So Long a Letter

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Friendship vs. Marital Love 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.
Friendship vs. Marital Love Theme Icon

Throughout the novel, Ramatoulaye’s close bond with her friend Aissatou is continually posed against the disintegration of both of their marriages. For both Ramatoulaye and presumably Aissatou, friendship—especially female friendship—offers a richer and more intimate connection than marriage ever can.

This contrast is evident in the very form of the novel. Ramatoulaye’s intense feelings of kinship with Aissatou, even while Aissatou lives thousands of miles away, can be felt in the intimacy of her address. The novel is framed as both a letter to a friend and a private diary, and it seems that for Ramatoulaye there should be no distinction between the two: what one friend endures privately, the other one shares. As if to confirm their solidarity in each other’s struggles, Aissatou—without being asked, and without asking for anything in return—buys Ramatoulaye a car.

Modou’s abandonment of Ramatoulaye convinces her that friendship is more resilient and rewarding than marital love. As she writes, “Friendship has splendors 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.” Ramatoulaye’s eldest daughter, Daba, echoes this sentiment when she says “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?” Then again, Ramatoulaye does not share completely in her daughter’s liberal and pragmatic view of marital love. While she feels that friendship has “greater heights” than love, she also believes strongly in the sanctity of marriage, and the importance of raising children along with a spouse. And, finally, Ramatoulaye’s younger daughter Aissatou II provides a rejoinder to Daba’s pragmatism, and with it a glimmer of hope: Aissatou and her husband-to-be are deeply in love, yet they also succeed in maintaining a practical, mutually respectful relationship.

While Ramatoulaye is skeptical of the institution of marriage, and wary of the particular injustices it has wrought in her own life, she meets marital love with a kind of stoicism, upholding it as a duty that one must take on, if only for the sake of one’s children. However, it is in friendship—especially friendship with Aissatou—that Ramatoulaye finds real strength and emotional fulfillment.

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Friendship vs. Marital Love ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in So Long a Letter related to the theme of Friendship vs. Marital Love.
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.

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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 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 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

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.