Ramatoulaye recalls meeting Modou for the first time, while on a trip to a teachers’ training college with Aissatou. Addressing Modou directly, in the second person, she remembers him asking her to dance and their ensuing romance, which endured even after Modou went off to study law in France—Modou, she explains, felt homesick and lonely the whole time he was there, and wrote to her often.
Modou’s dissatisfaction in France illustrates a conundrum that then faced the educated in Senegal: most pathways to higher education also demanded assimilation to French culture—that is, the culture of the colonizer and oppressor. Separately, Ramatoulaye’s use of direct address illustrates her continued feelings of intimacy towards Modou, even after estrangement and death have separated them.
Upon his return to Senegal, Modou and Ramatoulaye prepared to marry. Modou also introduced his friend Mawdo to Aissatou. Ramatoulaye’s mother was skeptical of her daughter’s choice, however, and Ramatoulaye now understands her skepticism. Ramatoulaye and her mother belonged to the first generations of women fighting for empowerment in Senegal, and her mother wanted her daughter to have a husband that would be equal to Ramatoulaye’s intellect and ambition. It seems that by marrying Modou, an idler, Ramatoulaye surrendered her freedom to a man who was beneath her. Now she has nothing to show for it.
Ramatoulaye’s disagreement with her mother raises a question that vexes the entire novel: are traditional family life, religious marriage, and motherhood fundamentally at odds with female empowerment? Does a woman surrender essential freedoms just by choosing to marry? Or just by marrying the “wrong” kind of person?