So Long a Letter, Mariama Bâ's first novel, is literally written as a long letter. As the novel begins, Ramatoulaye Fall is beginning a letter to her lifelong friend Aissatou Bâ. The occasion for writing is Ramatoulaye's recent widowhood. As she gives her friend the details of her husband's death, she sets off on a journey of remembering the major events in her and Aissatou's lives.
Ramatoulaye's husband, Moudou Fall, died suddenly of a heart attack. Following the strictures of her Muslim faith, Ramatoulaye must remain in seclusion for a long period of time. This seclusion is broken, however, by the ritualized visits of relatives and friends of the dead man. During the first days, Ramatoulaye must share her home with Binetou, her co-wife. This young woman, who is the same age as Ramatoulaye's oldest daughter, and Ramatoulaye sit in state to welcome the visitors. The visitors bring money to these women out of respect for the dead, but ultimately their family-in-law, Moudou's siblings and parents, take the money away from the widows. In her letter, Ramatoulaye muses about why Moudou forced her into the awkward position of co-wife after 25 years of marriage and 12 children. But before telling the story of Binetou's elevation from shy schoolgirl to wealthy wife, Ramatoulaye recalls her own courtship years before.
Ramatoulaye and Aissatou were well-educated young women, having attended a French-run school in a time when few Senegalese women were given this opportunity. Sought after in marriage by multiple suitors, both women married for love. Ramatoulaye's mother disapproved of her choice—Moudou Fall, the young rising lawyer from a less elite family. Aissatou's in-laws looked down their noses at her. The daughter of a goldsmith, Aissatou was considered an unfit bride for the doctor Mawdo Bâ, the son of a tribal princess. But both women followed their hearts and with their husbands set out to forge new traditions to match their country's new independence.
But after recollecting their happy pasts, Ramatoulaye records in her long letter the problems that destroyed the two couples' tranquillity. Aissatou, now a divorced woman living in the United States, left Mawdo after he took a co-wife. Still in love with Aissatou, Mawdo was pressured by tradition and his mother's demands to take a wife who shared his same noble blood. His mother, Aunty Nabou, had never truly accepted Aissatou or her four sons. Years of planning her "revenge" on Aissatou, however, finally paid off. Aunty Nabou had adopted her niece and namesake, young Nabou, years before. After training this girl to be a perfect wife for her son, Aunty Nabou told Mawdo, "I will never get over it if you don't take her as your wife. Shame kills faster than disease.’’ To save his mother from shame, Mawdo agreed to the wedding. He planned to continue living...
(The entire section is 1164 words.)