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An Unwelcome Lesson

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Ryan Richter English V01­B 7 March 2014 An Unwelcome Lesson In nearly all tales, myths and stories, a hero is set on a journey into the unknown. The hero acquires knowledge and skill, his mettle is tested, and by success or failure he learns something about himself or the world he lives in. Often the acquisition of skill and knowledge is obtained via the work of a guide or mentor. In both “The Lesson” by Toni Cade Bambara and “Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, the protagonist is visited by a maligned guide who exploits their vulnerabilities, manipulating each towards a sobering epiphany, and thereby changing their world view for better or worse. Each of the two protagonists perceives their guide as a foe. In “The Lesson” Sylvia is a willful and irreverent young girl, who is immediately distrustful of her guide in the story, Ms. Moore. Ms. Moore is an oddity in the unnamed slum of New York. She always dresses like she’s going to church, she’s college educated, and inordinately concerned with the educational welfare of the children in her neighborhood (654)1. It is this outsider status that initially puts Sylvia on guard. However, Sylvia is not impervious to the machinations of her teacher. Though Sylvia loathes Ms. Moore’s condescending questions, they are ultimately effective in their goal. Sylvia is also vulnerable due to her need of a social medium. Sylvia is at the top of the pecking order among her friends, and has a sense of responsibility and community with the group. Though she’d never admit it Sylvia is tied to the neighbor kids, as seen in her preoccupation with their social hierarchy throughout the story. Sylvia’s poverty also puts her in a

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All page references, given parenthetically within the essay, refer to stories in Sylvan Barnet et al., eds., Literature for Composition, 10th ed. (New York: Pearson, 2014).

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prime position to appreciate the cognitive dissonance that is to be the bulk of the days lesson. These and other flaws in Sylvia’s bulwark against education are exploited by the cunning Ms. Moore. Ms. Moore first exploits Sylvia’s attachment to the group by appealing to her authoritarian nature. Ms. Moore places Sylvia in charge of half the kids during their journey into the city. The physical manifestation of this authority is the five dollars Ms. Moore gives her to pay for their taxi, presaging the power that money is to play in the coming lesson. This money is very important to Sylvia; who is only used to pennies, dimes, or quarters doled out sparingly from her parents. Ms. Moore takes advantage of both Sylvia’s poverty and sense of authority over the group to create the desired behavior, compliance. While Sylvia would rather “run off to the first bar­b­que” (655) to spend her unexpected bounty “don’t nobody want to go for [her] plan” (655), and she’s not the kind of person to run off by herself. Later when they reach their destination, FAO Schwarz, the children are out of their element. One of the oldest and most famous toy stores in the world should naturally be a haven for all children, yet all except the spoiled Mercedes, feel like trespassers, as evidenced by the pile up at the store's entrance. Both Sylvia and her sister, Sugar, feel a deep sense of shame and are unwilling to enter (657). It is a sign that they are both already primed to take in the day’s lesson. Ms. Moore has a captive ­if hostile­ audience, and drives the lesson home with a toy sailboat. A children’s toy that costs over a thousand dollars, more than each of them “put together eat in a year” as Sugar later realizes (658). It is Sugar who triggers Sylvia’s slow epiphany about the world, and her place in it. Sugar encapsulates the injustice of their situation with the lines “this is not much of a democracy… equal chance to pursue happiness means equal crack at the dough” (659), yet here they have just seen evidence the inequality in their world. If rich white people can afford to buy thousand dollar sail boats for their children, while the people in Sylvia’s neighborhood barely scrape by, then something must be

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wrong. Something is keeping them poor while it keeps the white folks rich. For Sylvia, an already unfriendly world just revealed itself to be all the more hostile. Many would see this as an excuse to give up. For Sylvia, an already headstrong little girl, this knowledge is empowering. The world’s unfair and out to put her down, but she won’t let it. Luckily, she has a good role model for how to overcome these challenges in Ms. Moore, if Sylvia can get over her distaste for Ms. Moore’s superciliousness. The titular protagonist of “Young Goodman Brown” is not so blessed by his lesson. He begins the story a proud member of his puritan society. Believing himself to be wholly secure in his faith, he seeks to test his faith and thereby strengthen it. However, he is naive and, as an adherent of the puritan faith, all too able to believe that his friends, neighbors, and fellow parishioners hide their dark sinful natures behind a veneer of sanctimony and propriety. This makes him easy prey for his sinister guide, who is to walk with him in the unknowable darkness and isolation of the wilderness. The only pillar of support to which he holds ardently is his wife Faith, herself a representation of Brown’s faith in his religious convictions. Even she will falter in his eyes. Brown is seeking a true conversion experience, like that of St. Paul, and he finds it, though it is not what he hoped for. He is instead, slowly and by degrees, divested of his faith by Satan himself. In what is later revealed to be a hallucination, he is lead by his guide into the forest to a satanic communion ritual. Along the way Brown repeatedly calls for an end to his journey, but the devil proves too convincing and manipulative for Brown. Satan seems all too reasonable. At the beginning he only asks for the opportunity to convince Goodman Brown as they make their journey, and if Brown is not persuaded then he can return to his Faith. In this way the devil is only stalling for time, because he knows the more Brown thinks on his dark lesson the more complete his conversion will be. Brown

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attempts a valiant effort to rebuff the devil using one of the central tenets of his puritan faith, community. This proves fruitless as he calls on the piety of his forefathers, his minister, and his fellow believers; which the devil reveals to all be followers of his own dark faith. In this way the devil gains the advantage as he both counter’s Brown’s argument and turns them against him. His last bastion of hope is his wife, Faith. It seems at first that Brown will not be convinced, but he is weary and the devil implores him “you will think better of this by and by… sit here and rest yourself awhile” (643). Brown acquiesces and the devil leaves, his work primarily done. It is then that Brown sees more proof of his community's corruption in the form of the minister and deacon of his church hurrying off to the devil’s ceremony. This still does not shake him, but his eventual undoing is hinted at. The deacon and the minister talk of a young woman to be converted in the nights rituals. It is revealed to Brown through the sound of voices carried on the wind that his wife is to be the nights convert, even though the devil promised that he wished no harm would come to Brown’s Faith near the beginning of their journey. This is what breaks him. The one aegis he had left is now plucked from him. Brown’s great epiphany from the loss of his faith is that mankind is flawed, and any claims of redemption and piety are the ravings of a hypocritical madman. The consequences of his conversion experience are a dark cynicism. The central tenet of his faith, that unshaken ardent faith in God will redeem and purify man of the sin inherent to his nature, is based on a lie told by those he trusted most. He spends the rest of the short story isolated from his community. Feeling none of the warmth and security his faith once gave him. He is forever lost. “The Lesson” and “Young Goodman Brown” each offer a demonstrative example of how we as people cope ­or don’t­ with uncomfortable truths. In Brown’s tale, he discovers that all that he trusted as pure and righteous in humanity is flawed and corruptible, and this knowledge ruins him. In “The

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Lesson” Sylvie’s epiphany is much less damaging, and in fact prepares her for her future in an unfair world. It certainly helps that Sylvie’s character is that of a willful child, and her guide through the lesson is benevolent. Ms. Moore frames the lesson to engender indignance and defiance, not hopelessness and helplessness. This illustrates the good that can come from a mentor that has your best interests at heart. In their own way each of the stories are an indictment of the cultures that each author abhors, and features a guide to draw the protagonist and the reader to the truth of that culture. These guides expose to the protagonists and ourselves, flaws and weaknesses, and how we might avoid the pitfalls that are apart of reality. What to do with this knowledge is up to the individual.

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Work Cited Bambara, Toni Cade. “The Lesson.” Literature for Composition. Ed. Sylvan Barnet, William Burto, and William E. Cain. 10th ed. New York: Pearson, 2014. 654­659. Print. Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Young Goodman Brown.” Literature for Composition. Ed. Sylvan Barnet, William Burto, and William E. Cain. 10th ed. New York: Pearson, 2014. 640­647. Print.…...

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