Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

The Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s
African Americans began taking a more active stance in the 1950s to end discrimination in...

(The entire section is 949 words.)

Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The theme of the story is reinforced by several aspects of style that make it delightful instead of didactic or preachy, despite the fact that its central message calls for a revolution in attitudes and actions by both individuals and social institutions. Because the story focuses on the children, readers see how social and economic disadvantages are perpetuated and have lasting effects on future generations. Most important is the use of Sylvia as the narrator, because of her attitudes and her language. Sylvia has developed a smart-aleck, tough, self-centered stance to survive in the slum area. She is quick to think up or be involved with mischief, such as the time she accepts a dare to run into a Catholic church and do a tap dance at the altar. When she enters the church, however, with “everything so hushed and holy and the candles and the bowin and the handkerchiefs on all the drooping heads,” she cannot go through with the plan. She has a sense of rightness, which she believes she is above or does not need, but her sense of decency and fairness is a major part of her character. Although she initially brags that she is keeping the money from the taxi fare, by the end of the story she is not eager to go with Sugar to spend it. The fact that Miss Moore does not ask Sylvia for the change suggests that Miss Moore trusts that what Sylvia is learning is more important than a few dollars.

The most noticeable and significant aspect of style in “The Lesson” is its use of language. Sylvia’s speech patterns are lively and colorful, such as her comment when Miss Moore suggests she check the cost of a real yacht, that such an assignment “really pains my ass.” Her way of talking is realistic for someone who lives where she does. Her slang and wit show her to be a bright, observant, believable, and interesting character, someone the reader can like and care about. By the end of the story, it is clear that Sylvia is realizing that there is more to the world than her neighborhood, and that she will have to develop new knowledge and new strategies for dealing with that world, including, probably, learning more formal patterns of English used by people outside her immediate environment.


(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The story begins and ends in a predominantly black neighborhood in New York City, probably Harlem, but most of the action takes place outside...

(The entire section is 618 words.)

Literary Style

(Short Stories for Students)

Point of View
‘‘The Lesson’’ is told from Sylvia's first-person point of view. This means that all the events are...

(The entire section is 666 words.)

Literary Qualities

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The most significant literary technique Bambara employs in the story is the creation of an authentic preadolescent voice. Sylvia's point of...

(The entire section is 270 words.)

Social Sensitivity

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The primary social issue in this story is the disparity of wealth, especially in America's larger cities. Sylvia emphasizes this point as she...

(The entire section is 271 words.)


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Alwes, Derek. “The Burden of Liberty: Choice in Toni Morrison’s Jazz and Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salt Eaters.” African American Review 30, no. 3 (Fall, 1996): 353-365.

Bone, Martyn. “Capitalist Abstraction and the Body Politics of Place in Toni Cade Bambara’s Those Bones Are Not My Child.” Journal of American Studies 37, no. 2 (August, 2003): 229-246.

Butler-Evans, Elliott. Race, Gender, and Desire: Narrative Strategies in the Fiction of Toni Cade Bambara, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989.


(The entire section is 163 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Short Stories for Students)

Bryan, C. D. B., Review in the New York Times Book Review, October 15, 1972, p. 31.


(The entire section is 270 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Short Stories for Students)

1970s: In 1970, of the 25.4 million Americans who live in poverty, 7.5 million, or 33.5 percent, are African American. The average...

(The entire section is 348 words.)

Topics for Discussion

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Why does Miss Moore take the children to a posh Fifth Avenue toy store?

2. What is the lesson Miss Moore is attempting to...

(The entire section is 126 words.)

Ideas for Reports and Papers

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Investigate the geography of the story. Get a map of New York City and plot the various sites on it.

2. Compare this story to...

(The entire section is 173 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Short Stories for Students)

This story aptly reflects thoughts that were prevalent in the 1960s, which was a decade of great social change. Could it take place now?...

(The entire section is 221 words.)

Related Titles / Adaptations

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Bambara's short stories often feature a hostile, powerful young black woman, and just as frequently, an older black woman appears as a mentor...

(The entire section is 304 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Short Stories for Students)

Toni Cade Bambara's Gorilla, My Love collects fifteen stories written between 1959 and 1972. Many of the stories have a child...

(The entire section is 282 words.)

For Further Reference

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Comfort, Mary. "Liberating Figures in Toni Cade Bambara's Gorilla My Love." Studies in American Humor 3.5 (1998): 76-96. This essay...

(The entire section is 125 words.)