Describe the level of the language of the narrator (Sylvia): is she writing the story or speaking it in Toni Cade Bambara's "The Lesson?"

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Toni Cade Bambara's short story, "The Lesson," the author uses first-person point of view. This means that the story is being told from a character's standpoint. As she describes the events of this day going into the city with Miss Moore on one of her educational trips with the kids, she speaks using the pronoun "I." The author also uses a dialect for Sylvia, giving her a voice that lends authenticity to the young girl's tale, as well as her opinions about inner-city living: Sylvia has street smarts. To my mind, Sylvia is speaking the story. I say this because she is not telling the story from a future point, but relating it as if it is happening at that moment, writing in the present tense.

Toni Cade Bambara has shown us that while Sylvia has street smarts, she is not well-versed in the ways of the life outside of her neighborhood. She has no clue as to how to maneuver her way in an adult world that is dominated by whites. Their world is as alien to her as her world is to the whites: especially those who shop in a toy store where a toy clown that flips costs as much as a pair of bunk beds.

By the end of the story, because Sylvia finally "gets" something of what Miss Moore has been trying to teach the kids, we can assume that she will not be limited to the lives her parents, neighbors or relatives have been forced to lead. She will leave the inner-city, she will probably go to college, and she will rise above the circumstances to which she was born. Assuming this by Sylvia's last line, "...ain't nobody gonna beat me at nuthin," we would expect that she will look at the world differently, will not act so childishly, and will not speak as she does now.

If Sylvia were writing the story, she would probably be doing it some time in the future, and the intensity of her emotions might not be as strong and her childishness would probably not be so apparent. And based upon Sylvia's interest in learning anything, especially from Miss Moore, I somehow doubt she returned home that night to write a story. As we come to the end of the account of that day, Sylvia is still trying to figure out what happened to her that day when:

Miss Moore looks at me, sorrowfully I'm thinkin. And somethin weird is goin on, I can feel it in my chest. "Anybody else learn anything today?" lookin dead at me. I walk away...

We know something is happening; since Sylvia hasn't figured it out yet, and she's relatively bright, it's almost as if she is rethinking the day as she walks home.

Read the study guide:
The Lesson

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