So Long a Letter

by Mariama Ba

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How does So Long a Letter reflect the theme of polygamy? What does it say about the characters since one accepts her husband's second wife and one does not? Is it due to the personality of characters or their culture? I need someone to discuss polygamy as a whole within the novel. 

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The whole novel is actually a letter, written by Ramatoulaye to her friend Aissatou. The letter explores her and her friend’s experiences in married life. The letter starts off with Ramatoulaye’s experiences during her husband, Moudou’s funeral. She explains her pain at losing the father of her children, whom she dearly loved. The reader is made aware of the fact that she has a co-wife when she states that the presence of her co-wife, Binetou, in her house, during the funeral, irritated her. She expresses her anger at being considered an equal to her co-wife during the funeral ceremony. She says that her sisters-in-law “gave equal consideration to thirty years and five years of married life”, that they “celebrated twelve maternities and three” with equal ease. When finally her co-wife leaves her residence for her lavish Sicap villa she is relieved.

She narrates her feelings during the mirasse, a Koranic occasion during which the deceased man’s secrets are exposed to his closest family members. She remembers how her husband neglected his first family for a new life with his second wife, how he spent lavishly on his second family at their expense. She is embittered by these sad memories. She recounts her reaction to Moudou’s betrayal. Her decision to remain married to Moudou could have been motivated by her desire to fulfill her role as a mother to her children and a partner to her husband, even though her husband was no longer interested in her. In fact, her decision to stay surprised most of her family members, considering the hurtful things her husband had done to her. She comes across as a strong woman, slow to anger and patient in facing the realities of life. She even understands that her co-wife Binetou was actually a victim of a gold-digging mother and an older man—who unfortunately was her husband.

The second character, Aissatou met her husband, Mawdo Ba, through Modou. Her marriage to Mawdo is disrupted by his marriage to a second woman, who is actually the daughter of his mother’s brother. Mawdo is lured into marrying this woman by his own mother who resented Aissatou’s lineage. Unlike her friend Ramatoulaye, Aissatou decided to divorce her husband in spite of societal pressure to tolerate her co-wife. After her divorce, she sought solace in education and finally landed a plum job in the Senegalese embassy in the US. Aissatou also comes across as a strong independent woman who does not fear to chart her own course in a largely patriarchal African society. She refuses to bow to traditions that do not make sense to her and does not fear to present her own thoughts on controversial issues such as polygamy. In spite of her stance, she does not judge her friend Ramatoulaye, when she decides to stay on in a polygamous union.

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Ba's work articulates that while the theme of polygamy might be a part of one's culture, it does not have to...

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imprint itself upon the individual. Ramatoulaye experiences the cultural sanctioning of polygamy.  Simply put, Modou is able to take another wife.  Polygamy is approved by the culture. It is a part of the cultural condition in which Ramatoulaye and her children live. It is for this reason that after 25 years and a dozen children, she is really unable to enjoy public support against polygamy and cannot expect her social order to offer repudiation.  In the Senegalese culture, Ramatoulaye must accept polygamy if she is to stay in the culture.  It is for this reason that she writes the letter to Aissatou.  Aissatou rejected polygamy, leaving to America in the hopes of finding a monogamous relationship.  In both examples, the theme of polygamy is an important one.  It defines how women are viewed in the cultural context, and also defines how women, to a great extent, see themselves.  The theme of polygamy is shown as a way the culture views women as a means to an end, as opposed to an end in their own right.  

The theme of polygamy is shown in a different light through the characterizations that Ba offers.  While it is a cultural reality, polygamy is not something that must necessarily imprint itself on women.  Ramatoulaye affirms her own condition in the world, recognizing the need for independence for her children and affirming her own intelligence through a love of literature and validating her own sense of self.  In writing the letter, she shows  a solidarity with Aissatou, who for her own part refused to be defined by polygamy.  In the alliance between both women, Ba suggests that cultural expectations do not have to play a singularly defining role in the way one views themselves and how they view others.  The theme of polygamy is shown as a cultural reality.  Yet, it is not one that must be accepted as unchangeable.  Both women show that polygamy might be a part of one's world, but does not have to be imprinted on one's identity.  In this light, So Long a Letter offers a note of empowerment against a musical composition where the theme of polygamy has done much in way of damage to women's identities.

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