The issue of inequality of people who come from different social backgrounds has been central for many people in politics, social studies, and literature as well. An American author and social activist, Toni Cade Bambara develops the topic of inequality in one of her short stories, “The Lesson”. A teacher takes an unusual approach to giving a lesson and leads a group of poor African-American children to a very expensive toy store. The price of the playthings sold there could easily cover all the daily expenses of the children and their families, and therefore the children are astonished at the possibility that there exist people who could buy such outrageously expensive trifles and not get bankrupt. For the first time in their lives, the children learn the lesson of economic inequality based on racial and class prejudices.
The necessity for educating poor children about the injustice of their situation is the main idea of “The Lesson”, and it can be traced through the ways Bambara handles her story in terms of style, audience, and purpose. The most obvious element of Bambara’s story is the style she applies to rendering her ideas. “The Lesson” is told from first-person perspective, which allows to bring the readers closer to the events described in the story and to make them empathize with the narrator. From the very first lines of the story, the readers can observe the way the narrator perceives the surrounding world and the people. Bambara employs a wide range of slang vocabulary and informal speech to emphasize the background of her characters. Words as “nappy hair”, “junk man”, “winos”, “boring-ass things” are indicative of the narrator’s social origins from the outskirts of the city (Bambara 1148). The rudeness of such words as “bitch” and “goddamn” suggest that the narrator has not got any proper upbringing in terms of good manners (Bambara 1149). Preserving the original colloquial constructions like “some kinda shape” or “whatcha gonna do”, the author succeeds in creating an illusion of live speech addressed directly to the reader (Bambara 1148, 1150).
Thus, through vivid vocabulary and unceremonious tone of the story, Bambara creates a character of a poorly brought up child from a bad neighborhood. In connection with the stylistic features of “The Lesson”, it appears reasonable to assume that the key audience of the story are the people who can be compared to the story narrator. Simple, unsophisticated, battered by the hardships of everyday struggle for life, such people are not interested in deciphering all the complicated phrases of proper language. They should be addressed in the way that is familiar and understandable to them, and Bambara — through the narrator of the story — treats such people as equal, speaking to them in their own language. Appealing to such an audience helps Bambara to achieve the main purpose of her writing: to make it clear for the poor and the suffering that their living situation is not fair. It is not incidental that the initial reaction of the children brought to the store is astonishment and shock at the ridiculous prices for such simple and seemingly unnecessary things as paperweight or a toy sailboat (Bambara 1150–1151). On the example of this excursion into the world of the rich person, Bambara demonstrates the unfairness and injustice when some people have barely anything to eat and others can afford buying expensive trifles just for fun.
The main idea advanced by Bambara in “The Lesson” is therefore the necessity of demonstrating the enormous gap that separates the rich from the poor. Once the poor children see this gap, they start analyzing the reasons for such situation. And once they know the reasons, they can take the needed action for eliminating their suffering and for improving their life and the lives of their families. An end should be put to living in the dark about the true state of affairs; only in this way can poor people hope for a better life.
Bambara, Toni Cade. “The Lesson.
” Making Literature Matter: An Anthology for Readers and Writers. 4th edition. Eds. John Schilb and John Clifford. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2009.