Toni Cade Bambara’s ‘The Lesson’ explores questions of culture and class among a group of children and a woman who takes them on a trip into an expensive department store. While ostensibly the story is a simple narrative about a trip, upon further inspection one realizes the subtle poignancy Bambara is able to achieve. This essay examines the story in terms of the change in the main character Sylvia’s attitude after entering and encountering the F.A.
O Schwartz department store.
Upon Sylvia’s entrance into F. A. O. Schwartz her opinion and mood show a dramatic change. At the beginning of her entrance into the store Sylvia continues to exhibit the brashness and bravado that she had demonstrated before becoming exposed to this new environment. In these regards, Sylvia follows her friends that joke about possibly stealing items.
There is also a subtle culture shock exhibited as the girls question what some of the items function; for example there is a conversation about a paper weight that occurs, with the supervisor having to inform them its function, and the girls joking about how since they have no paper they have no real use for the object.
As the story continues it becomes evident that Sylvia’s opinion and mood are notably shifting. One of the first instances in which this is evident occurs when Bambara writes, “Hand-crafted sailboat of fiberglass at one thousand one hundred ninety-five dollars.
’ ‘Unbelievable,’ I hear myself say and am really stunned” (Bambara). This is the first instance wherein Sylvia’s culture clash is demonstrated, as she has encountered merchandise that is geared towards individuals outside of her socioeconomic status and has thus changed through the experience.
While Sylvia had previously demonstrated brash confidence of her surroundings and a general feeling of mastery, she now has changed in that she has begun to doubt the surrounding area and become self-conscious about her actions.
Bambara demonstrates this in stating that after encountering the store and the expensive merchandise Sylvia felt less confident about freely moving around the environment. Perhaps one of the most powerful metaphors Bambara advances to demonstrate this shift in Sylvia’s attitude is the comparison made between her experience in F. A. O. Schwartz and experience in a Catholic church. During her experience in the Catholic Church she also came to feel that her confidence had been limited.
This is an interesting analogy as Bambara is indicating that the aura of the Catholic Church is akin to that one finds in a department store; this indicates that the nature of consumer culture has begun to occupy the place that religion previously occupied within social existence. While in great part Sylvia functions as a narrator in the later section it’s clear that the general thrust of her mental and emotional change is encapsulated in the reactions of her friends who have attempted to come to terms with the expensive store and the nature of consumerism that the store opened.
In conclusion, it’s clear that Sylvia experiences a slight case of culture shock upon entering F. A. O. Schwartz. While her brashness and confidence had been exhibited earlier in the story, upon witnessing the expensive merchandise her sense of self and place shifted considerably. Ultimately, it is left for the reader to determine what such cultural interactions entail and to draw their own conclusions.
Bambara, Toni. http://cai. ucdavis. edu/gender/thelesson. html.