Scarlet Song Summary

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This book is engaging from the
outset, and deceptively simple. It
takes us into the world of a
young Sengalese student,
Ousmane Gueye, the son of a
devout Muslim. Ousmane is more
devoted to his mother, Yahe
Khady, than to religion or
tradition. The first chapters use
the framing device of
Ousmane’s walk to the
university to tell his backstory,
how he helped his mother and
developed a thirst for
knowledge, which was only
strengthened after he was
snubbed by his flirtatious
childhood friend Ouleymatou.
Ousmane becomes an academic
success, determined to get out
of his poor working class
district on the outskirts of
Dakar. So we are introduced to
Ousmane as a disciplined young
intellectual, respectful to his
family and background, but
eager to use his education to
make something out of himself.
When the narrative catches up
to itself Ousmane, whose
progress is based on his self-
discipline and rejection of
romance, makes the
acquaintance of Mireille, a white
teenager who comes to school
in a limosine, the daughter of a
French diplomat. Over time, in a
well-told story, they fall in love.
This romance seems to answer
Ousmane’s ambition, as he is
respectful and reticent, only
succumbing to Mireille when he
discovers she loves him. After a
brief idyll, Mireille’s father, a
liberal politician, discovers the
relationship, which is abhorrent
to him and shows his hypocrisy.
He puts Mireille on the first plane
back to Paris, and it seems at
this point as if the novel is
going to be the story of
thwarted interracial lovers.
Mireille returns to Paris in time
to take part in the student
demonstrations of 1968, and
Ousmane participates in student
unrest back in Dakar, a brief
section of the story that actually
goes a long way to grounding
the characters and showing us
the nature of their
consciousness and political
commitment, especially Mireille;
she seems authentic to her time
through this section, identifiable
as a late-60s French teenager.
Still separated, Ousmane and
Mireille both become graduate
students and teachers, and
continue a clandestine
correspondence while patiently
waiting for Mireille to come of
age–21?–at which point
Ousmane travels to France and
marries Mireille, about halfway
through the book. Ousmane
presents the marriage to his
parents as a fait accompli. His
father is philosophical, but
Ousmane’s mother Yahe Khadi
believes that Mireille has
bewitched her son.
At this point, after the
intriguing introduction of the
determined young academic and
the black-white romance and
devoted long secret
engagement, the story becomes
more complex and Ousmane’s
character is carefully examined
as it makes a gradual major turn,
going from that of an eager,
earnest, and completely
sympathetic young man to a
complex, ambivalent, successful
and self-interested adult.
Ousmane tries to live a middle
class academic life with Mireille,
but he insists on being
respectful to his parents and his
customs as well. Mireille,
completely rejecting family and
friends, has sacrificed
everything and is trying to fit
in, but she brings a full set of
bourgeois assumptions about
how they should live. And
nothing she can do is good
enough for Yahe Khady.
Ousmane is increasingly drawn
to the prerogatives and
privileges of a successful man in
his original society, and he
isolates and begins to reject
Mireille.
And then Ouleymaton reenters
the picture, the portrait of a
determined, romantic, traditional
African woman. Suddenly the
quick glimpse of her capricious
childhood character at the
beginning of the book takes on
more meaning. Her pursuit of
Ousmane is carefully and richly
described–in his situation and
pre-existing ambivalence, he
doesn’t stand a chance. We don’t
really blame Ouleymaton, who
knows what she wants and
how to get it, but we never lose
our sympathy for poor Mireille.
Ouleymaton seems justified in
part because...
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