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"The Lesson" By Toni Cade Bambara

1829 words - 7 pages

"The Lesson" by Toni Cade Bambara is a short story set in the inner part of New York City that gives the reader an opportunity to briefly see into the lives of children living devoid of wealth and education. It takes place in the early seventies, following the civil rights movement and during a time when the imbalance of wealth in terms of race was immense. Bamabara, through the use of narrative point of tone, symbols, setting and characterization, brings out and develops what I believe to be the two main themes of the story: materialism and social inequality.The narrator in "The Lesson" is a young girl named Sylvia who tells the story in first person. Through her we get a picture of the difficulties experienced from growing up in a poor urban area where the gaps in social classes and quality of living are so evident. Sylvia is an intelligent girl, but more street smart than book smart. Her experience outweighs her education, and at the time when the story takes place she doesn't seem to have any aspiration of ever leaving the slums. As we are exposed to more of Sylvia's personality throughout the story, it becomes clear that the story is told in two different tones. The first tone is one of a child who is still growing, learning and experiencing. The second tone is different, but not drastically. The use of coarse language remains consistent, but the level of intelligence seems to elevate, demonstrated when Sylvia says, "what's there to be afraid of, just a toy store. But I feel funny, shame". (423) By saying this, she is showing she has more life experience and understands the feeling of shame and what causes it. We also get the impression that the story is being told by Sylvia as an adult, looking back on the scene. Sylvia's different tones, and her use of voice play an important role in adding to the lesson that is drawn from the story.Symbols play and important role in the meaning and depth in this story and contribute to the main themes of materialism and class disparity. Bambara uses material goods such as a paperweight and sailboats in order for the importance of money to relate to education and social freedom. This use of tangible items plays into the setting based on children, and the fact that youngsters grasp concepts better when they are presented visually. The paperweight, an object used on desks to keep papers in place, is used to symbolize the force oppressing the African-American community, pertaining to the lack of education that keeps them from achieving their full potential. The paperweight allows for the realization that the lack of education in the children's lives plays into their social status when one of the children comments, "I don't even have a desk"(422) We realize that education is not a big part of the children's lives, and this concept of holding valuable items down with a weight is difficult for them to grapple because their lives lack anything of monetary value. The sailboat was a clever way for Bambara to...

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