European vs. African Traditions
As critic John Champagne has pointed out, So Long a Letter is filled with descriptions of the culture clash apparent in 1970s Senegal. Besides the "hybridity" of the novel's form and content, Champagne argues that the novel "combines a European genre—the epistolary novel—with indigenous oral gestures'' and "presents us with a culture irrevocably altered by the colonial presence.’’ Thus, Champagne notes how "one might find in proximity both cowries and Fiats, boubous and night clubs, safara (as the glossary explains, 'liquid with supernatural powers') and electroshock therapy.'' While at times it seems as though Bâ favors Western ways over African traditions, Bâ mainly shows how both exist side by side. Ramatoulaye is distressed that her daughters have begun to smoke and to dress like Western women. She hopes that a Western type of feminism will not lead to moral dissolution: ‘‘A profligate life for a woman is incompatible with morality. What does one gain from pleasures? Early aging, debasement.’’ However, Ramatoulaye is also grateful to the white teacher who expanded her narrow horizons. Ramatoulaye rails against the injustice of polygamy, and seems to condemn Islam for allowing it. At the same time, she takes comfort in the rituals of Islam. Rather than seeing the enforced mourning time for widows as an inconvenience, she appreciates having time to reflect on her life. The novel does show how the position of women varies under a Western or a traditional Senegalese system of values. Traditionally, women gained power through family connections. Ramatoulaye and Aissatou, on the other hand, have gained power through education and careers. Reconciling their roles as career women and as members of extended families causes each woman difficulties.
Relationships among Women
Related to the theme of African traditions versus European values is another important theme: the relationships of women to each other. Ramatoulaye describes in detail the ways in which female family members relate under time-honored traditions. The daughter-in-law must open her home to her husband's family. The family-in-law will take care of her in her widowhood based on her behavior during marriage. Ramatoulaye describes how her mother-in-law ‘‘would stop by again and again on her outings, always flanked by different friends...so that they might see...her supremacy in this beautiful house in which she did not live. I would receive her with all the respect due to a queen, and she would leave satisfied, especially if her hand closed over the banknote I had carefully placed there.’’ Despite her success as a teacher, Ramatoulaye must be completely submissive to her husband's mother. Aissatou, however, cannot please her mother-in-law. Aunty Nabou refuses to accept Aissatou, the daughter of a goldsmith, as a suitable wife for her son. It is in Aunty Nabou's power, then, to destroy her daughter-in-law's happiness. She insists that her son take a second, more socially acceptable, wife. Women do not always look out for the best interests of other women. Binetou's mother forces Binetou to marry a man she does not love or esteem. Binetou, once married to Moudou, insists that he stop communicating with Ramatoulaye and their many children. But, So Long a Letter also celebrates the alliances women can make. Ramatoulaye and Aissatou draw emotional and material comfort from their long friendship. Aissatou provides the abandoned Ramatoulaye with a much-needed car. Ramatoulaye recalls with pride the lasting friendships she made at school with African women from many countries. Young Nabou works hard as a midwife to improve women's lives. Ramatoulaye decides, after Moudou's death, that she would never agree to become a man's second wife because she would not wish to inflict harm on the first wife. As the novel ends, Ramatoulaye says that her ‘‘heart rejoices each time a woman emerges from the shadows.’’ In other words, she rejoices when any woman can overcome the obstacles placed in her path. Ramatoulaye seeks not only her own happiness, but happiness for all women.