So Long a Letter

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Dialogue and Address Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Custom, Modernity, and Progress Theme Icon
Feminism and Islam  Theme Icon
Motherhood Theme Icon
Friendship vs. Marital Love Theme Icon
Dialogue and Address Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in So Long a Letter, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Dialogue and Address Theme Icon

So Long a Letter is formally unusual. It is at once an epistolary novel—a novel composed of letters—and a diary. Ramatoulaye, writing during the 40 days of mourning she must observe in the wake of her husband’s death, addresses her reflections to her best friend Aissatou. And yet we never get to read Aissatou’s response. The book has the quality of a dialogue in the sense that the writing is interpersonal, addressed to another mind, but the dialogue is ultimately one sided.

Consequently, the reader comes to stand in for Aissatou, and becomes the addressee of Ramatoulaye’s musings. Indeed, much of what Ramatoulaye writes seems written for the reader’s sake, as so many of the details she recounts, Aissatou already knows. In this way, So Long a Letter is framed as an ongoing conversation—a conversation that may extend into the future—in which the reader is included and perhaps even encouraged to respond.

The theme of dialogue is manifested not just in the form of the novel, but also in its plot. For one, Modou’s abandonment of Ramatoulaye and her children is framed as a complete breakdown of communication and dialogue. Rather than confront Ramatoulaye directly about his decision to marry a new woman, he sends his brother to break the news to her. Ramatoulaye, feeling the burden of etiquette and custom, cannot respond to her husband’s messengers in the way she wants. The breakup of Aissatou’s marriage unfolds in a similar manner—Aissatou is left completely out of the loop when it comes to Aunty Nabou’s scheming to replace her. In contrast, Ramatoulaye’s arguably greatest moment of triumph occurs when she finds the strength to speak freely and without inhibition with Tamsir after he crassly proposes to her following Modou’s death. Finally, Ramatoulaye’s extended conversation with Daoude over the role of women in government introduces a political dimension to the theme of dialogue. The exchange demonstrates that dialogue is an important catalyst for political progress, and in fact constitutes the very foundation of democracy.

At last, it seems that the ambiguities and contradictions Ramatoulaye grapples with in trying to reconcile her feminism with her faith, her political beliefs with her personal life, are really the beginnings of an ongoing conversation—a conversation in which the reader is included, and on which the future of Senegal depends.

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Dialogue and Address Quotes in So Long a Letter

Below you will find the important quotes in So Long a Letter related to the theme of Dialogue and Address.
Chapter 5 Quotes

Combining your despair you could have been avengers and made them tremble, all those who are drunk on their wealth; tremble, those upon whom fate has bestowed favours. A horde powerful in its repugnance and revolt, you could have snatched the bread that your hunger craves.
Your stoicism has made you not violent or subversive but true heroes, unknown in the mainstream of history, never upsetting established order, despite your miserable condition.

Related Characters: Ramatoulaye (speaker)
Page Number: 12
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Ramatoulaye is directly addressing the blind, disabled, and destitute of the world. She means to draw a comparison between these unfortunates and herself: she, like the blind or disabled, did not choose her fate. She was born as a woman, and so must fulfill the particular role that Senegalese-Muslim tradition assigns to women.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, Ramatoulaye admires the stoicism of these other targeted groups. In her eyes, it takes true bravery to accept and confront one’s fate, and to therefore be lost to history. Her admiration provides clear insight into her personal conception of female strength. For her, a woman is strong not necessarily by rebelling against tradition and its attendant constraints, but rather by facing the miserable aspects of womanhood with humility and courage.


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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 16 Quotes

Friendship has splendours that love knows not. It grows stronger when crossed, whereas obstacles kill love. Friendship resists time, which wearies and severs couples. It has heights unknown to love.

Related Characters: Ramatoulaye (speaker), Aissatou, Modou
Page Number: 56
Explanation and Analysis:

Ramatoulaye writes these words to Aissatou after Aissatou, upon hearing that Ramatoulaye has been using public transportation to get around, buys her a car. For Ramatoulaye, her friendship with Aissatou is a much stronger and far more fulfilling human relationship than her marriage to Modou. Whereas her marriage essentially dissolves as soon as it faces an obstacle—Modou’s infidelity—Ramatoulaye and Aissatou’s friendship seems only to grow stronger with time and distance. Aissatou lives thousands of miles away and yet she treats Ramatoulaye with the selflessness and generosity deserving of a family member or even a spouse. In Aissatou, Ramatoulaye has found a kind of kinship that escapes the pressures and indignities of custom.

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

When we meet, the signs on our bodies will not be important. The essential thing is the content of our hearts, which animates us; the essential thing is the quality of the sap that flows through us. You have often proved to me the superiority of friendship over love. Time, distance, as well as mutual memories have consolidated our ties and made our children brothers and sisters. Reunited, will we draw up a detailed account of our faded bloom, or will we sow new seeds for new harvests?

Related Characters: Ramatoulaye (speaker), Aissatou
Page Number: 75
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Ramatoulaye is directly addressing Aissatou, who plans to return to Senegal after living for many years in America. She defines their friendship in opposition to romantic love, asserting here as she does elsewhere that in some ways true friendship is more fulfilling and more powerful than love. For one, friendship is resistant to all the accidents of the body, all the superficial attributes that can come between lovers. It can adapt to separation, and it solidifies over time.

Ramatoulaye still believes in love and marriage, but her words here constitute a radical refutation of marriage’s central position within the vast tapestry of human relationships. In her female friend Ramatoulaye has found someone who treats her as an equal, and who cares only for the content of her character.

‘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.