Sylvia Versus The World In The Lesson By Toni Cade Bambara

In the opening of “The Lesson” by Toni Cade Bambara the narrator, Sylvia, gives off the impression that she is arrogant and stubborn. She has no reservations when it comes to expressing her disdain towards those who cause her to doubt her own intelligence. For Sylvia, some of those people include her cousin Sugar and the neighborhood mentor, Miss Moore. In addition to Miss Moore and Sugar, the rich people of Fifth Avenue are a threat to her status. These three figures utterly bother and anger Sylvia. At the beginning of the story, Sylvia is fierce with sarcasm and is unwilling to receive input of any kind from anyone. Although Sylvia will not admit, the knowledge and lesson she refused to accept are eventually absorbed and she is changed. By the end, it is Miss Moore, Sugar, and the rich people whom she abhors that end up having a profound influence on her. The outwardly tenacious Sylvia finds herself with a new and profound life perspective which ends up changing her mindset to be better than who she was from the beginning.

When Miss Moore is first introduced, she is described as a highly educated and refined. Sylvia shared her opinion on something Miss Moore had told her restating that “we all poor and live in the slums which I don’t feature” it was her way of being in denial of her economic status and refusal to believe what Miss Moore had said earlier to be true. Since Miss Moore has formal education, Sylvia is threatened by the knowledge that she holds. Knowing that Sylvia is inflexible, Miss Moore gave her the responsibility to pay the cab driver and figure out the tip on her own. Having to calculate the tip on her own challenged Sylvia’s ability to perform mathematics which is likely not her strong suit. This leaves Sylvia stumped with no tools to solve the problem and shows her that she is not as smart as she thinks she is. Once they arrive onto Fifth Avenue, Sylvia is forced to take notice of the extreme prices of the toys in the shop windows which verifies what Miss Moore meant about her living in poverty. Sylvia is obliged to take notice and think about the dynamic between the rich people and her own family. Shattering Sylvia’s reality exposes the truth of her status and to the fact that her “confidence dissolves due to the knowledge of money and position” (Marotta 49). The opportunity and experience that Miss Moore provided gave Sylvia concrete proof that she needed to see to believe that she, in fact, lives in the slums. Miss Moore was able to broaden Sylvia’s horizon “…into the world of knowledge and educated perception”. Sylvia was shown that there are people in the world that live far beyond the means of her family. Sylvia’s departure at the end left her forced to accept all the truths that had revealed. Miss Moore showed her a world that had her economically beat, which angered Sylvia and left her to ponder on how to reach a high economic status.

During the opening of the story, Sugar and Sylvia are as thick as thieves. They both live in the same home, neighborhood and the same mentality, they are cousins after all. Sugar reasserts Sylvia's ego and sense of entitlement. Sylvia has no desire to engage with Miss Moore and wants to jump out of the cab with Sugar and Miss Moore’s money. However, Sugar wants to follow Miss Moore, so Sylvia tags along because she “does not like to be alone, away from her group of friends, especially Sugar”. Once they arrive on Fifth Avenue and begin looking at all the toys it is Sylvia that becomes aware that they are financially unattainable. Sylvia grows angry as she takes notice of Sugar being overly enthusiastic and filled with glee seeing all the expensive toys knowing that they are realistically unattainable,.“Sylvia’s shame arises from her sense of inferiority of not belonging in such an expensive store' (Hargrove 6). Once they get back home, Sylvia no longer wants to run off with Sugar to spend Miss Moore’s money from the taxicab ride as she did in the beginning of the story. With the money still in her possession, Sylvia lets Sugar run ahead of her and does not spend the money, rather she proclaims that “…ain’t nobody gonna beat me at nuthin” which can have a double meaning. If Sylvia does not engage in racing Sugar then, by default, she cannot lose a race she is not participating in. Secondly, Sylvia could also mean that she will not allow the rich people in society to overcome her. This can be attributed to the fact she now views money with more significance than before, because of the visit to Fifth Avenue and F.A.O. Schwarz.

The rich people of Fifth Avenue are the source of Sylvia’s awakening to the social and economic imbalance that exists. Miss Moore voluntarily chooses to educate the children of the community about money by exposing them to the toy stores for the wealthy people of Fifth Avenue. The toys that are made for the rich people are far better in quality in comparison to the toys Sylvia can access. The difference between Sylvia and the rich people is the access to “a world of knowledge and educated perception”. When Sylvia takes notice of the toy sailboat on Fifth Avenue with the hefty price tag, she is unable to wrap her head around someone even having that kind of money to spend on a toy. “Who’d pay all that when you can buy a sailboat set for a quarter at Pop’s, a tube of glue for a dime, and a ball of string for eight cents? It must have a motor and a whole lot else besides … my sailboat cost me about fifty cents” (Bambara 4). With proper knowledge and education being the barriers keeping Sylvia and her friends from living better economically, if she worked hard and made effort to learn the barriers could dissolve. Witnessing what is possible for Sylvia

Works Cited

  • Bambara, Toni Cade. “The Lesson.” Imagining America: Stories from the Promised Land. Eds. Wesley Brown and Amy Ling. New York: Persea, 2002. 145-152.
  • Cartwright, Jerome. 'Bambara's the Lesson.' Short Story Criticism, edited by Jelena Krstovic, vol. 107, Gale, 2008. Literature Criticism Online, Accessed 12 Dec. 2019. Originally published in The Explicator, vol. 47, no. 3, Spring 1989, pp. 61-64.
  • Hargrove, Nancy D. 'Youth in Toni Cade Bambara's Gorilla, My Love.' Short Story Criticism, edited by Anna Sheets-Nesbitt, vol. 35, Gale, 2000. Literature Criticism Online, Accessed 12 Dec. 2019. Originally published in The Southern Quarterly, vol. 22, no. 1, Fall 1983, pp. 81-99.
  • Marotta, Melanie A. 'The Lessons That the Female Protagonists Learn That Transform Their Identities in ‘My Man Bovanne,’ ‘Gorilla, My Love,’ ‘Raymond’s Run,’ and ‘The Lesson’ from Toni Cade Bambara’s Gorilla, My Love.' Short Story Criticism, edited by Lawrence J. Trudeau, vol. 245, Gale, 2017, pp. 46-63. Literature Criticism Online, Accessed 13 Dec. 2019. Originally published in UMI, 2010, pp. 159-196.
16 August 2021
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