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The story called “The Lesson” written by Toni Cade Bambara is a peculiar piece of writing that requires thorough analysis. The author easily but unexpectedly focuses on many specific aspects that often are neglected by other writers. Thus, the ideas that Bambara covers were of current importance at the time the story was written. Additionally, they remain the same nowadays. These ideas could not be fully represented without the characters described in “The Lesson” since they are very diverse. Each character in the story is unique and valuable for plot development. Some other literary techniques, such as point of view and setting, make also a great contribution to the unfolding of the story, develop the themes and create an impression. “The Lesson” by Toni Bambara is special for the impression it makes. Since the impression is achieved through the ideas chosen for the story, characters described, overall setting, and point of view represented, these techniques used in the literary work will be analyzed.
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The variety of themes in Bambara’s short story creates a picture of African Americans’ reality at that time. Thus, the major themes in “The Lesson” are poverty versus wealth, race, and resistance. Describing the attitude of the children (these are the main characters in the story) towards material benefits and their vision of the white people's attitude to the same things, Bambara shows the huge gap between two worlds: black and white. African Americans did not enjoy even half of the rights and possibilities that white Americans had. Making contrast, the author describes poverty and wealth in the same country. Another theme covered in the story is race issues. Although the author does not focus on race directly, she creates a distinction between the way white and black people act. Using only one sentence, Bambara expresses the idea of how African American children see white people: “White folks crazy” (Bambara). The third significant theme is resistance. Showing the extreme inequality between black and white populations, Bambara calls African Americans to resist racial discrimination. The author achieves her goal not only through actual showing the difference in socio-economic status between two races but also through the way her characters behave. Sylvia, the narrator, tries to resist everything Miss Moore wants her to do or to think (Bambara).
Generally, the story has eight characters that participate in the lesson. Sylvia, the narrator, and the protagonist is a rebel in her nature. Trying to contradict everything she is told to do, the girl is a sheer representation of an African American who hates being ruled by white authorities. Being able to see the truth, Sylvia still behaves in an insincere manner as she does not have the possibility to find an alternative. Miss Moore is a woman who graduated from college and wants to educate children. She is acting as if she is an illuminator. The most positive feature of Miss More is that she does not impose her position on children, but directs them in such a way that they can understand the lesson by themselves. A girl named Sugar is Sylvia’s friend, who is probably the bravest to express her opinion. Q.T., Mercedes, Junebug, Big But, and Flyboy are other children, apart from Sylvia and Sugar, who participate in the lesson.
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The story unfolds in New York, at first in a poor African-American neighborhood and then in a more prosperous part of the city – Fifth Avenue (Bambara). The author describes two different places to show the distinction in people's lives in these districts. The story develops on a hot summer day. The weather is also used to show the difference in the lives of black and white people (Sylvia was shocked by a white woman wearing a fur coat that day).
Point of View
The story is told from a narrator’s (Sylvia’s) perspective. Being the participant in everything that happens, the child describes things the way she perceives them. Although this point of view may seem restrictive as in most cases the narrator is the observer and provides the objective description of everything and everyone, such a statement is not absolutely truthful. Sylvia shows the adults' attitude to Miss Moore. She notices as well as describes people's cultural peculiarities in her neighborhood (as it was described when the girl gives the appearance of the teacher). Thus, the point of view used in the story is intended to serve multiple purposes at the same time: convincing, providing information, and evaluating the events.
The story by Toni Bambara has drawn much attention from critics and reviewers. These professionals' opinions require consideration as they reveal the aspects in the story that were not noticed in the beginning. Two articles about Bambara’s story were chosen for evaluation.
Naderi (103) focuses on Bambara’s work from the perspective of the language used. Since the short story was written in African American Vernacular English (AAVE), its vocabulary is rather special. The author of the article analyses the peculiarities of the syntactic structures Bambara used in the story (Naderi 104). In addition to that, Naderi evaluates the word choice from the perspective of a tool for achieving a specific goal. With the help of this language, Bambara creates the personality of her characters, shows inequality, creates the mood, and makes the subject more important and stimulating to protest against the existing reality (Naderi 103). Moreover, the language of “The Lesson” establishes the connection between the past and the present as if the past exists in the present (Naderi 105). To prove her point, Naderi uses many examples from the text. The author's arguments are organized clearly so the reader can understand Naderi’s position. The only thing that can be argued about in the article is Naderi’s statement that children sometimes express their reactions linguistically (104). However, the story's language and especially children’s statements are full of words that clearly describe their attitude. Thus, for instance, the narrator uses many swear words to show her discontent with Miss Moore’s actions.
An important point is expressed in such a statement: “Bambara, who likes most of the other black writers, could not escape from political issues in her writing, and this is an indisputable fact… [she] is also a master of employing AAVE in her fiction” (Naderi 103). Although Nadery stresses Bambara’s mastery of language use, the point in this statement is that the author of “The Lesson” focuses on political issues, since poverty and socio-economic inequality, that are major subjects in the short story, undoubtedly are political issues, Bambara does not avoid talking about politics in her work. The idea here is that Naderi does not develop the topic of social and political perspectives in the story as this is not her objective. Despite this fact, the article by Naderi is rather useful as it helps to understand Bambara’s intention of applying the vernacular language. Proving her statements with examples, Naderi (102-105) gives her arguments in a clear and undisputed way.
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Katy Wright (72-83) discusses the significance of the language in Bambara’s “The Lesson”. In some way, her work can be similar to Naderi’s article. However, Wright adds some significant points about Bambara’s short story that are not mentioned by Naderi. At the beginning of the article, Wright introduces the reader to the concept of African American Vernacular English. Moreover, the historical and cultural setting is developed and functions as a major way of African Americans' communication. Since Wright (74) provides a more detailed description of the historical period and problems affecting black people at that time than Naderi, her work is imbued with a sense of understanding, pity, and intolerance towards inequality. Furthermore, Wright (75) provides some evidence from Bambara’s life to explain the author’s position in a short story. As the arguments are clear and the readers understand and agree with them (they cannot oppose since Wright gives many arguments), the author of the article states her position effectively. After that, Wright discusses the story from the linguistic perspective, evaluates the use of swear words, contractions' role, elimination of final letters, use of tense, syntax, agreement, and other aspects. Wright argues her ideas by providing numerous examples (76).
The Wright’s statement that “Toni Cade Bambara, a Harlem-born author of the mid-twentieth century, chose to embrace the language of her culture and community; and it is in her hands that language became a powerful tool for describing a complex and distinct reality” (Wright 73) is an explanation of the reason for Bambara’s use of uncommon structures in “The Lesson.” This claim cannot be discussed because of the way Bambara organized the story and present a real state of things of that-day African Americans not only from the factual perspective but also from the cultural and behavioral ones. In “The Lesson”, language is a real tool for describing complex reality.
Although Wright states that through the narrator's and other children's language Bambara recreates the speech of underprivileged African American adolescents (76), one can claim that the language is the representation of the way Sylvia wants to behave. The girl does not use as many swear words talking to the teacher as she uses them while expressing her thoughts in her mind (Bambara). Pretending to be an adult, Sylvia tries to use adolescent language, however, the constructions in her speech are rather childish.
To conclude, “The Lesson” is a short story that describes African Americans' life at the time it was written. Bambara focuses on poverty, wealth, race, and resistance as the major themes of her concern. Depicting the lesson that children from the black community had, she calls African Americans for action – to protest against inequality. The characters of the story help the author to state her position and to prove why it is truthful. Since Bambara’s short story is an example of African American Vernacular English, many researchers evaluate her work from a linguistic perspective. Thus, Naderi and Wright explain the significance of language in “The Lesson” for mood creation and for making claims and expressions of the attitude towards the existing state of things.