“The Lesson” is narrated in first person from the point of view of the protagonist, Sylvia, and the African-American vernacular is used throughout the narration and dialogue of the story. The author, Toni Cade Bambara, employs first person narration, syntax and diction of the African-American lingo at the time, and the setting to create a story that effectively shows the “Lesson” of which title speaks.
The first person point of view typically means that biases of the narrator are introduced into the story. This point of view helps give the story more credibility by using “I” rather than “He” because a person knows his or her story better than anyone else. Also, the readers can relate to and understand Syliva’s perspective on the actual “Lesson” and how it impacts her personally. The lesson in “The Lesson” is about the significance of money, the reality of the children in this story’s world, and the desire to create a better chance for them. The story is told through a young African-American girl living in the African-American Civil Rights era, who is taken out of her comfort zone to see the outside world to compare and contrast with her own world. If the readers were to have observed this story from the distance, we would not have seen how and why “The Lesson” is an important message for Sylvia. Here, Sylvia is actually giving to the information as we, the readers, see it. Because of that, Sylvia’s reactions to the events in the story help the readers understand Instead of just presenting a bunch of facts, we see the little girl’s perspective and that helps reel us into the plot and the meaning behind it. Also, the readers are able to get a broader view of the community she lives in because of the first person narration. For example, in the very first paragraph, Sylvia describes one of the mores of the community when we see their disdain for Miss Moore because “she always look liked she was going to church, though never did.” (232). Thus, churchgoing is understood as a tradition with this community because of the grown-ups having “talked behind her [Miss Moore] back like a dog.” (232). In addition, throughout “The Lesson”, the syntax and diction of the African-American vernacular, spoken by all the children and the narrator, give a sense of realism through the frequent humor seen during the story. An example would be when Sylvia says, “I won’t give the bitch that satisfaction.” (236). Since this is how a person really talks and not just a “he did this” “she did that”, the story is more realistic. Moreover, the African-American vernacular exhibits the gap between all of the children who use it and the mainstream world. This helps to illustrate how significant “The Lesson” is for these kids and how effective it becomes for the children. For instance, Sylvia says “Unbelievable, I hear myself say and am really stunned… For some reason this pisses me off.” (236) “This”, in this case, means the extravagant prices of trivial objects and that people actually buys them at such prices. This disbelief is understandable since their lingo show how uneducated they are which also means how underprivileged they are. However, the African-American vernacular additionally demonstrates Sylvia’s confidence and tenacious attitude like the last sentence of the story she says, “But ain’t nobody gonna beat me at nuthin.” Lastly, the setting of “The Lesson”, the urban area of New York, help the readers understand the different culture that the children have in contrast to the more wealthy culture of New York. Not once in the entire short story did the author reveal that the setting is New York. However, the author used indirect clues to tell us that. Take for instance when Sylvia talked about a living “on the blockâ€¦[in] the same apartment”, and “hallways and stairs”. (232). All these are qualities of an urban setting and the final clue that led the readers to believe that it was New York was when Sylvia said “Fifth Avenue”. (234). The readers can easily see the cultural divide between these African-Americans living in apartments, only knowing the people in their “block” (232), in comparison to the wealthier culture of New York, where people are in a “fur coat, hot as it is.” (234). The stark contrast in setting allows the reader to compare and empathize with the children who have no idea about the world outside their “block”. (232).
The diction and syntax of an African-American child and the setting used by the author allows the story to be more effective in showing the realism, the perspective, and the context of “The Lesson.” The African-American lingo, the perspective of Sylvia looking back to “the days when everybody was old and stupidâ€¦and me and Sugar were just right”, and the setting assist in helping the readers relate to the characters and empathize with the importance of “The Lesson”. The author employs all these literary devices in order to keep the characters relatable, realistic and believable so that the lesson that they all need to “wake up and demand their share of the pie” or “equal chance to pursue happiness.” (239 ).All of the different elements integrated aid the readers in understanding the meaning and moral of the story.