Symbolism and Theme in Bambara’s “The Lesson”
Toni Cade Bambara wrote the short story, The Lesson, in 1972. The Lesson is considered by the Literary Canon to be a wonderful work of fiction because of its use of language, humanistic theme, symbolism, and non-genre plot. Two essential elements that add to the depth and enhance a reader’s comprehension of The Lesson are Bambara’s use of symbolism and theme.
The Lesson takes place in New York’s inner city. The fictional story begins with a group of poor, uneducated, lower class city kids standing in front of a mailbox, preparing themselves for another day of being taught by Mrs. Moore. Mrs. Moore felt that it was her duty to help underprivileged children learn because she was one of the only women in the neighborhood to earn a degree. The main character is Sylvia, who tells the story in a first person narrative. Sylvia is a young African American girl, probably around fourteen years old, who is very judgmental about the world around her. By Bambara’s choice of words, the reader can tell that she is extremely opinionated, presents a very tough, hostile exterior and not at all happy about having to be taught anything by Mrs. Moore. For instance, she states “we kinda hated her too, hated the way we did the winos who cluttered up our parks and pissed on our hand ball walls” (Bambara 121). On this hot summer day, Mrs. Moore felt that there was a lesson to learn at FAO Schwartz, a very expensive, upper class toy store in downtown Manhattan. After stepping out of the cab and peering into the window, Sylvia knows that this is not just any toy store and they are not just there for any reason.
The reason Mrs. Moore brought the children to FAO Schwartz is captured in Bambara’s use symbolism. Outside of the toyshop the children glare at a number of very expensive toys. Some of them include a paperweight and a sailboat. Initially, none of the children, especially Sylvia, knew what the paperweight was. She says to herself that “my eyes tell me it’s a chunk of glass cracked with something heavy, and different-color inks dripped into the splits, then the whole thing put into a oven or something. But for $480 it don’t make sense” (Bambara 123). After Mrs. Moore explains what it is, the children still cannot comprehend its use or the price. Bambara uses the paperweight to symbolize importance. A paperweight is used to hold something that is of value, something that someone wishes not to lose. The children have never known or owned something that is precious. At the same time, the paperweight can symbolize that their living in the slums and never reaching out for something more can be holding them down. They are the important ones under that paperweight. A better life, one in which their basic needs are met, costs a price- one that they are not use to. To them, $400 is a life’s worth of work and unfathomable. The price of their future is going to have be something that they will have to strive for and open their minds past their current dwellings. Similarly, the sailboat is also used by Bambara to represent freedom and the journey that lies in front of them.
The journey into Manhattan was only a cab ride away. However, it was only a temporary chance for the children to see this type of life. If Sylvia or the other children wished to permanently escape the world of poverty they came from, they would have to realize that it wasn’t going to be easy. There are many steps along the way and to complete them, they would have to be educated. It would be just the same for someone who wanted to sail, they would have to first learn how. Sylvia, astonished by the price, cannot understand why someone would pay that much when “my sailboat cost me about fifty cents” (Bambara 124). The question is then- would she always be happy settling for less? Or did she even realize that she might be settling? Bambara raises interesting thoughts with the use of symbolism.
Another element of literature that Bambara graciously incorporates in The Lesson is the theme. The theme is that life is not always fair and that if you want something, you have to work for it. The theme can be recognized by her use of symbolism, but also by the way she establishes a difference between social and ethnic classes. Sylvia wants to suggest that her and the other children “go to the Sunset and terrorize the West Indian Kids and take their hair ribbons and their money too” (Bambara 122). From this statement, the reader can tell that stealing doesn’t cause much of a moral dilemma as it would most. Possessions are things to be taken by the strongest person- a survival of the fittest attitude. Then when the children arrive in Manhattan, they see all the white people with their riches and claim “white folks crazy” (Bambara 122). The questions becomes- why wouldn’t they take their belongings like the West Indian kids? One could suggest that they do not feel that they are superior enough to take them. Where you are born on the social ladder is not a choice and might not be considered to be fair. Although it is easy to take from those beneath you, to move up, one must take a much longer, more difficult approach. Bambara incorporates the theme of The Lesson into the story with very precise wisdom.
The Lesson is a brilliant piece of fiction. The theme and symbolic elements will hopefully help this short story, stand the test of time. Bambara was able to express and show different views on life by bringing a few poor city kids into a ritzy toy store. This is a short story that should be read by all in hopes to educate today’s children.