The Evolution Of Sylvia In The Lesson By Toni Cade Bambara
In the short story, “The Lesson” by Toni Cade Bambara, follows Sylvia and her group of friends as they explore a new world. Sylvia and her friends are led by the educated and successful Miss Moore out of the slums of the predominate African American neighborhood to the luxurious of Fifth Avenue. From the beginning of the story Sylvia’s inner narrative express that she has no desire to heed Miss Moore’s effort to educate her or her friends. By the end of the story Miss Moore is left to wonder if Sylvia gained any knowledge from their outing. Although Miss Moore tells Sylvia that the topic of the day is money, there are some critics that think the true underlying lesson is more profound. For example, Nancy Hargrove believes that the lesson is to expose the children to the world of economic injustice. However, there are critics like Jerome Cartwright who claims that most readers miss the bigger picture. Melanie Marotta provides an analysis and perspective on how Toni Cade Bambara’s story unfolds and on the true message the story holds. Each critic brings fresh assessments and alternative viewpoints on the interpretation on the dynamic relationship between Sylvia’s refusal to learn and Miss Moore’s desire to teach.
Throughout Nancy Hargrove’s critique, “Youth in Toni Cade Bambara’s Gorilla, My Love”, the author believes that the core conflict in the story is between the rich people of Fifth Avenue and the impoverished community Sylvia lives in. The author proposes that Sylvia’s experience causes the illusion of her reality to shatter once she notices the difference between the society she comes from and the wealthy society she visits. Hargrove insists that the lesson that Miss Moore wants to impart on Sylvia is the economic inequality that she faces. Sylvia who was fearless at the beginning of the story displays resistance by hesitating to lead the group into the toy store that intimidates her. The critic believes that this is the moment in which “Sylvia’s shame arises from her sense of inferiority of not belonging in such an expensive store, communicated indirectly and subtly by her comparison of the children's chaotic entrance to 'a glued-together jigsaw done all wrong'. At the end of the story when the group returns home, Miss Moore asks the group what they learned. The critic believes that Sylvia’s unwillingness to share what she learned is her way of “protection against further pain and humiliation”. By sharing what she has learned means that Sylvia would have to acknowledge “injustice, inferiority and imperfection of her world”. Due to this assessment made by the critic it was obvious to that Sylvia did gain knowledge from her foe, Miss Moore.
“Bambara’s ‘The Lesson’” by Jerome Cartwright is a critic that believes that other critics completely misinterpret the story. Cartwright disputes the notion made by Hargrove that the story is about social injustice, rather he believes the lesson to be learned is “the value of lessons and thinking”. The critic thinks that the driving force in the story is the power struggle between Sylvia and Miss Moore. Throughout Bambara’s story, Sylvia internalizes her dislike towards Miss Moore despite Moore’s repeated kindness. Throughout the story Miss Moore takes advantage of every concept that the children falsely claim by taking that moment to provide correct information. By engaging with the children, asking them questions and making them explore their ability to think critically, she opens the door to for them to learn. The only thing the critic doesn’t fully oppose regarding Hargrove’s assessment is that Sylvia is disappointed by the end of the story. It is Cartwright’s belief, in addition to Hargrove’s assessment, that Sylvia is also given new understanding of the depth of her reality. The author thinks, due to the destruction of her delusion veil and her newfound knowledge, that Sylvia is inspired with a “promised hope” that she can escape the clutches of poverty. Hargrove’s belief that the story can resume due to conflict of the rich versus the poor, Cartwright thinks differently.
In Melanie Marotta’s analysis, '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.' she insists that Sylvia undergoes three periods of personal evolution. The critic explains that Sylvia’s first life begins while they await transportation for their destination. During this time the author points out that in the first life, Sylvia first hears about the significance of money and the more money you obtain determines ones rank in society. Upon arriving the destination, Sylvia sees that the items in the windows they are looking at exceed much more than she can comprehend. One toy, a boat, has no price display and Miss Moore tells Sylvia to go inside the story to investigate. At this point of the story the critic explains the approach of Sylvia’s second life, as she internal narrates her hesitation to enter the store. Marotta believes that at this moment Sylvia’s “confidence dissolves due to the knowledge of money and position”. Sylvia’s third life begins in the store occurs after she enters. The critic believes that the anger that Sylvia describes towards Sugar and Miss Moore is due to her own “realization that the societal hierarchy is directed by monetary means”. The critic states, “the knowledge that Miss Moore offers the children removes them from the isolation of their neighborhood and class, making them aware of the possibility for a different future.” This belief is parallel to that of Cartwright’s belief of “promised hope”.
Toni Cade Bambara’s “The Lesson” is compelling and timeless. Marotta and Cartwright both recognize that Miss Moore’s purpose is to educate Sylvia and the other children by showing them a part of society they were naively unaware existed. Although Hargrove had valid critiques, she primarily focused narrowly on the rich versus poor conflict. In Hargrove’s critique, there is a lot of emphasis on the social and economic inequality that exists which Sylvia finally acknowledges. Cartwright and Marotta both address the importance of the knowledge bestowed onto Sylvia by Miss Moore. With this knowledge Sylvia can strive to reposition her spot in society. Marotta sums up Miss Moore’s purposeful lesson that Sylvia can reposition her status in societal hierarchy through the power of knowledge. With the knowledge obtained from the experience provided by Miss Moore, Sylvia can protect herself from the social and economic constructs imposed on her through life.
- Cartwright, Jerome. 'Bambara's 'The Lesson.'.' Short Story Criticism, edited by Jelena Krstovic, vol. 107, Gale, 2008. Literature Resource Center, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/H1420080484/GLS?u=sjdc_main&sid=GLS&xid=c7a55026. Accessed 11 Nov. 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 Stories for Students, edited by Jennifer Smith, vol. 12, Gale, 2001. Literature Resource Center, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/H1420035776/GLS?u=sjdc_main&sid=GLS&xid=d59d33b7. Accessed 11 Nov. 2019. Originally published in Women Writers of the Contemporary South, edited by Peggy Whitman, University Press of Mississippi, 1984, pp. 215-232.
- 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. Literature Resource Center, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/H1420123523/GLS?u=sjdc_main&sid=GLS&xid=5384e794. Accessed 11 Nov. 2019. Originally published in UMI, 2010, pp. 159-196.