The theme of tradition versus modernity emerges in the stories of the two generations depicted in So Long a Letter. In writing to her old friend Aissatou, Ramatoulaye reflects on the optimism they felt in the early post-independence years. Both women were convinced that they—and other women their age—had achieved major social breakthroughs. They were able to combine marriage and motherhood with a teaching career, and thus help shape the next generation and thus their nation’s future even as they forged their own path. While polygamy was the dominant tradition, they both felt confident that their marriages would be monogamous because of the respect their husbands had for them.
For Aissatou, this certainty was soon erased. Her husband decided to take a second wife. Rejecting his decision, she left the marriage and struck out on her own. One purpose of Ramatoulaye’s letter is to reconnect with her friend, who had moved away, and share with her that her own life has taken a similar turn. In her case, however, the marriage remained monogamous through three decades and twelve children. She found her world shattered when her husband exercised his prerogative to take a second, much-younger wife. Although Ramatoulaye stayed in the marriage, when her husband died, she did was not honored as the senior wife.
She shares with her friend that her earlier optimism had been misguided, for tradition continued to dominate their society. Ironically, it seems that Aissatou had a less difficult journey because she was young when she divorced, and then gained the power to shape her life’s direction according to her own mind. Although Ramatoulaye did not consider herself a traditional woman, she ended up in a traditional female quandary through dependence on her husband.