A brilliant piece by Zimbabwean writer Charles Mungoshi, Letter to a Son is a free-verse epistolary poem written in second-person narrative. Being an epistolary poem, Letter to a Song has been written in the form of a letter from a mother. It focuses on the theme of family duties and subtle familial conflicts.
Letter to a Son | Summary
The poem- and letter- starts with a mother describing to her son all the changes that have taken place at home since he last visited the family. The pumpkins are ripe, soon there is the first mealie cob, the cows are giving them a lot of milk. Overall, it hasn’t been a bad year, except for the son’s father- his back has once again started giving him trouble, and all his work is being taken care of by the mother.
She then tells him about his siblings- they are doing well, going to day-school, except the son’s sister, Rindai. After spending money for the father’s medical expenses, they cannot afford to send her to secondary school. The mother mentions that she’d said so in the last letter, too, but the son had never responded to it. Rindai spends most of her time crying by the wall, and it is her situation which prompted the mother to write to her son.
The mother had expected a visit from her son- last Christmas, or else Easter, which is when they nearly lost the father. When he didn’t appear, she thought he might return the next cold season, at which time the father’s health deteriorated once more, and they thought he wouldn’t see spring. Through all of this, the son never visited home. The mother says that she asked Rindai to write to him, but the father absolutely refused, stubborn that he did not want to be contacted by someone he thought was deserting him. Finally, the son’s name is revealed when the mother pens it- Tambu. She tells him carefully that of course she is not asking for money- she just wants to inform him that they’d borrowed a little for the father’s treatment, and he hates having to borrow.
She concludes her letter by expressing her hope that Tambu will be home that July, saying that it’s been so long since they’d heard from him. She hopes the letter finds him safely at the usual address, for it is the only address they know, and signs off with ‘YOUR MOTHER’.
Letter to a Son | Analysis
Charles Mungoshi was well-known for his versatility as a writer. As we can see in Letter to a Son, his simple language and subtle yet to-the-point tone make it easy for readers to follow his work. The themes of this poem are familial bonds and duties, indirect chastising and rather indistinct conflict. Because it is a letter, it is written in second-person, directed towards the son. Despite knowing this, the constant use of the word ‘you’ and the familiarity of the mother’s writing creates a deeper connection between the reader and the poem, forming a sense of relatability and attachment. It also stirs in the reader an amount of empathy and compassion for the family. The poem is written in free-verse, divided into three uneven stanzas. We see the use of enjambment, as several sentences are split into lines within the stanza, forming a flow without punctuation in some areas.
Letter to a Son by Charles Mungoshi | Analysis, Lines 1-4
Now the pumpkin is ripe.
We are only a few days
from the year’s first mealie cob.
The cows are giving us lots of milk.
The letter begins with the mother describing the setting and what has changed since she last wrote to her son. “Now the pumpkin is ripe. We are only a few days from the year’s first mealie cob.”- this line is cleverly placed as it immediately forms a seasonal image in the reader’s mind. We understand the time of year at which this letter was written, and this is important as several references to seasons are made throughout the letter. These hints of the time that has passed is a way of marking how long it has been since Tambu, the son, has visited home. This also aids the reproachful tone of the mother, as it attempts to remind the son of his home through nostalgic descriptions– once again, a subtle hint that she wants him home, rather than an outright request. This sets the pace for the rest of the letter and forms an imagery for the readers.
Letter to a Son | Analysis, Lines 5 – 11
Taken in the round it isn’t a bad year at all –
if it weren’t for your father.
Your father’s back is back again
and all the work has fallen on my shoulders.
Your little brothers and sisters
are doing fine at the day-school.
Only Rindai is becoming a problem.
We can see in the next few lines that the mother attempts to maintain a positive spirit despite delivering some difficult news. In the lines “Taken in the round it isn’t a bad year at all – if it weren’t for your father. Your father’s back is back again and all the work has fallen on my shoulders. Your little brothers and sisters are doing fine at the day-school. Only Rindai is becoming a problem.” we can see that she starts with a brighter piece of information before presenting the downside. This may also be an effort to maintain a slight nonchalance– not about her desire to see the son, but about the request for help or money. Later in the letter, we will see that she mentions borrowing money, but brushes it off with “not that I’m asking you for money.” This interweaving of the positives and the negatives may be her way of gently nudging her son to see her underlying point without coming across too straightforward
Letter to a Son | Analysis, Lines 12 – 23
You will remember we wrote to you –
did you get our letter? – you didn’t answer.
You see, since your father’s back started
we haven’t been able to raise enough money
to send your sister Rindai to secondary school.
She spends most of her time crying by the well.
It is mainly because of her
that I am writing this letter.
I had thought you would be with us last Christmas;
then I thought maybe you were too busy
and you would make it at Easter –
it was then your father nearly left us, son.
“You will remember we wrote to you – did you get our letter? – you didn’t answer.” is a line that shows a little more direct insight to the mother’s frustrations. In the next lines, the mother explains that they cannot send the sister, Rindai, to secondary school due to the father’s medical expenses, and then says, “I had thought you would be with us last Christmas; then I thought maybe you were too busy and you would make it at Easter – it was then your father nearly left us, son. Then I thought I would come to you some time before the cold season settled in.” We see the emotion and disappointment of the broken expectations– especially in a situation as serious as the father’s health. Once again, the mother does not ask outright why Tambu did not come home- this may be because she does not want to create an unpleasant relationship with him, or does not want to further hold him from visiting. But from the way she phrases the sentences- about expecting him at home, and then about what happened to his father- she seems to be hinting at a lack of familial responsibility on the son’s end.
As a reader, it is easy to wonder- when the sister cannot go to school and the father is so ill, why does it take the mother so much persuasion to make Tambu visit home? Why does he not want to visit his family and his ailing father? On closer reading, there are certain lines in the letter that may lead us to a plausible answer- “She spends most of her time crying by the well. It is mainly because of her that I am writing this letter.” and “Now, Tambu, don’t think I am asking for money.” This, along with the insinuation that she has written several times before, leads us to believe that Tambu either does not want to lend his money, or may feel that he is being contacted only for his money. There are many other possibilities– he may have changed his address, he may not have the money to give, unlike what his family believes…but as this poem is purely from the mother’s perspective, we do not get to understand Tambu’s situation at all. Because of this, it is easy to feel compassion for the mother, as well as contempt or confusion at the way Tambu neglects his family and his duties as his parents’ child.
Letter to a Son | Analysis, Lines 24 – 30
Then I thought I would come to you some time
before the cold season settled in – you know
how I simply hate that time of the year –
but then your father went down again
and this time worse than any other time before.
We were beginning to think he would never see
another sowing season.
“Then I thought I would come to you some time before the cold season settled in – you know how I simply hate that time of the year – but then your father went down again and this time worse than any other time before. We were beginning to think he would never see another sowing season.”- this reference to seasons not only marks a time on the calendar, but also represents the stages in the father’s illness. His health deteriorated in the cold season, which is winter- winter is often used to symbolize death, grief, and depression. Hence we may say that winter indicates the state of the father and the family. The ‘sowing season’ is spring, which marks renewal, rebirth and new beginnings. The fact that the father was not expected to make it through the winter but still survived, is represented by the mention of the spring season.
Letter to a Son | Analysis, Lines 31 – 41
I asked your sister Rindai to write you
but your father would have none of it –
you know how stubborn he can get
when he has to lie in bed all day or gets
one of those queer notions of his
that everybody is deserting him!
Now, Tambu, don’t think I am asking for money –
although we had to borrow a little from
those who have it to get your father to hospital –
and you know how he hates having to borrow!
That is all I wanted to tell you.
When the mother writes “I asked your sister Rindai to write you but your father would have none of it – you know how stubborn he can get when he has to lie in bed all day or gets one of those queer notions of his that everybody is deserting him!” we can see that she is trying to make Tambu understand how his actions are coming across to the family. By saying “those queer notions,” she indicates that she is giving him a chance to explain himself, a loophole to return for a visit or respond to the letter. However, in the next line she mentions the aspect of borrowing money. She hastens to add that she is not asking him, but just informing him of the financial situation of their family, and ending with “That is all I wanted to tell you.” The finality of that phrase creates the image that the entire letter had been written for the money alone, rather than general concern for the son’s wellbeing. It also leads us to wonder whether all those occasions she mentioned in the letter, when the son had not visited, could have been times she had hinted for money, and his absence was a method of avoidance.
The lack of Tambu’s perspective makes it impossible for readers to judge the entire situation. But from purely the mother’s point of view, we do feel a sense of sympathy and sadness as we hear her financial and familial struggles, knowing that the son will likely not respond. On one side, it is possible to wonder, “Why would she speak so much about money and expect him to respond?”, but another side may also point out, “They have gone through so much difficulty. Health and education are primary necessities. How can a son not help out a little, or even visit his ailing father?’ Furthermore, the mother said that they have borrowed from other people, possibly after receiving no response from the son. One may wonder: Who else can she ask but her working son, when her husband is unable to work and she is unable to pay off the loans?
Letter to a Son | Analysis, Lines 42 – 46
I do hope that you will be with us this July.
It’s so long ago now since we last heard from you –
I hope this letter finds you still at the old address.
It is the only address we know.
The letter ends with the mother’s wish to see her son in July, and a hope that the address is the right one, as it’s the only one they know. Here, we see a broader glimpse of a worried but loving mother. She does not follow up with any negative news or hint about expenses, but simply expresses her sadness at how long it’s been since she heard from her son. In fact, the last line- “I hope this letter finds you still at the old address. It is the only address we know.”- even leads us to wonder what happened to Tambu. Did he move away from his old address, is he actively avoiding their letters, or did something happen to him? Mungoshi’s purposeful avoidance of Tambu’s story is a nod to the title- Letter to a Son. It is not written for the readers to understand why Tambu has behaved this way, or condemn or justify his actions. It is simply the perspective of a mother as she writes to her son- a careful mixture of disappointment, frustration and motherly concern.