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John Smith

ENG 110

A Difference in Perspective:
An Analysis of Narration in Toni Cade Bambaras The Lesson and James Joyces Araby

Try to see things from my perspective. When deriving meaning from a series of
events, the perspective a person has the lens they see the world through can create all the
difference between one interpretation and another. One might initially think, then, that a first
person perspective in a story would give unparalleled understanding, in essence being able to tap
directly into a characters own experience. Indeed, first person points of view have been used for
millennia to create a strong connection between the reader and story, and the technique has
translated well from literature to other art forms such as experimental films and electronic
gaming to create an incredibly immersive experience. But in fictional literature, we seek not
only immersion, but understanding and deeper meaning.

In this sense, is the first person

narrative truly most powerful? Do we, as human beings capable of free thought, with our
prejudices and dispositions, always understand our lives completely in the moment, without time
to process and reflect upon events?

This gives rise to two subtly but distinctly different

techniques of the first person narrative: that where the protagonist narrates events as they
happen, as in Toni Cade Bambaras The Lesson, and that where the narrator has had time to
evaluate and reflect on events before passing them on to their audience, as in James Joyces
famous work Araby. One could argue that while the former is a more immersive narrative
device for the reader, and allows them to easily evaluate the story and reach their own
conclusions and interpretations, the latter can be a more explicit way to impart wisdom and
deeper understanding, through a character who has already achieved such.

Bambaras The Lesson actually begins in a way that would imply it is being told in this
manner. It seems at first to be written in the past tense, as the leading sentence begins with the
line Back in the days when everyone was old and stupid or young and foolish and me and Sugar
were the only ones just right (Bambara, 1) that the narrator may feel differently now than she
did at the time of the story. As the story progresses, however, it becomes clear that Sylvia, the
narrator, is telling events as they happen, with perfect clarity of the thoughts and emotions that
pass through her mind and body over the course of the narrative. Immediately after the first
paragraph, once Miss Moore has been established as a character, the verb tense quickly
undergoes a shift to the present tense, with statements like Miss Moore rounds us all up and
Me and Sugar [are] leaning on the mailbox being surly (Bambara, 2).

The level of attention to each detail of the story is not one that would be expected to be
remembered years later by a more world weary narrator, as she recalls every characters actions
the morning of the lesson, from Fat Butt already wasting his peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich
like the pig he is to Rosie Giraffe shifting from one hip to the other waiting for somebody to
step on her foot so she can kick ass (Bambara, 2), and the language is very colloquial, in a
style that is perhaps reminiscent to some readers of Mark Twains Adventures of Huckleberry
Finn and other novels of historical fiction. This gives the reader the sense that they are stepping
directly into the protagonist Sylvias mind, experiencing her exact feelings on the matter, which
creates both a reliable and unreliable narrator, in a certain sense. A narrator so focused on
immediate thoughts and feelings may not be the best suited to introduce other characters
objectively, to give them fair representation so to speak, but this is not Miss Moores story, nor is

it Fat Butts or Rosie Giraffes or any other characters. It is Sylvias, and who better to tell it
than Sylvia herself? Through the lens of this first-person narrative, a diverse audience (some of
whom may have had difficulty relating to a story of poverty in Harlem) can connect very well to
Sylvia, and understand the exact moment that Miss Moores lesson begins to get through to her.
The reader can share Sylvias absolute shock at the sailboats price in paragraph 26, her anger
when she starts to realize the unfair distribution of wealth in her society, her surprise when Sugar
rises up against her and pushes her foot off, and her eventual determination when she declares
that, from now on, aint nobody gonna beat me at nuthin (Bambara, 58). The audience
shares everything with Sylvia, step by step, and (if they give conscious thought to the narrative)
learn the same lesson and are filled with the same determination alongside Sylvia.

Similarly to The Lesson, Araby by James Joyce could be described about a boy
living in a relatively poor family learning about a lesson in life and experiencing a shift in his
world view because of it. He experiences a very different kind of lesson, however. In The
Lesson, a narrator telling events through direct third person and the present tense learns about
the material world and acquires a determination to achieve her goals. In Araby, on the other
hand, a narrator telling events years later, with new insight, learns a lesson about emotion that
derides his optimism and crushes his spirit. The most immediate difference in narration, as has
already been touched upon, is the past tense through which events are told, as the boy and his
friends returned to the street and hid in the shadows (Joyce, 3). The narrator also uses
language and reaches insight that would not typically be expected of a young boy, as in his final
revelation, I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity (Joyce, 37).

This leaves the reader with the impression that there are two narrators, in a sense: the boy
experiencing the events of the story, and his older self, remembering the chain of events that led
to his disillusion, and recounting them with new insight and even some humor at his own
expense. Unlike Sylvia in The Lesson, this older narrator is sharply aware of his flawed
motives and futile endeavor, but cannot be expected to remember every detail of events with
sharp clarity; in fact, he even forgets whether I answered yes or no to Mangans sister when
asked whether he would be going to the bazaar (Joyce, 7). He does, though, remember very
clearly the emotions and feelings he experienced at this tumultuous time in his life. He recalls
how at times a flood from [his] heart seemed to pour itself out into [his] bosom at thoughts of
Mangans sister (Joyce, 5), and her idealized image, how the light caught the white curve of
her neck, lit up her hair that rested there and lit up the hand upon the railing ( 9). His
audience is roped into experiencing the same passionate fervor he once did for the girl, even
though his younger self could not realize that she was joining a convent and would never be
attainable, creating a tragic irony around his romantic longing and one that he as an older man is
now aware of. He knows that he, as a boy, was too focused on his own clumsy attempts at
romance and at his own anguish at the injustice of the world to be reasonable about the people
and the world around him.

These two stories both use a first person perspective, giving their audience a narrative
straight from the source, but highlight how a subtle shift in technique can create a dramatic
change in context and delivery. Both create traditional coming of age stories and speak of
injustice in the world. But Bambaras The Lesson shows a young girl who thinks she has the
world figured out and comes to the eventual realization that there may be more to life than what

she knows, while Joyces Araby provides a narrator who has become disillusioned with his
early endeavors of the heart, telling the story of how he came to his revelation. Sylvia casts an
incredibly sharp eye on physical events while occasionally missing the point of things, while
Joyces narrator may forget events, but never an emotion. In the end, both are incredibly
valuable stories, speaking of universal truths and worthy of being passed down through
generations, but accomplishing this through distinctly different means of storytelling.