The short story “The Lesson” by Toni Cade Bambara is a short literary piece of first-person narration interpreting the experience of children’s learning about inequality. Using a simple linear narration structure, the author manages to articulate the complexity of social injustices in American society that has to be challenged by the young. The author uses a set of tools, including the narration, style, language, and characters, to demonstrate the initiation of critical thinking in youth striving for social equality. This critical analysis essay is designed to interpret the theme of a pedagogically induced transformation in the main character of the short story through the life lesson learned.
Critical Analysis of “The Lesson” by Toni Cade Bambara
The structure and style of the short story are predetermined by the genre and allow the author to deliver a complex topic in a concise yet complete manner. In a linear first-person narration, the main character, Sylvia, tells about her experience on a city trip with her classmates and teacher Miss Moore. Such a simple structure allows for emphasizing the character development reflected in the way of Sylvia’s expressions before and after the trip. Moreover, stylistically, the selection of the first-person narration plays an important informative role since it sets a vivid context for the main character as a representative of an impoverished African American community. For example, Sylvia says “White folks crazy” to characterize the fancy outfits of the ladies on Fifth Avenue (Bambara 2). Indeed, word choice, grammar, and slang indicate her age and socioeconomic status, which is helpful for readers’ adequate perception of the character (Sari 3). Thus, the linear narration and colloquial style are strong features of the short story that allow for setting readers’ focus on the theme of inequality and the main character’s transformation.
The core of the literary analysis presented in this essay is the thematic interpretation, which is developed around the issue of the main character’s point of transition into adulthood by experiencing social injustice. The theme of social inequality is a dominating one in the short story due to the integration of the narrator’s and her peers’ impoverished backgrounds, which is reflected both explicitly and implicitly in the text. Indeed, the author directly exposes the status of the children in the short story through such references as “we all poor and live in the slums” or “I don’t even have a home” (Bambara 2-3). Indeed, using the phrases said by the characters of the story, the author creates a general picture of the life of these African American children living in poverty and not realizing that they have been victims of social injustice. Moreover, this theme is explicitly presented in Sylvia’s account of Miss Moore’s educational speech on “how money ain’t divided up right in this country” (Bambara 2). Thus, using the narrator’s perspective, the author manages to expose the poverty of the underprivileged children.
On the other hand, the implicit approach to demonstrating the less fortunate status of the narrator and her classmates is through the language she uses to tell the story. Indeed, her repeated use of slang such as “sorry-ass horse,” “kinda,” “ole dumb shit foolishness you,” and other similar phrases indicate her rebellious young age and underprivileged background (Bambara 1). Moreover, the colloquial grammatical constructions referred to as African American Vernacular English signify her African American background (Sari 1). Thus, the poverty of these children is opposed to the prosperity of a part of a society “in which some people can spend on a toy what it would cost to feed a family of six or seven” (Bambara 6). Indeed, the children do not know what a microscope or paperweight is for; they look at the expensive toys with amusement as well as “are fascinated with the meter ticking” (Bambara 2). These details implicitly indicate that the children are unfamiliar with the attributes of a wealthy life.
The number of characters is rather limited in the short story, with the focus being set on the main character Sylvia, the teacher, and the classmates, to whom Sylvia refers using colloquial nicknames. The interaction between the narrator and the teacher is central to the story since it is through the deliberate educational influence of the latter that the former transforms. Indeed, according to Mays, “The Lesson” is “the initiation story, also known as the coming-of-age story – the story of what happens as we define ourselves and set our own course toward the future” (145). Thus, within the theme of transforming and obtaining insight into the main character’s course in life, the role of Miss Moore’s character is decisive. She deliberately exposes her students to the cruelty of inequality when taking them to the expensive toy shop, which ultimately ignites new unknown feelings of anger, shame, and criticism in the main character.
However, despite its evident central role in the short story, the issue of inequality serves as a basis for the theme of the main character’s personality transformation as she obtains a critical vision of life. Indeed, the author constructs an argument about the power of Miss Moore’s pedagogical influence on the main character. It is through the observation of the city and “the processes of feeling, conflict, and, eventually, pleasure through which the narrator learns to lay claim over her learning and her critical perspective” (Sullivan 7). Sylvia’s transformation is evident in her shift of emotions which she characterizes as follows “I have never ever been shy about doing nothing or going nowhere,” but she felt shy when entering the toy store (Bambara 5). Apart from the shyness and shame Sylvia feels, she experiences anger triggered by the observed injustice. Indeed, when the girls “just stare at that price tag,” the main character feels “jealous and want to hit her; maybe not her, but I sure want to punch somebody in the mouth” (Bambara 5). Thus, the inception of these feelings demonstrates Sylvia’s determination to challenge inequality.
In summation, the literary analysis of the short story “The Lesson” written by Toni Cade Bambara reveals that the main argument that the author tries to deliver is the importance of fighting against social inequalities. Using the simple structure of the linear first-person narrated short story, the author presents the powerful impact of the teacher on the main character. Being an initiation story, “The Lesson” signifies the main character’s worldview transformation that allows her to shape her criticism of social injustice and strive for a better life despite her disadvantaged African American background. Thus, using stylistically, structural, and narrative tools, Bambara has created a compelling theme of the necessity to challenge inequalities persisting in the US society by educating and empowering the young.
Bambara, Toni Cade. “The Lesson.” Cengage, 1972, Web.
Mays, Kelly J. The Norton Introduction to Literature. 14th ed., W. W. Norton & Company, 2021.
Sari, Vidia Christika. “Grammatical Features of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) in Toni Cade Bambara Short Story, The Lesson.” Language Horizon, vol. 6, no. 1, 2018, pp. 1-7.
Sullivan, Mecca Jamilah. “Pedagogies of the “Irresistible”: Imaginative Elsewheres of Black Feminist Learning.” Journal of Feminist Scholarship, vol. 20, no. 20, 2022, pp. 1-18.