Ramatoulaye: A Link between Two Worlds in So Long a Letter
Mariama Ba’s novel, So Long a Letter, gives insight into one Muslim woman’s life in postcolonial Senegal. Ba’s use of the epistolary form allows Ramatoulaye to express her feelings and shed light on this new world from a female perspective. While surrounded by encroaching modernity, there is constant need to balance old and new. Established Islamic customs and new French ideas mix to make an uncharted territory, specifically for women. Ramatoulaye’s life blends modern feminist thinking and established Islamic expectations. Her statement 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” can be applied to both colonialism and feminism (25). Her marriage, her husband taking a second wife, and her subsequent “single” motherhood are each presented in the novel as situations where modernity and custom clash.
Ramatoulaye reminisces to Aissatou about her original love for her husband, Modou. While her mother wants her to marry the doctor, Daouda Dieng, Ramatoulaye chooses to marry Modou. She recalls everyone’s shock that “our marriage was celebrated without dowry, without pomp, under the disapproving looks of my father, before the painful indignation of my frustrated mother, under the sarcasm of my surprised sisters, in our town struck dumb with astonishment” (17). The fact that the marriage was chosen by the couple themselves, with no dowry being paid exemplifies a modern, romantic way of thinking of marriage. This deviation from the Islamic customs of prearranged marriages and dowries shows Ramatoulaye and Modou as a modern couple.
Unfortunately, Modou courts and marries a second wife without his first wife’s knowledge and proceeds to abandon Ramatoulaye. She laments that “with consternation, I measure the extent of Modou’s betrayal. His abandonment of his first family, myself and my children, was the outcome of the choice of a new life. He rejected us. He mapped out his future without taking our existence into account” (10). As a Muslim, the practice of polygamy has parameters such as equality among wives, which Modou rejects. He not only chooses to engage in polygamy after thirty years of monogamy, but he rejects the Islamic tenets involved with taking a new wife. The betrayal is comparable to what may be called today a mid-life crisis. He discards his older wife for a much younger one. These actions more closely mimic stories of Western betrayal. Ramatoulaye angrily responds: “and to think that I loved this man passionately, to think that I gave him thirty years of my life, to think that twelve times over I carried his child. The addition of a rival to my life was not enough for him. In loving someone else, he burned his past, both morally and materially. He dared to commit such an act of disavowal” (13). The fact that he can reject his marriage to Ramatoulaye and take a second wife exemplifies how Modou wishes to have his cake and eat it, too. He both utilizes and rejects certain Muslim traditions as he sees fit. He utilizes Islamic custom to obtain Binetou and rejects the Islamic custom of ensuring equality and acceptance among his wives. Modou combines both the modern world and established customs to create his own set of rules.
Ramatoulaye contemplates leaving Modou. Her thoughts of: “Leave? Start again at zero, after living twenty-five years with one man, after having borne twelve children” resemble a modern way of thinking (41). The fact that she does not accept the second marriage and contemplates leaving Modou embraces a modern feminist outlook. Her decision to stay in an unhappy marriage however, presents Ramatoulaye as far from a liberated woman. Her perception of herself is that she is “one of those who can realize themselves fully and bloom only when they form a part of a couple” and that she has “never conceived of happiness outside marriage.” This outlook on life outside of marriage does not represent a modern, feminist way of thinking (58).
After Modou’s rejection of her and their children, Ramatoulaye must still carry on as a mother. She devotes herself to her children. She finds “joy and sadness together: joy in being loved by my children, the sadness of a mother who does not have the means to change the course of events” (56). She is both on her own and still married, an interesting new position for women that has evolved from customs blending with modernity. Ramatoulaye becomes a hard-working “single” mother. She tries to be involved with her children’s lives but is also busy providing for her family. This allows for some of her children’s actions to slip by unnoticed. The discovery of her daughters smoking cigarettes foreshadows her daughter Aissatou’s pregnancy. Shocked, Ramatoulaye asks herself: “how could I guess that my daughter, who had calmed my anger during the cigarette affair, was now indulging in an even more dangerous game?” (85). An unwed pregnant daughter is to be disowned by a family but the fact that Ramatoulaye “could not abandon her, as pride would have me do” can be viewed as another example of Ramatoulaye’s modernity (87).
Ramatoulaye represents women trying to make sense of where they are considered to belong and where they wish to belong. Society’s expectations of a woman and a woman’s expectations of society are a constantly evolving state in every culture. Ramatoulaye exemplifies the struggles of post-colonial Senegalese women, but her struggles transcend her time and location. Women are always trying to blend customs and modernity into their own personal recipes for happiness and success. Ba draws our attention to the microcosm of Ramatoulaye’s experience and prompts one to think of the macrocosmic blend of modernity and custom in all women’s lives.