A Future You Can Afford

Assignment for class

When many different people live together it can often cause issues when people who are considered “normal” act on that normal which creates divisions between those people. These divisions are not seen but felt and prove that many people choose to value unimportant ideals over the ones that really matter.The story “The Lesson” by Toni Cade Bambara is not only about a perceptive woman who seeks to educate the youth in her community about academic subjects, but to also recognize the social injustices that preside in their collective, diverse population of peoples.Using a Marxist Historicist theory, I believe the meaning behind this work of literature is to display and hopefully reveal the drastic ways in which the public sphere shapes who we are, what we value, how we exhibit those traits in society, and realizing that life doesn’t have to be that way.

For this work of literature by Toni Cade Bambara, I have used the Marxist theory, with information from Charles Bressler, to build up, and be the cornerstone of my interpretation of the reading as well as to guide my thoughts about what the true meaning of “The Lesson” is. I believe the meaning behind the story is about how society shapes who we are and what we value by pin pointing certain areas in life that are different for different people.That being said, I find it interesting that Marxist theory says that “social and economic conditions directly influence how and what we believe and value” (Bressler 166). While in the story there is no out right mention of this happening, it is a presence that can be felt. There are instances in the story that have the children involved acting in certain ways in public that is opposite of their natural state when in the comfort of their own community. The main character, Sylvia, even questions herself when she hesitates to go into a toy store realizing that there is no reason to be afraid. She thinks to herself, “But I feel funny, shame. But what I got to be ashamed about?” (Bambara). There is this stigma that surrounds these children that they act on but don’t fully see and understand. In Literary Criticism, Bressler says that “From Marx’s point of view, the working classes fail to see who they really are in such a society: an exploited, oppressed class of people” (Bressler 169). A child named Big Butt gets excited about an expensive microscope. This kid really wants it and the rest of the children act like its not only impossible because it costs too much, but also that there is no grand reason for him to have it (Bambara). Miss. Moore, the educated woman who wishes to teach the children, expresses that it would be a wonderful idea to be able to have such atool to learn about “the million and one living things in the air around us” that “is invisible to the naked eye” (Bambara). I believe that the microscope is great symbolism for the invisible but felt and real social injustice that is going on in this society.

The microscope is a great tool for looking at the society in which this story takes place. While these prejudices against the lower classes are not verbal, they do exist and are felt in an impactful way. Literary Criticism says that “life determines consciousness” (Bressler 167). If one puts a microscope up to the situation surrounding Big Butt wanting this tool and feeling the pressures of expense and what’s the point, then one might see the underlying cause of the kids feeling this way. Literary Criticism says that “our ideas and concepts about who we are and who we are becoming are fashioned in everyday interactions” (Bressler 167). The price of the microscope is a huge obstacle in itself. If this kid knows he can’t afford it, why bother going into the toy store at all?While the expense is one thing that shapes the way society treats people, there is still yet another underlying issue that I find much more unpleasant. What I find so disconcerting is that this society, the consciousness of this society is built up on the future you can afford. Miss. Moore said, “Imagine for a minute what kind of society it is in which some people can spend on a toy what it would cost to feed a family of six or seven” (Bambara). If what Miss. Moore said is accurate, if one cannot afford to buy a toy sailboat or a microscope in a toy shop, then what kind of future does that promise you? This society has shaped these kid’s minds believing that they will not be able to afford a future that is any different than their present because they can’t afford a microscope; a microscope that could lead to that boy possibly becoming a doctor or scientist; a profession that would certainly rise his class standing in this society. While I believe this idea is the main lesson of the story, some would suggest otherwise.

Because literature is open to multifarious interpretations, I am able to pin point my understanding of this story by using another’s interpretation. Using someone else’s ideas, I find that my ideas are strengthened. Jerome Cartwrights article has shed a particular light on “The Lesson” that I disagree with. While Cartwright sees the impact of the class struggles between rich and poor, he says that this “conflict does not provide the dramatic tension, the force that drives the story forward” (Cartwight 61). He believes that the main focus or lesson of the story is the opposing nature between Miss. Moore the educated, and Sylvia the unwilling. I do get his point but he seems to be fighting for a change in title from the singular The Lesson to the plural, “The Lessons”. While this story in a broad sense is about someone who wants these kids to learn many things, this particular lesson for the day is more focused on recognizing the social injustice that tries to deny the rising in class for these people. I believe Miss Moore was giving these kids the chance to see the invisible by learning how to think, which is something that society has tried to deny them thus far. I strongly believe that was what the author of The Lesson intended and not the opposing force between Miss Moore and Sylvia.

Learning a little more about Toni Cade Bambara, my belief about the meaning of the story has just grown stronger. In an article about Toni Cades life by Li Onesto,she describes Bambara as a “political activist” (Onesto). This writer speaks about how Bambara was quite the little writer at a young age, especially for her Harlem community andshe would use her writing to fight back against the status quo. The writer says that “growing up in Harlem also taught Toni, early on, the importance of standing up against oppression” (Onesto). Bambara learned of the powerful force of words once one mastered its secrets.Bambara learned to see the invisible; the social injustices of peoples and expressed that life can change by making what was invisible, visible through a lens that magnifies the truth and spreads it through the mastery of words. Because of Cades background, she was able to implement what she grew up seeing into her writing, for example, “The Lesson” and use it to teach a truth about the social injustices of the time.It has been said that many if not most of her works are aimed to shed some light on this inequality as to see what we are fighting for.

I believe that this work of Bambara’s in particular, is about showing us what society makes us value and that if we look for it through a microscope, we can see and possibly make a change. In Literary Criticism, the author expresses that “the world as we know it can be changed from a place of bigotry, hatred, and conflict due to class struggle into a classless society in witch wealth, opportunity, and education are accessible for everyone” (Bressler 166). This right here is what Miss Moore was trying to teach those children. Miss Moore was trying to get these kids out of their comfort zone and force them to feel the alienation that is thrust upon them. The kids did feel it as they didn’t understand why they felt strange to go into a toy store that they had every right to go in. In Literary Criticism, the author says that Marxism claims that all peoples under oppression can free themselves once they recognize their bonds (Bressler 177). They key to all of this is seeing and recognizing the invisible but felt and acted upon social injustices that are inflicted on the lower-class peoples. Once seen through that metaphorical microscope, one can realize that life doesn’t have to be that way.

Life seen through a microscope would help so many who are blinded by what society tells us is valuable and what is not. What if you can’t afford a microscope in the society you live in? What if you are held back from rising in life because society keeps you down? “The Lesson” by Toni Cade Bambara is telling those who are oppressed to recognize the oppression and fight for a chance to be seen. This story is teaching those who are under social injustices to recognize that society shapes who we are, what we value and how we act but also that we don’t just have to accept it; we must recognize it and realize that life does not have to be that way, that you can fight back to be seen and fight back to be valued.


Works Cited

Bressler, Charles E. Literary Criticism: an Introduction to Theory and Practice. Pearson

Longman, 2011.

Cartwright, Jerome. “Bambara’s the Lesson.” The Explicator, vol. 47, no. 3, 1989, pp. 61,

ProQuest, https://ezproxy.queens.edu:2048/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/216771277?accountid=38688.

Onesto, Li. “In Memory, Toni Cade Bambara: Passing on the Story.” The Black Scholar, vol. 26,

  1. 2, 1996, pp. 42, ProQuest, https://ezproxy.queens.edu:2048/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/229836176?accountid=38688.

Bambara, Toni Cade. The Lesson. Responding to Literature: Stories, Poems, Plays, and

Essays. Ed. Judith A. Stanford. McGraw-Hill, 2006, p. 456- 462.


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