What strengths and weaknesses in Sylvia’s character are illuminated by her being the narrator in The Stories of Bambara?How is her language evidence of both strengths and weaknesses? In...

What strengths and weaknesses in Sylvia’s character are illuminated by her being the narrator in The Stories of Bambara?

How is her language evidence of both strengths and weaknesses? In particular, what extremes of character are displayed in paragraph 58 when Sylvia says to herself that she will have “to think this day through” yet is determined that “nobody [is] gonna beat [her] at nuthin”? Is she a developing character?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Sylvia's speech indicates that she lives in a socio-economic area where she has little or no exposure to Standard English or to the ways of life of other levels of society, outside her neighborhood. Despite her underprivileged state, however, Sylvia's words and their import (significance and meaning) also demonstrate that she is intelligent and thinks for herself because she notices faults in people and is skeptical about things.

Like many children of her socio-economic area, Sylvia has doubts about adults who are outsiders. This skepticism suggests Sylvia's intelligence because she is apparently very attentive to those who are in her environment, and she is distrustful of others' judgments.

And [Miss Moore] was always planning these boring-ass things for us to do. . . . And our parents would yank our heads into some kinda shape and crisp up our clothes so we’d be presentable for travel with Miss Moore, who always looked like she was going to church, though she never did. Which is just one of the things the grown-ups talked about when they talked behind her back like a dog.

Here Sylvia demonstrates her perceptive qualities because she is aware of the feelings of inferiority that the parents have regarding the educated Miss Moore. They do their best to have their offspring appear less like children of the projects, as well as to demonstrate that they are caring parents, while at the same time they look for something about which to criticize Miss Moore so they can feel better about themselves. 

Later, Miss Moore has the children leave Harlem and ride to Manhatten, where she leads them into a very exclusive store. There Sylvia and the others are called by one of the boys to look at a handcrafted sailboat large enough "to sail two kittens" that costs $1,195.00. Again, Sylvia is perceptive.

“Unbelievable,” I hear myself say and am really stunned. I read it again for myself just in case the group recitation put me in a trance. Same thing. For some reason this pisses me off. We look at Miss Moore and she looking at us, waiting for I dunnno what.

On the ride home, amid the frivolous responses of the other children to the question of what they thought of the exclusive store, F.A.O. Schwartz, Sylvia's friend Sugar comments, "I don’t think all of us here put together eat in a year what that sailboat costs.” Pleased, Miss Moore then asks Sugar what she thinks about a society that has one family that can spend on a toy the cost of feeding a family of six or seven. As she pushes away Sylvia, who tries to prevent her from talking, Sugar says, “I think . . . 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?” This response greatly satisfies Miss Moore, yet Sylvia notices that Miss Moore looks at her "sorrowfully." As she does so, she then asks, "Anybody else learn anything today?" But Sylvia walks off. When her friend Sugar catches up to her, Sylvia purposely ignores her. Sugar wants her to run with her to a drug store where they can have ice cream; however, Sylvia lets her get ahead and goes another direction because she wants to "think this day through." As Sugar leaves her behind, Sylvia narrates, "She can run if she want to and even run faster. But ain’t nobody gonna beat me at nuthin."

While Sugar has said what Miss Moore wanted as a response, she does not seem to understand the implications of her observation as she quickly abandons a significant thought to run for ice cream. On the other hand, Sylvia has realized immediately that Miss Moore has sought to elicit from her question this response about income inequality.

While Sylvia does not quite comprehend the full import of the question and answer, she does know that Miss Moore wishes the children to come away wiser from their experience.  Sylvia's last remark, ". . . ain't nobody gonna beat me at nuthin," though spoken in dialect, indicates her depth of thought. Sylvia wants to ponder all that has transpired on this day. While Sugar eats ice cream, Sylvia is going to figure out why such inequality exists and what she can do in order to have a more profound response than Sugar has given, as well as to know what it means for her personally.

teachertaylor eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Sylvia, the narrator of Toni Cade Bambara's short story "The Lesson," is definitely a developing character.  Sylvia cannot quite make sense of "the lesson" that Miss Moore has tried to teach the childen during their trip to F. A. O. Schwartz.  Sylvia admits to herself that something has occurred, but she feels betrayed by her friend Sugar who has answered Miss Moore's questions revolving around the expensive toys in the shop window.  Sylvia and her other friends have been resentful of Miss Moore and do not accept her as a staple part of their community.  This resentment creates a wall between Sylvia and Miss Moore, one that Sylvia has a difficult time tearing down.  But Sylvia cannot deny that Sugar was on to something at the store, and she wants to reflect on this privately.  She is determined to not let anyone beat her, but this is a defenive mode that Sylvia employs because she is beginning to realize that there is a whole world out there that is always trying, and succeeding, to beat her at things.

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