional crafts and professions) while she remains skeptical of others (she is scornful of Aunty Nabou’s devotion to dusty social hierarchies and notions of nobility). Conversely, she is eager for progress and modernization while wary of the alienation it may bring. As she writes, “We all agreed that much dismantling was needed to introduce modernity within our traditions. Torn between the past and the present, we deplored the ‘hard sweat’ that would be inevitable. We counted the possible losses. But we knew that nothing would be as before. We were full of nostalgia but were resolutely progressive.”

While this ambiguity between nostalgia for custom and eagerness for modernization is never fully resolved by Ramatoulaye, she seems ultimately to advocate for a synthesis of the two: a steady march of progress tempered by an attentiveness to the past, and a reinvigorated sense of cultural identity.

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Custom, Modernity, and Progress ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Custom, Modernity, and Progress appears in each Chapter of So Long a Letter. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Custom, Modernity, and Progress Quotes in So Long a Letter

Below you will find the important quotes in So Long a Letter related to the theme of Custom, Modernity, and Progress.
Chapter 2 Quotes

This is the moment dreaded by every Senegalese woman, the moment when she sacrifices her possessions as gifts to her family-in-law; and, worse still, beyond her possessions she gives up her personality, her dignity, becoming a thing in the service of the man who has married her, his grandfather, his grandmother, his father, his mother, his brother, his sister, his uncle, his aunt, his male and female cousins, his friends. Her behaviour is conditioned: no sister-in-law will touch the head of any wife who has been stingy, unfaithful or inhospitable.

Related Characters: Ramatoulaye (speaker), Modou, Lady Mother-in-Law (Binetou’s Mother)
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:

Ramatoulaye writes these words as she endures the elaborate, highly formalized mourning period for her estranged husband, Modou. Custom demands that she serve as a hospitable, generous host to the throngs of friends and in-laws that show up at her house to pay their respects. What this means in practice is that she must surrender her energy and livelihood in order to please and console the relatives of a man who abandoned her and her children. Not only is this economically taxing, it robs Ramatoulaye of her dignity. No one attending the funeral considers how Modou’s death has affected Ramatoulaye emotionally; they instead see her as a mere servant—maybe even a household object—dedicated to helping everyone else express their grief. Her internal life is seen as irrelevant. This is a powerful example of how Senegalese-Muslim tradition, while important to Ramatoulaye’s identity and sense of self, simultaneously reduces her to an object in many situations.

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Chapter 3 Quotes

Each group displays its own contribution to the costs. In former times this contribution was made in kind: millet, livestock, rice, flour, oil, sugar, milk. Today it is made conspicuously in banknotes, and no one wants to give less than the other. A disturbing display of inner feeling that cannot be evaluated, now measured in francs!

Related Characters: Ramatoulaye (speaker)
Page Number: 6
Explanation and Analysis:

In accordance with tradition, the mourners who visit Ramatoulaye’s house to pay their respects to Modou offer gifts of consolation to Ramatoulaye and her family-in-law. While the gifts were once objects whose value could not be quantified, now the guests simply arrive bearing cash. This development illustrates in miniature a much larger predicament facing newly independent Senegal. The young country is undergoing modernization, and entering into an increasingly global economy. While on the one hand modernization bears with it the promise of greater prosperity and freedom, it seems also to threaten some of Senegal’s dearly held traditions. Although cash expedites economic exchange, it also turns the giving of gifts—once a beautiful ritual—into a mindless game. The guests are more concerned with posturing, demonstrating their wealth and one-upping each other, than giving.

Chapter 7 Quotes

To lift us out of the bog of tradition, superstition and custom, to make us appreciate a multitude of civilizations without renouncing our own, to raise our vision of the world, cultivate our personalities, strengthen our qualities, to make up for our inadequacies, to develop universal moral values in us: these were the aims of our admirable headmistress. The word 'love' had a particular resonance in her. She loved us without patronizing us, with our plaits either standing on end or bent down, with our loose blouses, our wrappers. She knew how to discover and appreciate our qualities.

Related Characters: Ramatoulaye (speaker), Aissatou
Page Number: 16
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Ramatoulaye remembers the methods of her and Aissatou’s French (white) schoolteacher. Throughout the novel, Ramatoulaye constantly tries to reconcile the apparently opposing forces of custom and modernity. Senegal, a newly independent country emerging from the colonial era, is undergoing a process of modernization. And yet modernization, with its demands for assimilation to Western ideals, threatens to destroy Senegal’s unique cultural identity. Ramatoulaye’s old schoolteacher, whom Ramatoulaye deeply admires, demonstrates that progress need not come at the expense of custom. The teacher values diversity—of appearance, culture, thought—above all, and attempts to instill universal values among her students without erasing their differences. The teacher’s methods seem to provide a model for Ramatoulaye’s brand feminism, which combines a respect for tradition with a belief in liberal values such as gender equality.

Chapter 8 Quotes

Eternal questions of our eternal debates. We all agreed that much dismantling was needed to introduce modernity within our traditions. Torn between the past and the present, we deplored the 'hard sweat' that would be inevitable. We counted the possible losses. But we knew that nothing would be as before. We were full of nostalgia but were resolutely progressive.

Related Characters: Ramatoulaye (speaker)
Page Number: 19
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Ramatoulaye recounts the political discussions she would have with her friends around the time of Senegalese independence. The members of her generation are faced with the enormous task of directing an entirely new, independent country. In one sense they are free to reassert their cultural identity in the face of the Western powers, though in another they are eager to shed tradition in order to become a progressive, prosperous country within a global economy. The past and the future pull them in opposite directions. Ramatoulaye seems to believe that they will find success if they can somehow attend to both—if they can feel “nostalgia” but also remain “resolutely progressive.” Ramatoulaye’s reference to “eternal debates” then suggests a method of achieving this attentiveness to the past and the future: in disagreement and dialogue they may reach compromise and synthesis.

Chapter 10 Quotes

The assimilationist dream of the colonist drew into its crucible our mode of thought and way of life. The sun helmet worn over the natural protection of our kinky hair, smoke-filled pipe in the mouth, white shorts just above the calves, very short dresses displaying shapely legs: a whole generation suddenly became aware of the ridiculous situation festering in our midst.

Related Characters: Ramatoulaye (speaker)
Page Number: 25
Explanation and Analysis:

Ramatoulaye makes this remark while reflecting on her generation’s unique but difficult position in the history of Senegal. They live in a transitional period between the fall of the French colonial regime and the rise of the new self-determined, independent Senegal. Specifically, Ramatoulaye is commenting on the absurdity of forced assimilation—that is, the idea, promoted by the French colonial powers, that the Senegalese should abandon their cultural heritage and instead adopt European customs. For the French, assimilation and progress were interchangeable terms, but this makes little sense to Ramatoulaye. Why wear a hat when her kinky hair provides her natural protection from the sun? Why wear short skirts, when the Islamic faith demands modesty of dress? The task facing Ramatoulaye’s generation is to devise a way forward while retaining a sense of cultural identity distinct from the foreign and often ridiculous customs of the West.

How many generations has this same unchanging countryside seen glide past! Aunty Nabou acknowledged man's vulnerability in the face of the eternity of nature. By its very duration, nature defies time and takes its revenge on man.

Related Characters: Ramatoulaye (speaker), Aunty Nabou
Related Symbols: Aunty Nabou’s Journey
Page Number: 27
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Ramatoulaye is describing Aunty Nabou’s journey into the interior of Senegal to visit the tomb of her ancestors. It is as much a journey through space as it is through time. Aunty Nabou’s belief (which is either created or strengthened on this journey) in man’s vulnerability in the face of eternity is in part what brings her to attempt to undermine her son Mawdo’s marriage to Aissatou. It is in deference and grave respect for her ancestors that she refuses to accept Aissatou—the poor daughter of a goldsmith—as a member of the family.

Ramatoulaye seems to respect and even agree with Aunty Nabou’s deep deference to time and the eternity of nature, despite the disastrous effects it ultimately has on her friend Aissatou’s marriage.

Chapter 17 Quotes

Even though I understand your stand, even though I respect the choice of liberated women, I have never conceived of happiness outside marriage.

Related Characters: Ramatoulaye (speaker), Aissatou, Modou
Page Number: 58
Explanation and Analysis:

Though faced with nearly identical marital problems—both must face the infidelity of their husbands—Aissatou and Ramatoulaye respond to their mistreatment in opposite ways. Aissatou takes a moral stand against her husband and the antiquated customs that permit polygamy: she divorces Mawdo, focuses her attention on pursuing higher education, and leaves the country. Ramatoulaye, who demonstrates an abiding faith in the institution of marriage, chooses to remain—if only in a legal sense—with her husband.

In comparison to Aissatou’s moral conviction, Ramatoulaye’s decision to stay may seem like an expression of weakness. However, looked at another way, Ramatoulaye’s ability to confront her misfortune and understand her own personal reasons for doing so demonstrates a kind of quiet power—an unconventional sort of feminism.

Chapter 19 Quotes

Daouda Dieng was savouring the warmth of the inner dream he was spinning around me. As for me, I was bolting like a horse that has long been tethered and is now free and revelling in space. Ah, the joy of having an interlocutor before you, especially an admirer!

Related Characters: Ramatoulaye (speaker), Daouda Dieng
Page Number: 64
Explanation and Analysis:

Ramatoulaye writes these words while recounting a discussion she has with Daouda Dieng, an old suitor. Their conversation covers politics, the future of the country, and the role of women in it all. From Ramatoulaye’s perspective, their lively and mutually respectful debate is liberating and empowering—a breath of fresh air from the degrading interactions she’s had with Tamsir and Modou’s other relatives, who can’t seem to understand that she has thoughts of her own, much less sophisticated political views.

Unfortunately, Daouda Dieng is perhaps not as different from the others as he initially seems. Though Ramatoulaye sees him as a peer, an interlocutor (someone to converse with) without any ulterior motives, Daouda sees her first and foremost as a potential wife. Though he respects her, his respect is part of a broader marital fantasy that he hopes she will fulfill for him. As if to prove this, he later breaks off all contact with Ramatoulaye when she rejects his romantic advances.

Chapter 22 Quotes

Now our society is shaken to its very foundations, torn between the attraction of imported vices and the fierce resistance of old virtues.

Related Characters: Ramatoulaye (speaker), Daba, Mawdo Fall
Page Number: 76
Explanation and Analysis:

Ramatoulaye makes this off-the-cuff remark while describing to Aissatou the difficulties of parenting during Senegal’s period of modernization. It is perhaps the most concise and concentrated statement she makes on the particular, historically awkward position her generation finds itself in. Ramatoulaye and her peers are caught between two distinct eras, and two distinct cultures: on the one hand, the ancestral traditions of Senegal and West Africa, on the other, the “modern” habits and customs of the West. These two cultures are seemingly irreconcilable to each other. The “old virtues” are skeptical of imported Western ideals, and the imported Western ideals are irreverent in the face of tradition.

For Ramatoulaye, the difficulty comes in extracting the best from each and casting aside the worst of both. From the West come certain unsavory vices such as smoking, a more reckless understanding of sexuality, and of course a tradition of colonialism and white supremacy. From Senegalese tradition comes a certain conservatism and fanaticism that leads, among other things, to the subjugation of women. Throughout the novel, Ramatoulaye comes into direct contact with both poles of experience, and has to figure out how to synthesize the two.

‘Marriage is no chain. It is mutual agreement over a life's programme. So if one of the partners is no longer satisfied with the union, why should he remain? It may be Abou [her husband]; it may be me. Why not? The wife can take the initiative to make the break.’

Related Characters: Daba (speaker), Ramatoulaye
Page Number: 77
Explanation and Analysis:

Daba says this to Ramatoulaye while trying to describe her view of marriage. In contrast to Ramatoulaye, Daba has a far more liberal, practical understanding of the particular kind of agreement a marriage entails. In fact, that Daba sees marriage as a mere agreement—not a sacred oath—is itself telling. This comment is at least in part a veiled criticism of Ramatoulaye’s stoicism: while Ramatoulaye insisted on remaining (legally) married to Modou even after his infidelity, Daba, had she found herself in a similar situation, insists that she would not have hesitated in calling the whole thing off.

Daba’s view of an ideal marriage prioritizes the equality of the spouses. While this idea is certainly attractive to Ramatoulaye, she also maintains a certain sentimentality about romantic love and tradition that is at odds with Daba’s strict pragmatism.

Chapter 23 Quotes

Who knows, one vice leads to another. Does it mean that one can't have modernism without a lowering of moral standards?

Related Characters: Ramatoulaye (speaker)
Page Number: 81
Explanation and Analysis:

Ramatoulaye writes this after she discovers three of her daughters smoking cigarettes. She is surprised and angry that they’ve picked up the habit, and that it seems to come so naturally to them. The incident brings Ramatoulaye to worry more broadly about the cultural climate of a rapidly modernizing Senegal. Her children—especially her daughters—are now allowed greater freedoms than she ever was, yet as a result they are exposed to a broader array of temptations and dangers. Ramatoulaye worries that compromised morals are the price one pays for progress.

As a mother, Ramatoulaye must adapt to the peculiar conditions of a modernizing and globalizing country. She must discover a way to uphold the moral values she most cares about and instill her children with virtue, while simultaneously allowing them to reap the benefits of a freer society.