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Reading Plato’s Allegory of the Cave in Bambara’s “The Lesson”

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  • Category: Allegory

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In establishing the meaning of Toni Cade Bambara’s short story “The Lesson” one will find an uncanny resemblance of the characters and their situation with Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” Hence, it will prove useful to read the story using Plato’s thesis in Allegory, which posits that human beings often only see a shadow of reality, which allows for various interpretations of the truth. Plato used the Allegory to demonstrate that while every human being is imbued with the capacity for learning, real knowledge will only be attained through rigorous scholarship and the development of an acute sense and critical understanding of what is really true and what are merely trapping and distractions. This paper will therefore identify Plato’s main arguments as reflected in Bambara’s The Lesson.

            The Allegory of the Cave starts with Socrates (presumably a teacher) describing to Glaucon (the student) a situation where human beings living all their lives in an  underground cave, their legs and necks chained, unable to see anything except things that are directly before them. A fire is blazing above and behind the humans from a distance while a low wall resembling the screen used by the marionette players in a puppet show stands between the fire and the prisoners. Socrates continues by juxtaposing the images of men passing along the wall, whom, we are told, are seen as shadows on the wall by the prisoners in the cave.  The activity of the chained characters then move from the perception of the shadows cast on the wall to attempting at creating a description of what they perceive, and when they hear the men talking they foolishly assume that it is the shadows on the wall who are doing so.

            Here, Plato likens the “unenlightened mind” to a chained human being whose vision of the world is superficial and myopic. This could also be interpreted as the state of one’s mind when one is young and has not had the benefit of extensive life experience. Bambara’s The Lesson echoes this when Sylvia, the narrator, begins her tale this way “back in the days when everyone was old and stupid or young and foolish and me and Sugar were the only ones just right this lady moved on our block with nappy hair and proper speech and no makeup,” which shows how the main character perceived that their truth was the ultimate Truth, much like the chained characters in the cave.

            The description of the “nappy hair and proper speech and no makeup” is therefore comparable to the shadow seen by the cave prisoners whom they are quick to label and judge according to their limited means. There is also a similarity in the setting of the two narratives: Bambara’s impoverished and marginalized Black community is similar to Plato’s cave in the sense that both are confining spaces that restrict its dwellers from mobility. In the former, the Blacks are confined by their poverty and pervasive racial discrimination from both socio-economic and educational mobility, while in the latter the humans are confined by their chains to ignorance.

            What follows next in The Lesson is that the lady, Ms. Moore, attempts to organize educational activities for the children, including Sylvia, despite grumbling from the parents. Ms. Moore takes it upon herself to attend to the learning of the children because, as Sylvia says, “she’d been to college and said it was only right that she should take responsibility for the young ones’ education.”

In this part Plato’s character of the human being who was able to go out of the cave into the real world and comes back to illuminate the others about it is easily identifiable in Ms. Moore’s character, who is portrayed by Bambara as a Black, educated woman who returns to the Black community to show the children what she had learned in the world outside the slums. This attempt to “enlighten” the children is shown further in the course of the story when “one day Miss Moore rounds [the children] all up at the mailbox and it’s puredee hot and she’s knockin herself out about arithmetic.”

            The task of the “enlightened,” however, does not come easy as Plato states that men who have long been accustomed to the darkness will naturally be terrified by the light of the sun. This is exactly what Miss Moore encounters from the parents and some of the children, especially Sylvia, who takes every opportunity to show her hatred for the “nappy-head bitch and her goddamn college degree.”

While Miss Moore is trying to open their eyes to learning, Sylvia is busy contemplating “ go[ing] to the pool or to the show where it’s cool,” which shows how the act of being able to look at all angles will pain the chained prisoner that Plato spoke of  once the prisoner is released and take the shadows as a far better reality than the new truth shown to him. Hence, the attitude of resistance and indignation that Sylvia felt with  “Miss Moore asking us do we know what money is,” and like the chained men who thought they knew the truth, felt “like we a bunch of retards.”

            There is also a parallelism between Miss Moore’s character and Socrates: both assume the role of the teacher or the “enlightened” who then takes the task of “enlightening” others, as reflected in the relationship between Socrates and Glaucon in Plato’s Allegory and Miss Moore’s and the children’s. Both claim to know of a  superior truth than their students which reflects in the huge difference between the teacher’s and the student’s definition of money in The Lesson: “I mean real money, she say, like it’s only poker chips or monopoly papers we lay on the grocer.”

            The tendency to prefer the “shadows” of the truth to “real” truth or Truth which Plato presented is further demonstrated by Sylvia’s thoughts during the fieldtrip:

So we heading down the street and she’s boring us silly about what things cost and what our parents make and how much goes for rent and how money ain’t divided up right in this country. And then she gets to the part about we all poor and live in the slums which I don’t feature.

           The ascent of the opening towards the real world in Plato’s Allegory is signified by the hailing of the cab in The Lesson. This is a relevant allusion to the fact that Bambara’s characters are leaving their old world behind and entering another one—or more appropriately, opening up their senses to a much bigger world—which is the world of the real and the true.

           During the trip, however, the children are still preoccupied with the “shadows” and do not bother about the “truth:” the protagonist is “mostly trying to figure how to spend this money” and the rest are “fascinated with the meter ticking and Junebug starts laying bets as to how much it’ll read when Flyboy can’t hold his breath no more.” There is also a plan towards escaping which shows how Sylvia and the others not only fail to understand or deliberately try to undermine Miss Moore; they also exert pressure on each other to frustrate the woman’s efforts:

 “Don’t nobody want to go for my plan, which is to jump out at the next light and run off to the first bar-b-que we can find.”

           The vast gap between the children’s world and the “real” world they now confront is also presented. Alienated by the “real” world, the children from the slums are therefore perplexed by the inanities shown to them:

Then we check out that we on Fifth Avenue and everybody dressed up in stockings. One lady in a fur coat, hot as it is. White folks crazy.

           It is here in their foray into the real world that Sylvia and her cousins discover things they do not even know and sense that there are truths and realities different than theirs. They wonder for instance why seemingly mundane things should cost a lot of money:

“This here costs four hundred eighty dollars,” say Rosie Giraffe. So we pile up all over her to see what she pointin out. My eyes tell me it’s a chunk of glass cracked with something heavy, and different-color inks dripped into the splits, then the whole thing put into a oven or something. But for $480 it don’t make sense.

            The turning point of Bambara’s story therefore resonates with Plato’s description of the truth being painful comparable to the glare of the sun. Sylvia and the others begin to question how a completely different world could exist side by side with the world they knew. Realizing this made them felt ashamed of their presence, knowing that they were not a part and did not belong to this “real” world. This sense of alienation and injustice, that they have been excluded from what was “true,” stir feelings of contempt and anger in the protagonist who by now clearly sees that difference through comparison of the two worlds:

 I could see me askin my mother for a $35 birthday clown. “You wanna who that costs what?” she’d say, cocking her head to the side to get a better view of the hole in my head. Thirty-five dollars could buy new bunk beds for Junior and Gretchen’s boy. Thirty-five dollars and the whole household could go visit Grand-daddy Nelson in the country. Thirty-five dollars would pay for the rent and the piano bill too. Who are these people that spend that much for performing clowns and $1000 for toy sailboats? What kinda work they do and how they live and how come we ain’t in on it?

Here, Sylvia grapples with the knowledge that “Where we are is who we are,”  and attempts to come to terms with what Miss Moore was “always pointin out.” She also genuinely tried to figure out why the “teacher” keeps telling them “it don’t necessarily have to be that way” and then “waits for somebody to say that poor people have to wake up and demand their share of the pie.” This creates feelings of frustration and helplessness for the protagonist since “don’t none of us know what kind of pie she talking about in the first damn place,” reflecting the confusion her encounter with the “real” world has stirred up.

            A critical change inevitably happens, not with the whole group but so some of its members who learned the “lesson.” Plato acknowledged that “in the world of knowledge the idea of good appears last of all, and is seen only with an effort; and, when seen, is also inferred to be the universal author of all things beautiful and right, parent of light and of the lord of light in this visible world, and the immediate source of reason and truth in the intellectual.”

And so it is with Sylvia and her cousins: only Sylvia and Sugar are able to delve beneath the distraction of the toys and the numerous other things they saw to discover what Miss Moore was trying to teach them, which is the inequality of the society they were in which enabled some to gain unprecedented wealth while hindering others from achieving humane living standards.

However, while both of them appear to have learned well, only Sylvia is seen to have completely “acquired the habit,” which Plato claims enables men to “see ten thousand times better than the inhabitants of the cave” and enables them to refrain from reverting back into the prisoners enamored by shadows because they “know what the several images are, and what they represent,” having  “seen the beautiful and just and good in their truth.” At the end of the story Sugar reverts to their old ways, challenging Sylvia to a race and thinking of the things they could buy with money they pilfered from Miss Moore, while Sylvia is seen walking calmly and reflecting on “the lesson” that the “teacher” showed them that day.

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