Under Aunty Nabou’s guardianship, and with the help of Ramatoulaye, young Nabou is enrolled in a French school and after a few years becomes a midwife. One day, Aunty Nabou summons Mawdo and tells him that Farba has offered young Nabou to Mawdo as a wife. Aunty Nabou implores Mawdo to accept—if he doesn’t, she says, she will surely die of shame. Mawdo takes this to heart, and agrees to marry young Nabou. The whole community learns about this before Aissatou does. Reluctantly Mawdo breaks the news to her, telling her that he is agreeing to the marriage only to appease his mother—he does not love young Nabou. Aissatou goes along with this for a while, but when Mawdo begins to have children with young Nabou, Aissatou leaves, leaving him a letter—which Ramatoulaye reproduces for the reader—explaining in direct terms that she cannot accept his decision.
While at first it seems that Mawdo maintains an entirely practical view of his marriage to the young Nabou, his actions—namely, having children with his new wife—undercut his claims to pragmatism. Mawdo tells Aissatou his decision is a matter of principle, not passion, and yet Aissatou’s uncompromising and impassioned rejection of him is the most principled decision perhaps in the whole novel. Ramatoulaye’s role in all of this—in the background, never intervening on the part of either Mawdo or Aissatou—illustrates her more conservative and reserved tendencies.
Now free of her marriage, Aissatou turns to books, and begins taking her education seriously. Ramatoulaye admires this greatly. Aissatou returns to school, receives a degree in interpretation, and gets a job at the Senegalese embassy in America. Meanwhile, Mawdo finds himself dissatisfied with Nabou. She does not keep up the house in the way Aissatou had, and she is constantly receiving visitors from her hometown. In letters Mawdo begs Aissatou to return, but she refuses. Despite his misery, Mawdo continues to have children with Nabou. When Ramatoulaye confronts him about this, Mawdo can only explain himself with a crude analogy: he is a starving man, and Nabou is the nearest plate of food. This disgusts Ramatoulaye.
Aissatou flourishes outside the confines of marriage and custom, embracing modernism and education and going so far as to leave the entire country behind. For his part, Mawdo misses Aissatou for reasons that have nothing to do with her and everything to do with her ability to serve him. Ramatoulaye’s disgust at Mawdo’s analogy demonstrates not just a solidarity with Aissatou but also with Nabou, who throughout the whole ordeal has never been treated as more than just an object.