The theme of desire has been portrayed in many novels and stories. Perhaps the most well-known depiction of desire can be found in the Bible. In the Book of Genesis, a snake tempts Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge after he convinces them that they will gain God’s knowledge of good and evil and be protected from death. Despite God’s word to not eat of the fruit, Adam and Eve did so anyway. Surely, this story portrays temptation; however, beyond the theme of temptation lays the theme of desire.
Knowing it was wrong, Adam and Eve ate the fruit because they had the desire for what the snake promised them. Similarly, Toni Cade Bambara and John Updike also display the theme of desire in their short stories. In “The Lesson” by Bambara and “A&P” by Updike, character, setting, and point of view are utilized to project the theme of desire. Though “The Lesson” and “A&P” take place in vastly different environments, a ghetto in New York and a quaint New England sea-side town, respectively, little separates the symbolic meaning of the setting.
The protagonists of both short stories really have no yearn to be in their current surroundings. Sylvia in “The Lesson” describes her neighborhood as foul smelling. It was so bad “you couldn’t halfway play hide-and-seek without a goddamn gas mask” (Bambara 1). Likewise, Sammy in “A&P” compares the costumer at his checkout lane to a witch. Within the first few paragraphs of both stories, one can tell that both Sylvia’s and Sammy’s atmospheres are not what they wish. Both the ghetto in which Sylvia lives and the grocery store in which Sammy works symbolize misery.
Through the tone of the characters, one can gather that neither is happy and they wish for something greater. Without these particular settings that Bambara and Updike chose, the stories would have no meaning. For instance, if Bambara set Sylvia in a prestigious and wealthy neighborhood, there would be no narrative. “The Lesson” then would be a useless tale of a girl’s trip to a toy store. No underlying themes or symbols would be present. The setting is very important in both stories in that it defines not only the plot, but the characters themselves.
Sylvia and Sammy are products of their environments. Being in an unpleasant environment would definitely put any individual on edge. Because both characters are unhappy with their surroundings, both are quite cynical. Aside from comparing one customer to a witch, Sammy also refers to others as “sheep” and points out “house-slaves in pin curlers” (Updike 3). Sylvia is also cynical in the way she talks of Miss Moore. At a point, Sylvia states that she is a “nappy-head[ed] bitch”, which in no means is a proper way for anyone, let alone a child, to speak (Bambara 1).
Despite being so cynical, the reader finds that both characters have another side as well. When faced with desire, Sylvia’s and Sammy’s mannerism changes. The reader sees Sylvia in a whole new way when she sets eyes on the fiberglass sailboat. In fact, Sylvia’s entire persona changes. Not only is she dumbfounded by the price of the sailboat, but she is awestruck by its greatness. She grows quite mad about the price; nonetheless, this is the beginning of the change of her character and train of thought. This is where she realizes the economic imbalance of the world.
Similarly to how Sylvia was taken by the sailboat, Sammy is captivated by the girls’ physical appearance, especially Queenie. This is made evident by the imagery of the text from his physical description of them. Bambara and Updike especially, quite effectively use the characters’ point of view to further engage the reader to explore for theme. In “A&P” and “The Lesson”, both protagonists narrate the story in first person. This is especially important because the reader better connects with the character. One can better relate when they feel as if they are part of the plot.
With Updike’s combination of first person point of view and powerful imagery, one not only feels like they are there, but they can picture it as well. The reader can visualize the girls walking through the maze of isles in the store. Every detail Updike sketches is important, even the “two smoothest scoops of vanilla” Sammy sees in Queenie’s top-piece (Updike 6). This tells the reader that Sammy is not an experienced lover. He is running wild with his thoughts and can barely control himself. Sammy is enthralled by Queenie and the other girls.
So much, in fact, that he quits his job after Lengel, the manager, ridicules the girls about wearing proper attire when entering a grocery store. This particular event shows the true desire Sammy has for these girls and their attention. Likewise, Sylvia has a true desire to change her ascribed status. The reader sees this when Sylvia states “ain’t nobody gonna beat me at nuthin” at the end of the story (Bambara 6). Sylvia becomes a dynamic character with this statement. Influenced by her desire for the Fifth Avenue world, like purchasing the sailboat, Sylvia makes a vow that she is going to change.
She has the desire to leave the ghetto, to be something greater than the ghetto. She is going to strive for the rewards of Fifth Avenue she so much desires. Although the central theme of “The Lesson” and “A&P” may be something more than desire, Updike and Bambara definitely portray it through setting, character, and point of view. Perhaps even more interesting are the characters themselves. They seem almost life-like because of their relatability. It is conceivable that the protagonists in these stories by Updike and Bambara are the authors themselves.
Toni Cade Bambara grew up in Harlem, a setting very close to that found in “The Lesson” (Schirack) and John Updike lived in a seaside-town in Massachusetts, eerily similar to the setting of “A&P” (Moyer). It is very possible that these short stories contain characters based off the authors. It is also quite possible that these stories are actual life events that occurred while the two were still living. It is certainly very interesting to think about the fact that the characters could be linked to the authors in some way and what other influences life events may have had on other pieces by the authors.
Works Cited Bambara, Toni Cade. “The Lesson. ” Blackboard. ed. ENG 102-329. Ed. Gina Yanuzzi. Mount Laurel: BCC, Spring 2013. 1-6. Electronic. Moyer, Steve. “John Updike Biography. ” Neh. gov. N. p. , n. d. Web. 07 Mar. 2013. Schirack, Maureen. “Toni Cade Bambara. ” Voices From the Gaps, University of Minnesota. Ed. Lauren Curtright. N. p. , 11 Aug. 2004. Web. 07 Mar. 2013. Updike, John. “A&P. ” Blackboard. ed. ENG 102-329. Ed. Gina Yanuzzi. Mount Laurel: BCC, Spring 2013. 1-8. Electronic.