In "So Long a Letter" by Mariama Ba, does the main character have a high status or low status? 

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Jacob Christiansen eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Mariama Ba's So Long a Letter recounts the struggles that women face in a society that is starkly different than Western society. 

The book is a letter written by the main character, a school teacher named Ramatoulaye who lives in an African country called Senegal, to her friend Aissatou, who now lives in America. The letter describes much of these two friends' lives together and explores the changes that occur when the women get married.

Both women were on the forefront of feminism in their younger years. Ramatoulaye explains that "it was the privilege of our generation to be the link between two periods in our history, one of domination, the other of independence." They fought male-dominated society, choosing to become teachers in order to bring up a generation of young boys and girls

Both young women marry men who share their modern views... at first. A reader might think the main character has high status. She's a working woman, a wife, a mother of twelve (yes, twelve), and a well-respected feminist. She reflects on the tension between all these roles:

“Try explaining to them that a working woman is no less responsible for her home... There are the children to be washed, the husband to be looked after. The working woman has a dual task, of which both halves, equally arduous, must be reconciled. How does one go about this? Therein lies the skill that makes all the difference to a home."

However, the high status doesn't last long. Indeed, the purpose of Ramatoulaye writing her letter to Aissatou is that Ramatoulaye's husband has abruptly died. This comes not long after he'd taken a second wife. In a shocking rebuttal of trust and ideology, the husband married a second woman and totally abandons Ramatoulaye and their twelve children. This is allowed in Islamic society, the setting for the book, but is a huge blow to Ramatoulaye. She cannot afford a divorce in their uber-conservative society, so she stays legally married to him. However, the husband never sets foot in their house again. Eventually, he dies.

Now she is a publicly disgraced widow. She is writing her friend (also separated from her husband), during the mourning period of her husband's death, to reflect on their glory days and on the nature of marriage and feminism. Her life has changed drastically: 

"I survived. I overcame my shyness at going alone to cinemas; I would take a seat with less and less embarrassment as the months went by. People stared at the middle-aged lady without a partner. I would feign indifference, while anger hammered against by nerves and the tears I held back welled behind my eyes. From the surprised looks, I gauged the slender liberty granted to women." 

All of the liberty and power she felt as a prominent feminist seems to have been due to her marital status. Now, she is a single mother of twelve in a society that condemns single women. 

However, she is still sought after by older men in the town looking for a new wife. She reflects on their advances: 

"I then watched filing past and besieging me old men in search of easy revenue, young men in search of adventure to occupy their leisure. My successive refusals gave me in town the reputation of a 'lioness' or 'mad woman.' Who let loose this greedy pack of hounds after me?"

Her status is low. And that seems to be one of the points of the book. It examines the way a woman's status drastically changes based on circumstances out of her control. 

Read the study guide:
So Long a Letter

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