The Lesson Characters


Big Butt
Big Butt most likely derives his nickname from his eating habits. Before the group leaves for the toy store, he is "already wasting his peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich like the pig he is.’’ His response to the toys also reflects this rapaciousness. He wants things without knowing what they are.

Fat Butt
See Big Butt

Flyboy demonstrates the crafty sophistication of a ghetto child. He knows how to extract pity and financial assistance from whites. In his clear-eyed understanding of how to play the monetary game, he appears older than he really is.

Junebug is relatively quiet at the store. He sees the expensive sailboat, which launches the children on the success and failure of the fifty-cent sailboats they sail in the parks.

Mercedes is unlike the other children because she wants to be like the rich, white Americans. She has her own desk at home for doing her homework. She is at home in F. A. O. Schwarz and wants to come back with her birthday money to buy herself a toy. Mercedes, alone of the children, is unperturbed by the price tags on the toys or what they represent about America.

Miss Moore
Miss Moore is a college-educated woman who has come to live in a poor, African-American neighborhood of New York. She takes upon herself the responsibility to teach the neighborhood children about the larger community and the problems that...

(The entire section is 615 words.)

The Lesson Themes and Characters

Sylvia, the narrator, is the central character, and it is through her consciousness that readers intuit the significance of the title, "The Lesson." Sylvia is smart, aggressive and the leader of the band of friends and cousins that prefers to spend their summer days "terrorizing the West Indian kids," by snatching "their hair ribbons and their money too." Not quite an adolescent, Sylvia is fascinated with experimenting with the lipstick her friend Sugar has stolen from her mother. Although she seems fearless on her own territory, she "feel funny, shame" when she realizes she is out of her element on Fifth Avenue. Sylvia has always been aware that she is poor, but she has been blissfully ignorant of how startling her disadvantages are until her world is contrasted with that of Manhattan's rich. She has always resented Miss Moore, "the nappy-head bitch and her goddamn college degree," but after the trip to Fifth Avenue, her anger spreads from Miss Moore to her friends, who have actually admitted to the older woman that they have "gotten" the lesson.

Her closest companion, Sugar, breaks ranks with Sylvia by responding to Miss Moore's probing questions about social justice:

"Imagine for a minute what kind of society it is in which some people can spend on a toy what it would cost to feed a family of six or seven. What do you think?"

"I think," say Sugar pushing me off her feet like she never done before, cause I whip her ass in a minute, "that this is not much of a democracy if you ask me. Equal chance to pursue happiness means an equal crack at the dough, don't it?" Miss Moore is besides herself and I am disgusted with Sugar's treachery.

Sylvia's parting of the ways with Sugar signals an ambiguous ending. When Sylvia uncharacteristically lets Sugar get...

(The entire section is 751 words.)