So Long a Letter

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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.
Feminism and Islam  Theme Icon

The opposing pulls of custom and progress that Ramatoulaye encounters in the Senegalese political climate become personal and particular in her struggle to reconcile her abiding faith in Islam with her feminism. The central drama of the novel is the disintegration of Ramatoulaye’s marriage to Modou after the latter takes on a second wife—his daughter’s young friend, no less. Ramatoulaye’s faith permits polygyny (a man taking more than one wife), and dictates that she remain with her husband even after he marries another woman. And yet Ramatoulaye can’t help but feel the injustice of her position—Modou takes on his second wife without any warning (he even refuses to be the one to break the news to Ramatoulaye) and then proceeds to effectively abandon Ramatoulaye and her twelve children.

When Modou suddenly dies, it appears at first as though his entire inheritance will fall to his in-laws and his second wife, Binetou. Ramatoulaye has to fight off her mother-in-law in order to claim the house that Ramatoulaye and Modou acquired on a joint bank loan, a house that is thus rightfully hers. Both the circumstances of her husband’s second marriage and the events following his death indicate to Ramatoulaye that, in the Senegalese-Islamic model of marriage, the woman is seen as something of a disposable commodity, who can be cast aside as soon as the husband grows bored of her.

Aissatou, who endures a similar misfortune when her husband marries his young, nobly born cousin in order to appease his mother, provides Ramatoulaye with an example of escape. Rather than endure her husband’s second marriage, Aissatou divorces him on principle (he claims to still love her) and seeks an education in France, before eventually moving to America. While she never disavows her faith, her decision entails an implicit rejection of certain Senegalese-Islamic norms. Despite Aissatou’s example, however, Ramatoulaye brings together her outspoken feminism with her religiously-inflected notions of family. She resolves to remain married to Modou, even though he has effectively abandoned her, and endures the indignities of the mourning period as the fulfillment of a vow. While she is a professional woman, working long hours as a school teacher, she also remains committed to her role as the homemaker. She turns her feminism inward, seeking empowerment within the constraints of custom. She learns to drive and singlehandedly raises her twelve children to become sensitive adults. When, following Modou’s death, Tamsir and Daoudu propose marriage to her, Ramatoulaye rejects them both (publically humiliating Tamsir) and resolves to live a life of self-reliance. Not long afterward, she manages to win back the house that she and Modou bought together.

Ramatoulaye lives at an intersection likely unfamiliar to most Western readers: she is African, she is Muslim, and she is a feminist. Rather than reject any one of those identities, she seems to value and embody each equally. This refusal to choose is itself an expression of empowerment.

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Feminism and Islam Quotes in So Long a Letter

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

To overcome my bitterness, I think of human destiny. Each life has its share of heroism, an obscure heroism, born of abdication, of renunciation and acceptance under the merciless whip of fate.

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

Ramatoulaye writes this as she reflects on her lot in life and tries to understand what led Modou to abandon her. Her words provide insight into her particular brand of feminism. She is less interested in achieving complete liberation from the bonds of patriarchal tradition than she is in achieving a kind of quiet heroism within the constraints of her experience. Ramatoulaye accepts her fate in many ways—she does not leave Modou when he takes on a second wife, and she endures the indignities of his funeral without protest—but she never fully surrenders to it. Instead, she finds empowerment in her daily life, acting as a strong mother to her twelve children, rejecting the advances of other men, and cultivating a valuable relationship with her friend (and addressee of the novel itself) Aissatou.

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.

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 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.

Chapter 12 Quotes

I was irritated. He was asking me to understand. But to understand what? The supremacy of instinct? The right to betray? The justification of the desire for variety? I could not be an ally to polygamic instincts. What, then, was I to understand?

Related Characters: Ramatoulaye (speaker), Mawdo
Page Number: 35
Explanation and Analysis:

Ramatoulaye is irritated by Mawdo, who has just attempted to justify his ongoing sexual relationship with Nabou, his second wife, despite claiming not to love her. Her apparent disgust at his attempts to justify his behavior reveals the subtlety of her relationship to custom and the dictates of Senegalese Islam. She knows that polygamy is permitted by her faith—it is for this reason, among others, that she later decides to remain married to Modou when he takes a second wife. However, she cannot herself become an “ally” to the supposed “instincts” that drive men to polygamy. She accepts the consequences of her husband’s infidelity without endorsing it.

Alternatively, it may simply be that it is harder for Ramatoulaye to achieve the same moral clarity when she is faced with her own husband’s interest in another woman—but when it comes to defending her friend, Ramatoulaye is able to take a firmer moral stand.

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 18 Quotes

‘You forget that I have a heart, a mind, that I am not an object to be passed from hand to hand. You don't know what marriage means to me: it is an act of faith and of love, the total surrender of oneself to the person one has chosen and who has chosen you.’

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

Ramatoulaye speaks these words to Tamsir, after he cavalierly makes clear his intentions of marrying her once the mourning period for Modou has ended. It is one of the few moments in the text when Ramatoulaye takes an explicit, vocal stand against the sexism she has had to endure her entire life. The way in which Tamsir casually announces that he will marry Ramatoulaye demonstrates his inability to see her as a person with hopes and preferences of her own. Here Ramatoulaye is careful to assert that she is not merely some piece of furniture to be passed around; she has an internal life and will stand up for it.

Ramatoulaye has a complex understanding of marriage, and that understanding is clarified somewhat here. While custom and cultural norms are important to Ramatoulaye’s worldview, she does not seem to believe that one should get married for marriage’s sake, or simply because it is expected. (And to be clear: Tamsir’s proposal, while crass, is also customary—in Senegalese-Muslim culture it is traditional for a widow to marry one of her late husband’s relatives or friends.) Rather, Ramatoulaye maintains a mystical, romantic view of love: for her, love transcends the institutions that are meant to contain it. Marriage, though socially constructed, should be the result and expression of transcendent feelings.

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

Life is an eternal compromise. What is important is the examination paper… This, too, will be at the mercy of the marker. No one will have any say over him. So why fight a teacher for one or two marks that can never change the destiny of a student?

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

One of Ramatoulaye’s young sons, Mawdo Fall, has made a habit of arguing with his teacher over grades. Mawdo does indeed have reason to be upset: his teacher appears to favor a white boy over Mawdo, despite Mawdo’s obviously superior intelligence. Ramatoulaye, however, discourages Mawdo and his older sister Daba from putting up a stink, offering this reflection by way of explanation.

Her advice again reveals a conservative streak, and her somewhat complex relationship to protest. A more conventionally “liberated” woman—such as Aissatou or Daba—would likely have no problem telling the teacher off and accusing him of racism. In contrast, Ramatoulaye advocates for self-reliance, for turning one’s energies inward—for subverting authority by being one’s own authority. Ramatoulaye’s personal philosophy of acceptance and quiet power may not be immediately palatable to the most liberal minded readers, but in at least this case she seems to have a point. While grades are of course important, it would be a mistake to see them as the sole determining factor of one’s destiny.

Ramatoulaye’s reaction to her son also illustrates her parenting style, which is tough and somewhat unconventional. More often she takes the side opposite her children—she rarely bends to their will—and tries to help them see their world from a new angle.

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.