Epistolary in Mariama Bâ`s So Long a Letter

Epistolary in Mariama Bâ’s So Long a Letter
Presented by Leah Bouas and Stephanie McMath
Epistolary: (1) of or associated with letters. (2) Being in the form of a letter: epistolary
exchanges. (3) Carried on by or composed of letters: an epistolary friendship.
First Person: (1) the grammatical category of forms that designate a speaker or writer
referring to himself or herself. Examples of forms in the first person include English
pronouns such as I and We and verb forms such as Spanish hablo “I speak”. (2) A
discourse or literary style in which the narrator recounts his or her own experiences or
impressions using such forms: a novel written in the first person.
The major difference between the author communicating through an epistolatory
approach versus a first person approach is that when you are reading an epistolary
type piece, you feel more intimate and one-on-one with the writer than if reading
a work done in first person. There is no need for the writer to lie or mask any
intentions or emotions because the work is meant to expose more perhaps than
one whose writing appeals to a wider, less specific audience.
During the last twenty years a significant number of epistolary novels by women
have appeared, of the type, which first flourished in England and France in the
seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Unlike the eighteenth-century sentimental
examples, however, the epistolary novels emerging now radically rewrite
women's lives in a postmodern genre. Although such novels have always been
about sexual politics, contemporary ones are more blatantly political in theme and
more radical in form, and many are written by women in post-colonial cultures, in
which women have been doubly oppressed, from outside by a chauvinistic
imperialism and from within by a patriarchy which itself has felt oppressed by
outside forces. From Senegal we have Mariama Ba's So Long a Letter (1980).
20th century AD
How does epistolary impact Bâ’s ability to get inside the hearts and minds of her readers?
 The letters are written like a diary, honestly and without censorship. Rather than
having been written for a large audience, they contain the intensity of a one-onone personal conversation. Readers identify with her almost immediately because
Ramatoulaye’s character holds nothing back and illustrates her pain so vividly.
How does epistolary help readers to think about the presence of character?
 Evaluating Ramatoulaye’s character is like looking in the mirror, because the
audience views the text through her eyes. The lack of an objective, or even any
outside opinion, leaves us looking at Ramatoulaye as she sees herself and as she
sees others. We also do not know exactly what others think of her or each other,
we know only her perceptions of those relationships.
The audience sees Ramatoulaye in a wider variety of roles than another narrator
or character would see her. We see the entire spectrum of how she perceives her
life as a wife, mother, woman, professional, daughter-in-law, sister-in-law, friend,
sister, and in a higher caste of the Wolof society.
How does epistolary help you think about the presence of themes?
 Readers feel a more personal connection with the themes due to the use of
epistolary. Each theme impacts Ramatoulaye personally and she is never
disconnected from them. We feel her emotions firsthand, which has a more
emotional impact than if we read a secondhand account.
 The overarching theme of the text is Bâ’s search for reconciliation between Wolof
tradition and modernity.
 Other themes include fatalism and the ability for women to make their own
Is there an inherent bias in the text and how does that affect the perception of character?
 There is obviously an inherent bias in the novel because every event is viewed
through Ramatoulaye’s eyes alone. This bias tends to make readers sympathize
with Ramatoulaye most of all, as well as her family, and it tends to demonize
those characters not in good standing with the protagonist. With this style, it is
impossible to obtain a well-rounded view of a situation.
Websites about:
Epistolary writing:
Wolof culture and tribal traditions: