So Long a Letter

by Mariama Ba

Start Free Trial

Editor's Choice

Discuss the theme of tradition vs. modernity in Ba's So Long a Letter.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In Ba's novel So Long a Letter, Ramatoulaye describes the life she led with her husband and the mourning she is required to undertake after his death. While she is participating in the 4-month process of Iddah, she spends a great portion of the letter discussing her pain and anger with her husband.

This theme of modernity vs. tradition is exemplified in Ramatoulaye, as she rebels internally against the traditionalism that oppresses and enrages her. First of all, her husband marries a second wife, in spite of them remaining monogamous for over thirty years. This infuriates her, feeling betrayed by his actions, but she is powerless to do anything about it. She feels duty-bound to respect him and his decision, as polygamy is not uncommon for Senegalese Muslims—but as a modern woman who feels she deserves respect and the love and focus of her husband, she is outraged. This struggle between respecting tradition and embracing modernity is ever-present in Ramatoulaye as she tries to untangle the emotions she feels.

Additionally, Ramatoulaye is showing her modernity by even expressing these feelings in her letter to her friend. This period of mourning is supposed to be used to respect the dead and mourn his life, which she does. At the same time, however, she opens up about the negative aspects of her husband and further embodies the struggle between modernity and tradition.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

I think that the theme of tradition vs. modernity is present throughout Ba's work.  Yet, it seems to be most effectively used when looking at the characters who represent the struggle to find happiness, poised at different ends of the spectrum.  In this case, the condition of women is representative of this theme.  When looking at Moudou's choices and how the institution of marriage empowers him over his wives, the women in his life embody tradition and modernity.  Interestingly enough, Ba's work represents the theme in a unique way in that characters intricately represent both aspects of time in a simultaneous manner.  Ramatoulaye, his first wife, represents the traditional aspect of marriage.  She is his first wife, and must abide by his choices according to Senegalese tradition.  She has little recourse when he chooses another woman, Binetou, as a second wife.  Within this traditional framework, though, Ramatoulaye ends up understanding that tradition does not work when it seeks to oppress and deny voice.  Through this, modernity through the form of self empowerment begins to become apparent in her life.  At the same time, Binetou can be seen as a modern representation.  She enjoys spending her husband's money, and likes it spent on materialist ends such as cars and nightclub.  A vision of modernity, Binetou is also trapped by the condition of tradition.  She is a second wife, and when Moudou dies, she experiences the traditional aspect of how identity is difficult when it is tied into another.  No matter how modern she might want to appear, Binetou capitulates to the traditional condition of unhappiness for a woman that is left with few options to find and reclaim her own identity in the shadow of a man.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial