Subject The Lesson
Posted by sarita chuang
Posted on Sun Apr 30 09:58:24 2000
From IP  

Journal 2
Marxism declares that ultimate reality is material, not spiritual. The structure of society is built on a series of ongoing conflicts between social classes. The chief reason for these conflicts lie in the varying ways members of society utilize their economic resources. In America, the capitalists control their society's superstructure and its ideology, and impose the ideology either consciouly or unconsciously upon the working class. With power over superstructure, capitalists in America are able to keep the working class in check and determine the identities and actions of members of the working class.
In Bambara's "The Lesson", the protagonist Sylvia was made aware of the class difference and social inequality through the lesson from Miss Moore. In fact, I think Sylvia was already aware of the difference among social classes because even though Sylvia and her family live in the slums, Sylvia and her cousins despise the junk man and winos on their block. They know how to despise those who are even lower than their family in terms of class issues. But it was not until their visit to F. A. O. Schwarz that Sylvia experienced all sorts of uncomfortable feelings even she could not understand herself, and realized the restriction and confinement of her class. Her interaction with the other children, especially with Sugar, was also affected because of the awe and fear she held for F. A. O. Schwarz.
First, before examining the effects of F. A. O. Schwarz on Sylvia, we can look at the relationship between Miss Moore and the children. Their relationship is based on the idea of have and have-nots. As Kate mentioned in class, knowledge is also a kind of capital. What empowered Miss Moore to educate these children and made them listen to her lesson when the children just wanted to go out and play? The answer is probably her college degree. It's possible that Miss Moore is the only adult with a college degree in Sylvia's neighborhood. The knowledge Miss Moore possessed and her college degree placed her in a superior status, compared with other adults, like Sylvia's parents. Then, why did Sylvia scorn and even hate Miss Moore so mouch? Maybe the reason is that Miss Moore, trying to be the children's mentor, is actually influencing the children's thinkings and control their action, consciously or unconsciouly. In other words, Miss Moore is imposing her personal power on these children. The idea of have and have-nots also affects the interaction among this group of children. Take Mercedes for example that she was often jeered at by the other kids because she was the richer among them.
In "The Lesson", there is a shift of scenes from the slums to Fifth Avenue. From the moment Sylvia arrived at Fifth Avenue, she seemed naive although she appeared smart and self-conceited before. The purpose of the lesson is to teach the kids what real money means. At first, Sylvia couldn't make sense of the price of a paperweight. Then she felt stunned, shame, jealous and angry. The transition of feelings is very interesting and reflects how Sylvia got the lesson gradually. Sylvia said, "But What I got to be afraid about? Got as much right to go in as anybody." The quote shows the embedded idea that everybody is equal in American culture, but the idea "everybody is equal" is problematic itself. We all know that in a capitalist society, everybody is not equal, especially in terms of power relationship and how money is distributed.
Sylvia compared her feeling in F. A. O. Schwarz to that in the Catholic church, "so hushed and holy." In the huge toy store, Sylvia felt angry because she finally saw into the fact that members of society utilize their economic resources differently. Rich people spend thirty-five dollars on a toy clown, but the same amount of money could pay for various living necessities in Sylvia's household. Indeed, a huge store like F. A. O. Schwarz is a symbol of a highly capitalist society. The toys sold in F. A. O. Schwarz might be produced by laborers who receive little wages, but those laborers are excluded from their products, and alienated from any benefit that come along with those products. The fact that the working class cannot consume what the produce dawned on Sylvia, and was part of the lesson or enlightenment intended by Miss Moore.
In "The Lesson", Miss Moore tried to enlighten Sylvia and the other kids about the inequality in a capitalist society, but Sylvia was the only one who really got the lesson. At the beginning, Sylvia and Sugar were like best friends, but the gap between the two grew larger as Sylvia began to make sense of the meaning behind this F. A. O. Schwarz experience. In the end of the story, Sylvia decided to do some hard thinking, but Sugar's mind was still at playing and having fun. Therefore, it is quite symbolic that Sylvia and Sugar went into the opposite directions, Sylvia with a new awareness of her identity and her relationship with the society, but Sugar with not much growth.

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