Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. Juni 2006

2.3. Liebe in der Dichtung
Herausgeber | Editor | Éditeur: Ulrich Müller (Universität Salzburg)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Marriage in Black and White

Kathleen Thorpe (Johannesburg)



Instruments for some, baits for others, respected or despised, often muzzled, all women have almost the same fate, which religions or unjust legislation have sealed.

(Mariama Bâ)

"My friend, my friend, my friend. I call upon you three times. Yesterday you were divorced. Today I am a widow" (Bâ:1989,1 ). This urgent invocation near the commencement of Mariama Bâ’s epistolary novel So long a letter enunciates the ways in which a marriage can end. All three of the novels selected for discussion have the end of a marriage as a common theme. The novels are from different cultural contexts and yet they reveal commonalities in the ways the female protagonists cope with the end of a relationship initially based on love.

Mariama Bâ’s celebrated work So long a letter , first published in French in 1980 and subsequently widely translated, throws the issue of polygamy in Senegal into focus and highlights the choices available to women in such a situation. Marlene Streeruwitz’s novel Verführungen (1996) deals with a young Austrian woman abandoned by her husband and Mary Karooro Okurut’s novel The Official Wife, published in Uganda in 2003 provides an East African perspective. Whereas the works by Bâ and Streeruwitz are perhaps stylistically superior to that of Okurut, The Official Wife is included as a contrast, as the female protagonist and first person narrator doesn’t divorce her errant husband, but does achieve a shift in the power relationship underpinning the marriage. Some may consider this to be a "sell out", but is does mirror an East African reality.

Set in Vienna, Verführungen has the thirty year old Helene as the main focus of the novel. The novel traces her development from an insecure and essentially frightened young woman to a state in which she develops at least some sort of self-esteem and optimism with regard to her own future : "Im nächsten Jahr würde alles besser werden" (296). Mariama Bâ’s epistolary novel in the form of a long letter from Ramatoulaye to her friend Aissatou highlights the conscious choice made by Ramatoulaye to remain in the marriage after her husband takes a second wife until she is widowed by her husband’s sudden death. Older than Streeruwitz’s protagonist, Ramatoulaye is caught between accepting the traditional ways of her culture and asserting her right to dignity and respect. Linking these novels from such different cultural backgrounds are the emotions experienced by the female protagonists and their ability to finally cope with their situation as abandoned women.

While Helena’s husband Gregor, from whom she had already been separated for two years, had left her so-to-say by degrees - coming home later and later until he no longer came home at all, Ramatoulaye is surprised by a visit from her brother-in-law and the local Imam. Initially thinking that something had happened to her husband, Modou, Ramatoulaye ist stunned by the news they bring. The Imam delivers the news that will change her life forever, as if it were a matter of little importance: " Happily he is alive for you, for all of us, thanks be to God. All he has done is marry a second wife today. We have just come from the mosque in Grand Dakar where the marriage took place" (37). Her husband had merely told her that he would not be home for lunch! What is remarkable, when viewed form outside Senegalese culture is the public and formalized way in which Ramatoulaye is informed of her husband’s betrayal of their life together. The assurance given to her by her brother-in- law that her status in society would not be impaired is cold comfort to her, as is her husband’s denial that he had acted from his own volition, callously disregarding her feelings. Despite the flowery language, the message is clear that, although she had been an exemplary wife, in this patriarchal society, she is essentially unimportant:

Modou sends you his thanks. He says it is fate that decides men and things. God intended him to have a second wife, there is nothing he can do about it. He praises you for the quarter of a century of marriage in which you gave him all the happiness a wife owes her husband. His family, especially myself, his elder brother, thank you. You have always held us in respect (37).

Despite the hurt, the "drops of poison" burning her, Ramatoulaye decides to accept the situation and settle for the "equal sharing" (46) of her husband with a younger woman. Motivating her decision not to assert herself is self-doubt: "Leave? Start again at zero, after living twenty-five years with one man, after having borne twelve children? Did I have enough energy to bear alone the weight of this responsibility which was both moral and material?"(40).

The text does, however, provide two alternative examples of reactions to similar situations. There is Jacqueline whose husband’s infidelity causes her to have a nervous breakdown and Ramatoulaye’s friend and addressee of her letter, Aissatou, who, on being informed that her husband intended taking a second wife, to please his mother, as he says, refuses to yield to tradition and accept a co-wife. Aissatou finds her husband’s reasoning unacceptable and insulting. The letter that she writes him shows a self-assertiveness that is absent from Ramatoulaye’s resigned response quoted above:

[...] the internal ordering of our society, with its absurd divisions. I will not yield to it. I cannot accept what you are offering me today in place of the happiness we once had. [...] one the one side, me, ‘your life, your love, your choice’ on the other, ‘young Nabou, to be tolerated for reasons of duty’. She makes her decision: ‘I am stripping myself of your love, your name. Clothed in my dignity, the only worthy garment, I go my way’(32).

Aissatou has a career and is even in a position to help her friend financially. Her daughter, whose friend has turned out to be her father’s "sugar daddy" and new wife, urges Ramatoulaye to leave the marriage: "’Break with him mother! Send this man away. He has respected neither you or me. Do what Aunty Aissatou did, break with him. [...] I can’t see you fighting over a man with a girl my age’" (39). By bowing to tradition, Ramatoulaye subsequently has to endure the dire consequences of her decision to remain within the marriage.

To all intents and purposes, Ramatoulaye has been deserted by her husband - remaining in the marriage brings her only disadvantages and no advantages beyond the title and status of being a "wife". Her husband’s moral culpability, even within the cultural norms which Ramatoulaye has chosen to accept, is manifest in his disregarding the Islamic tenet of "equal sharing" between the first and subsequent wives. She is essentially left alone to cope financially and in every other way in daily life. Fortunately Ramatoulaye is a teacher and thus has the financial means to support herself and her children: "My brain is taxed by new financial gymnastics. The last date for the payment of electricity bills and of water rates demanded my attention. I was often the only woman in the queue"(51 ), she remarks. However, she is ultimately not defeated by the everyday demands now resting on her shoulders - she replaces locks and latches, finds a plumber to deal with blocked sinks and is able to confirm: "I survived" (52 ).

Despite having demonstrably provided for herself and her children since her husband’s second marriage, she is still stripped of all her possessions according to custom when her husband dies, her only way out of the situation in the normal course of events would be for her to marry again - a notion that Ramatuoulaye refuses to entertain. Her financial situation initially seems hopeless - her husband had mortgaged her house to pay for a villa for his new wife, their joint bank account had been closed. However, this time Ramatoulaye is supported by her adult children: "Who let this greedy pack of hounds after me? For my charms had faded with the many maternities, with time, with the tears. Ah! The inheritance, the fat share acquired by my daughter Daba and her husband and put at my disposal"(70). Although Ramatoulaye is free of financial need through the actions of her children, it is important to note that she was unable to assert herself as an autonomous individual to secure her own financial independence on her own, as she had chosen to adhere to cultural custom. So long a Letter concludes on a cautiously optimistic note. Although Ramatoulaye still clings to the notion of love as "the natural link" between men and women, she nevertheless acknowledges and rejoices in "the irreversible currents of women’s liberation that are lashing the world", giving women the opportunity to show their abilities. She does at the same time also name the two factors impeding women’s progress - significantly, she does not frame these thoughts within a solely African context but gives them a more universal applicability:

My heart rejoices each time a woman emerges from the shadows. I know that the field of our gains is unstable, the retention of conquests difficult: social constraints are ever-present, and male egotism resists (88).

Mundane considerations such as plumbers, mortgages and bank accounts are mentioned at some length because, despite the cultural divide between Mariama Bâ’s Senegal and Marlene Streeruwitz’s Austria, there are striking similarities in the experiences allocated to their protagonists by both authors. While the society of Bâ’s text is overtly patriarchal, the society of Streeruwitz’s text is perhaps a little more subtle in this regard, although ascendancy is still given to men and both female protagonists have internalized these values. Of course there are other motivations involved in Marlene Streeruwitz’s novel. In Verführungen, for example, Helene’s husband had left her two years before and she still has to tell her parents of the separation. She maintains the pretence that the marriage is essentially intact apart from some "Unstimmigkeiten" (61) - this perhaps because of her parents’ opposition to the marriage in the first place - and her father’s act of taking back her key to the parental home on the day of her marriage, thus creating the impression that she could not count on her parents’ support in the future. Despite the pretence, Helene has, in some way recognized the reality and permanence of the separation, as she packs away some of Gregor’s clothes and books, while engaged in her "Frühjahrsputz". It takes some time, however, before she is in a position to finally assert herself and her rights.

While Ramatoulaye felt hurt and betrayed by her husband’s rejection of her, Helene is plagued by feelings of helplessness and superfluousness. Contrasting her situation with one she had recently seen in a film, she observes: "Alles war so, wie Männer es wollen. Solange sie es wollen. Der Unterschied war Monica Vitti. Die Frau im Film, die sie gespielt hatte, diese Frau war für alle begehrenswert" (56). Her first attempts at asserting herself, to make herself heard are unsuccessful: "Sie hatte wieder das Gefühl überflüssig zu sein. Zu Mittag nahm sie sich vor, ernsthaft mit Gregor zu reden. Sie rief ihn an und sagte ihm das"(58). Gregor, however, disregards her request to appear at the family gathering at Easter, giving a selfish excuse: "er habe Erholung nötig. Das müsse sie verstehen"(58). Helene reacts to this snub with impotent rage:

Sie hätte den Schreibtisch umwerfen mögen. Die Bücher zum Fenster hinaus. Und schreien. Und seine Augen auskratzen. Mit den Fingern auf seine Augen einstechen. Auf die Straße laufen und kreischen. Und alle sollen es wissen (58).

In wishing to draw attention to her plight, Helene has yet to take responsibility for her own life. She is still at a point where she feels that her broken relationship with her husband stands in the way of her fulfilling her role as a good mother in the eyes of society: "Helene war wütend auf sich. Sie mußte eine glückliche Welt für diese Kinder machen. Das war ihre Aufgabe"(59).

Exacerbating a general feeling of hopelessness and helpless despair is Helene’s fear that her husband could physically harm her. Her low self-esteem and internalized anxiety about being an incomplete woman without a male partner drives her into unsatisfactory relationships with other men. It is only when she wakes up to the fact that she is allowing herself to be financially abused that she finds the strength to assert herself. Pushing her to emerge out of her "Ohnmacht" is the callous remark by a man, Henryk, when she tells him that she cannot afford to give him any more money: "Es handle sich doch um Liebe. Und nicht um Buchhaltung: Oder?" (122). It is extreme financial distress that finally leads Helene to find a way out of her miserable situation - Gregor fails to renew her credit card at the bank, does not pay her the "Kinderbeihilfe" to maintain the children and so drives her to act irresponsibly. She cashes in Eurocheques with no funds in her bank account and finally resorts to selling her jewelry. Thus brought to her lowest point and essentially destitute, Helene asks her mother for money and consults an attorney. The final straw for Helene is the discovery of her husband’s infidelity with her best friend. At last Helene is able to realistically assess her own situation: "Sie konnte es nicht fassen. Daß das das Leben sein sollte. Und sie wußte zur gleichen Zeit, daß sie es mild abbekam" (294). The novel ends on a more optimistic note - Helene receives advice on how to upgrade her qualifications to enhance her prospects of finding a better job and her immediate financial distress has been relieved: "Gregor war vom Vormundschaftsgericht zur Nachzahlung und Zahlung von Alimenten verurteilt worden"(296).

By contrast with Ramatoulaye and Helene, Mary Okurut’s heroine is only temporarily shaken by her husband’s infidelity and abandonment. She is financially independent and recourceful. To her, the status as "Official Wife" is worth something and she does not divorce her husband. To Ramatoulaye in Bâ’s novel, the retention of the title of first wife brought few advantages - perhaps some status in the eyes of society while her husband was alive, but distressing disadvantages when she was widowed. Okurut’s heroine refuses to relinquish her status and even has the magnanimity to take her husband back when he returns, sick and deserted by his young mistress. This ending is controversial as it does send a mixed message concerning the powers of endurance of the African woman.

Common to all three novels is that the respective marriages were originally based on love, but that when the marriage fails, the woman is faced with a degree of financial need. Ramatoulaye is able to cope because she has a job and receives support from her friend and her own children, Helene relied too much on her husband and has only an inadequate personal income from a badly-paid half-day job. Only Mary Okurut’s heroine is able to support herself on her own. However, in all three cases, it is not only the lack of financial support itself that is so much the problem. It is rather the expression of rejection and abandonment that manifests itself in the withdrawal of financial support by the deserting husband. Self-worth is inextricably linked to the notion of monetary worth. The end of love and tender emotions gives way to the harsh reality of financial considerations, as the works of Bâ, Streeruwitz and Okurut demonstrate. Of course, status and other matters do play an important role in the question of these marriages, but the failure of a marriage unfolds a strikingly similar cross-cultural scenario- whether the marriage is Black (in the case of Bâ and Okurut) or White as with Streeruwitz.

© Kathleen Thorpe (Johannesburg)


Bâ, Mariama: So long a Letter. (1980) Heinemann, London. 1989. African Writers Series, translated from the French by Modupé Bodé-Thomas.

Okurut, Mary Karooro: The Official Wife. Fountain Publishers, Kampala. Uganda. 2003.

Streeruwitz, Marlene: Verführungen. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main, 1996.  

All quotations are from the above texts and page numbers are given in brackets.

2.3. Liebe in der Dichtung

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For quotation purposes:
Kathleen Thorpe (Johannesburg): Marriage in Black and White. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 16/2005. WWW:

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