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.
Motherhood Theme Icon

Ramatoulaye is a devoted mother to her twelve children. When Modou abandons her for Binetou, and then when he eventually dies, Ramatoulaye must redouble her efforts as a mother and face with courage the prospect of being a single parent. Ramatoulaye’s struggles as a mother are not just particular to her marital situation—they are also particular to the times in which she lives, as her children are growing up during the dawn of Senegalese independence. They are entering a society that is less repressed and inhibited than it once was, but by that same token is full of new dangers for teenagers, who are now exposed to a much wider array of temptations and urges.

Ramatoulaye faces this very difficulty in the final of third of the book. A progressive mother, she treats her adolescent children with a laissez-faire (“hands off”) attitude, allowing her daughters to wear trousers (unusual for Senegalese-Muslim women) and go out at night. As she puts it, “I wanted my daughters to discover [love] in a healthy way, without feelings of guilt, secretiveness or degradation.” However, when Ramatoulaye finds three of her daughters smoking, and soon afterward discovers that another daughter, Aissatou II, has gotten pregnant out of wedlock, she comes to reconsider her parenting methods. She grows angry at her children, and worries that her hands-off parenting has left them in peril.

In the end, however, Ramatoulaye brings herself to meet her children’s mistakes with equanimity and love. Rather than spurn her pregnant daughter, she remembers how her daughters supported her in her time of need, and welcomes her with open arms, writing “one is a mother in order to understand the inexplicable…one is a mother in order to love without beginning or end.” And, in any case, she is impressed by her children’s ability to confront and resolve their missteps completely of their own accord. In particular, she is surprised to find that Aissatou, upon learning she was pregnant, worked together with her boyfriend to determine how the child would be cared for, arranging that her boyfriend’s grandparents would care for the child in the first years of its life.

For Ramatoulaye, motherhood is an ongoing, mysterious, hugely difficult, and ultimately reciprocal process. Her decision to meet her pregnant daughter with boundless love, while not exactly conventional by her community’s standards, brings her closer to her child, and reinvigorates her with a new understanding of motherhood.

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Motherhood Quotes in So Long a Letter

Below you will find the important quotes in So Long a Letter related to the theme of Motherhood.
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.


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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.

Chapter 24 Quotes

And also, one is a mother in order to understand the inexplicable. One is a mother to lighten the darkness. One is a mother to shield when lightning streaks the night, when thunder shakes the earth, when mud bogs one down. One is a mother in order to love without beginning or end.

Related Characters: Ramatoulaye (speaker), Aissatou (Aissatou’s Namesake, Aissatou II)
Page Number: 87
Explanation and Analysis:

Ramatoulaye writes these words after she discovers her daughter, Aissatou, has gotten pregnant out of wedlock. Rather than punish or reject her daughter, Ramatoulaye decides to meet her with love, grace, and understanding.

Here, Ramatoulaye’s description of motherhood emphasizes its complexity and ultimate sanctity. For Ramatoulaye, a mother is a kind of benign god—a forgiver, a protector, and an interpreter of mysteries. Motherhood is a process that is always unfolding: it is never finished, and neither is it ever fully understood. Ramatoulaye’s personal edict is more liberal than those of her ancestors, but it does not leave her entirely without a certain amount of authority over her children.