In all historical periods, different societies established their own laws of behavior for the people who were subject to the ruling elite. These rules of conduct differed significantly throughout the time, but in almost all cases, the humans who had fewer rights than others were the females and the poor. The discrimination of these social groups is often a theme analyzed and investigated in the literature. Many writers created novels, short stories, and poems about the fates of people who were deprived of their freedoms due to the fact that they were born in the “wrong” social group. This theme is present in numerous works of Jamaica Kincaid and Toni Cade Bambara, but the content of the short stories “The Lesson” and “The Girl” is the most appropriate material for comparison and contrast. These works explore the theme of obeying and breaking the regulations but focus on different aspects of this problem and employ different literary techniques to support the main idea analyzed by the authors.
The most important characteristic feature of any literary work is its structure and the language the author uses to achieve the required aim. All of these aspects are presented in a different way in “The Girl” and “The Lesson.” Bailey writes, “Jamaica Kincaid's compact and succinct story "Girl" … has been lauded as one of the premier works in Kincaid's corpus, particularly her discourse on the making of "woman" in postcolonial Caribbean contexts”. This Kincaid’s story has the form of a single sentence. This sentence is divided into logical parts by numerous comas and semicolons, but the sentence covers about a page in the book. This short story is slightly similar to a poem as it consists of numerous anaphoric lines that are typical for poetry. This is how to sew on a button; this is how to make a button. Such monotonous repetition creates an atmosphere that does not imply any deviations from the established rules. The voice of the mother dominates the whole story. It has the form of an avalanche that never stops. She gives commands to the girl; her words are not the advice of a woman who is more experienced and knows life better. The mother in “The Girl” fully agrees to obey the regulations as she understands how much pain a rebellion can cause.
The verbs used by the mother highlight the necessity to obey, and these directions are overwhelming so that the girl is able to interrupt her mother only twice. Special attention should be paid to the phrases pronounced by the girl and their nature. It is interesting that at first, the girl tries to rebel. She is eager to defend herself from the accusation made by her mother. She says, “but I don't sing benna on Sundays at all and never in Sunday school” (Kincaid). However, later, she loses any desire to defend her own identity and her right to choose what she should do. At the end of the story, the only thing the girl manages to say is a question that is full of doubts and uncertainty.
Therefore, to a certain extent, both the stories are instructions to girls about the ways they should behave in their lives. However, the structure of “The Girl” clearly exposes the directions such as “this is how you set a table for dinner,” whereas Bambara’s work abounds in implicit directions (Kincaid). Nevertheless, these differences in the methods that the author used to describe the norms and rules of female behavior established by society do not have any impact on the main message of the stories. Both authors stress that there are some strict rules imposed by society. These rules can be of different nature; they can refer to the gender of the person, his/her social and economic status, and ethnicity. If the person breaks the rules and violates the borders, he/she will be certainly punished by the community that does not tolerate any rebellions.
Despite the fact that the protagonists of both stories are girls, “The Lesson” has a broader context than “The Girl”. Bambara’s work explores the issues that are focused not only on gender. The author explores the problems of the social division according to ethnicity and economic status. The fact that the protagonist is a girl does not play such an important role as in “The Girl.” In the scene when Miss Moore takes the children to a very expensive toy shop in the center of New York, both boys and girls being from poor families cannot understand how it is possible to spend such enormous sums of money on toys. “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?”. The social discrimination strikes the children as before this excursion to the rich district, they did not pay much attention to the differences between the rich and the poor.
In “The Lesson” Sylvia, the narrator is not the only person who tries to fight the existing rules. Miss Moore, her teacher, is not content with the established social norms. She does not want children to become an adult who is similar to a machine with the installed programs. She wants to educate them on how to think critically and solve the tasks offered by everyday life. This character is the one who guides the children, but the methods used by Miss Moore are obviously different from the ones described in “The Girl”. Miss Moore wants Sylvia and her friends to draw conclusions themselves. In fact, she does not speak much when they come to Fifth Avenue. She wants the children to grasp the inner logic of the world they are living in and understand whether it is fair or not. Only if they come to the right conclusions themselves, they will be able to build their lives in the manner they want. If the instructions are given as in Kincaid’s story, they will hardly ensue in true understanding. At the end of “The Lesson”, Sylvia is glad to remain alone for some time as she wants to analyze the information she received during the day. “I'm going to the West End and then over to the Drive to think this day through”.
According to the aforementioned, it is possible to argue that the main difference in the interpretation of the same theme is the results achieved by the instructors in “The Lesson” and “The Girl”. In Bambara’s work, Sylvia is inspired to work harder. She wants to stop being poor and reach the world of well-being and dignity where no one is going to oppress a person or limit any of his/her desires just because of ethnicity or socioeconomic status. “Ain't nobody gonna beat me at nuthin” is sure to become Sylvia’s motto throughout her life (Bambara). However, the future of the girl from Kincaid’s story is not so bright. In fact, it is not possible to determine what would happen to this girl and how her life would develop, but it is obvious that she is rather depressed at the end of the story. Perhaps, this enormous weight of rules and instructions may even break her will to live her life and gain the desired independence. Kincaid does not make the end of the story univocal and offers the readers to decide what events would follow happen in the life of the little girl who listens to her mother’s commands.
To add more dimensions into this analysis, it is also worth to compare the context of these short stories as it has a significant impact on the implementation of the main theme. Many of Kincaid’s short stories are written under the influence of her life in Antigua, and “The Girl” is not an exception. The mother in this story is a product of many years of slavery and oppression that the population of Antigua experienced from the British colonialists. Probably, the way the mother gives instructions to the girl is a recollection of the situations Kincaid faced when a teenager at Antigua that obtained independence only in 1981, more than a decade after Kincaid moved to New York. In addition, the facts about the life of the author suggest that in some respect, this story may be based on the biographical experience. In contrast to “The Girl”, Bambara’s story “The Lesson” has a different context that is largely characterized by rebellious movements developing in the middle of the twentieth century. Toni Cade Bambara was an activist in many feminist, human rights and Black Nationalist movements, and the story under analysis also contains many autobiographical motifs, but they originate from a different social sphere.
To conclude, “The Lesson” and “The Girl” are two short stories exploring the same theme of social rules and rebellion against them. However, preserving the identical message, they differ in the structure and the methods the authors used to express the key points of their ideology. In addition, there are crucial differences in the endings of these works that may mean that the protagonists’ lives would significantly differ in the future.