“The Lesson” by Toni Cade Bambara: Analysis

The issue of wealth distribution remains to be one of the foundational concerns in modern society despite decades of efforts to reduce the extent of inequality. In her short story “The Lesson,” Toni Cade Bambara touches upon a variety of important themes, yet the most poignant one appears to concern the issue of equity. Although the climactic moment of the story, at which Sylvia decides that she is not going to be surpassed by anyone, might seem unearned, it, in fact, indicates a crucial point in the story. Although Sylvia initially views Mrs. Moore as the member of the establishment to rebel against, she realizes after the field trip that the inequity in society is a much more important foe to fight.

The pivotal turn in Sylvia’s way of thinking about society and its hierarchy is quite evident in the story; in fact, it is hinted at from the very beginning. With the theme of wealth being raised from the moment when the students enter F.A.O. Schwartz, the conflict ascends gradually with every expensive item that they see in the store. It culminates in Sylvia’s discovery of luxury that people of the upper class can enjoy: “And I’m jealous and want to hit her” (Bambara, 1972, p. 2). However, as the story progresses, Sylvia realizes that the inherent injustice, which she observes in the ridiculous price tags, represents a much more serious problem than a single instance of injustice. Although Sylvia’s rebellious efforts are still misplaced at the end of the field trip, when she is shocked at Sugar’s willingness to engage in a dialogue with Mrs. Moore, she still experiences the change.

Sylvia’s understanding of the inherent injustice in the social hierarchy and the distribution of wealth represents a stupendous change in her character development and an important reflection on the main theme of the story. Although it is only at the end of the narration that she decides to make a change in her life, the described moment marks her development. Thus, the theme of wealth and social inequality is intertwined with the unique trajectory of her character’s evolution.


Bambara, T. C. (1972). The lesson. Web.