Historical Context

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.)

The Lesson 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.

The Lesson Bibliography

(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.

Collins, Janelle. “Generating Power: Fission, Fusion, and Post Modern Politics in Bambara’s The Salt Eaters.MELUS 21, no. 2 (Summer, 1996): 35-47.

Heller, Janet Ruth. “Toni Cade Bambara’s Use of African American Vernacular English in ’The Lesson.’” Style 37, no. 3 (Fall, 2003): 279-293.

Kelley, Margot A. “’Damballah Is the First Law of Thermodynamics’: Modes of Access to Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salt Eaters.” African American Review 27, no. 3 (Fall, 1993): 479-493.

Muther, Elizabeth. “Bambara’s Feisty Girls: Resistance Narratives in Gorilla, My Love.” African American Review 36, no. 3 (Fall, 2002): 447-459.

The Lesson Setting

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.)

The Lesson Literary Style

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.)

The Lesson Literary Qualities

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.)

The Lesson Social Sensitivity

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.)

The Lesson Compare and Contrast

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.)

The Lesson Topics for Discussion

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.)

The Lesson Ideas for Reports and Papers

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.)

The Lesson Topics for Further Study

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.)

The Lesson Related Titles / Adaptations

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.)

The Lesson What Do I Read Next?

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.)

The Lesson For Further Reference

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.)

The Lesson Bibliography and Further Reading

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


(The entire section is 270 words.)