Theme of Poverty in William T. Vollmann's ‘Poor People’ and Toni Cade Bambara's ‘The Lesson’

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One may argue that poverty is an individual's choice rather than a reflection of society as a whole. Nelson Mandela once stated: “Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity, and a decent life. While poverty persists, there is no true freedom”. This statement expresses that an individual can defeat neediness if one wants to carry on with a superior life. In a novel called ‘Poor People’ composed by William T. Vollmann, the creator goes around various nations and spots to find out about needy individuals and to get a worldwide point of view. While meeting multiple types of individuals, Vollmann would pose them one inquiry: ‘For what reason would you say you are poor?’. Taking a gander at the peoples' answers, Vollmann saw that a portion of the individuals furnished very intriguing responses. Vollmann experienced a ton of circumstances where he couldn't envision what life would be if he were ever to live like that. Another epic that has a comparative neediness circumstance is considered ‘The Lesson’, composed by Toni Cade Bambara. Sylvia, the fundamental character of the novel, is an African American girl growing up in Harlem, New York. An elder, Miss Moore, encourages her to attend a trip centered on financial literacy. After taking the tour around her neighborhood, she becomes aware of the social and economic corruption that plagues her environment. The realization of her current state forces Sylvia to strive for financial success. Neediness has various implications in everybody's lives; however, by reading these two books, likenesses can be made about individuals living in poverty.

When making a trip to various places across the world and being in multiple types of societies, Vollmann discovered that religion holds a secure place in a person's identity. Amartya Sen, once stated, “Neediness isn't only an absence of cash; it can understand one's maximum capacity as an individual”. This statement implies that an individual can have cash yet, at the same time, live in poverty in light of their environmental upbringing. An individual imagines that they carry on with a healthy life since everybody around them is experiencing a similar style, and no one is surpassing anyone else. A genuine model that can identify with this statement is from the novel ‘Poor People’. Vollmann inquired as to whether he was poor or rich, the angler's answer was: “Great, not poor, and not rich. However, I am cheerful”. Another young lady's reaction to a similar inquiry was: “Allah picked. For me, it's no issue. What's more, I am glad” (pp.29-31).

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The statement implies that if an individual is discontent with their life or they have short of what another person does, they are substandard because they do not possess the material that others have. The individuals who said their lives are ordinary did not get opportunities to live in circumstances where experience was monetarily better. Another case of this is Sylvia from ‘The Lesson’. Sylvia lived in Harlem and had just enough money to survive, but not enough to join the higher-ups of society. The wealthy individuals that she saw experienced childhood in another culture and a more diverse nation. They come from better conditions, unlike being exposed to the dysfunctions of the ghetto. Every individual has their very own way of life, and nobody can change that since that is their way of life, and they feel that is how an individual should live. What is typical for one society can be diverse in other organizations. Each general public keeps their very own estimation of life, and contrast themselves with those qualities.

Similarly, as culture plays a role in poverty, so does reliance. Someone who lives in solitude does not get far in life because there is no one to reveal to them that what they are doing is correct or wrong. A case of this sort of individual is Sylvia. At the point when Sylvia enters the tour, she already has preconceived notions of Miss Moore's character. She is intimidated by Miss Moore's intellect and astuteness. Lack of education from an early age causes Sylvia to accept her economic conditions without any question. Sylvia has established a wall of complacency. One cannot understand that they are in dysfunction if they do not know of a more suitable way of living. Her life consists of many experiences, which prompted managing new issues each day. Gradually using sound judgment is what will inspire a superior experience later on — another comparative case of how reliance assumes a job in other's lives structures, the novel ‘Poor People’.

While going to the Philippines, Vollmann met a man named Gary. His life consisted of loneliness and financial struggles. He would go through his days riding on his bike and offering cocaine to local citizens. When Vollmann discovered Gary was American, Gary stated that his preferred living space would be Mexico. He says, “Over there, I'm nothing. I'm in the lower class and get no regard. Here, individuals know me and perhaps admire me a piece since I'm a family man, and I've made a home” (Vollmann, 228). The quote expresses Gary's state of life that, in different nations, people see that as living in poverty. Living in Mexico, having a house, and having the option to work is considered normal to a wealthy individual; however, when looking from Vollmann's viewpoint, Gary is content with having a miserable life. He does everything alone and even encouraged his significant other not to receive any information about what he does. He did not need an additional activity since he already earned a decent sum of cash and receives more money than others. Another reason for Gary not needing to find an alternate line of work is because the administration no longer had any command over him. He can do anything he desires and not worry about being trapped in a difficult situation. While Vollmann was in the Philippines, he went through his days riding with Gary to witness how he carried on with his life distributing cocaine. These two models show that reliance is a result of neediness. An individual who carries on with a lonely existence is bound to accomplish nothing in life than a person who has support from others around them.

Similar to dependence and culture, invisibility is another cause of poverty in these two books. As Vollmann travels to different places, he was able to visit Islamic countries. He met many people there, but women remained invisible to society. They were housewives and wore clothes that covered their entire bodies. No matter what class they are in, they are invisible to the world. Different societies have different perspectives and standards of poverty. When applying this to the older adults in Chiapas and the Indians, they are invisible to society. They were looked down upon by the rich. They are just there to do the dirty jobs and unpleasant work for cheap labor. Not all Indians are impoverished. Some do make it through and become wealthy. However, that does not mean that everyone has a respecting place in society. Cesar still doesn't say anything acceptable about them, even though they do not live in the worst conditions. As Mother Teresa stated: “The most terrible poverty is loneliness and the feeling of being unloved”. This quote says that a person does not have to live on the streets to experience poverty. Others around them are not loving them. One who has no friends to look up to, or any support from others around them, is in a worst situation than others who live an impoverished life. A person can have everything he needs in life, but live in a miserable condition due to living in solitude.

Although there is little rationality to the statement of 'poverty being one's own choice', this statement excludes the complete system of capitalism, which is correctly put in place to keep working-class individuals at the bottom of society. It is necessary to hold humans accountable for failing to reach their aspirations; however, an individual's accountability is not the driving force behind the centuries-old economic system. The poor are often not given jobs due to reasons such as age, disabilities, or lack of resources. Many people work long hours and still manage to be below the poverty line. Data shows that people living in these conditions are there due to causes that have no connection with laziness. Poverty, which is the secondary result of capitalism, is the lack of funds needed to supply basic needs. Poverty can manifest in multiple forms. For example, families experiencing generational poverty have been impoverished for numerous generations. Families suffering from generational poverty are more concerned with survival. They are focused on the daily issues that plague their lives, as opposed to the long-term challenges. They must find quick solutions to any problem that appears throughout their day. An individual has no control over the circumstances in which they were born. A child born into an impoverished family will most likely spend their childhood experiencing the effects of poverty. They are given little to no mental preparation by their caregivers, making them fall behind in their studies. Children born in these environments are also likely to be in poor health due to not receiving enough nutrients. There is still a possibility of experiencing poverty even in adulthood. A lack of education and resources to search for well-paying jobs are common factors. With all of this considered, poverty should not be summed down as a result of human will, but more so as a progressing outcome of how the framework is sorted out and the ways of least obstruction that shape how individuals take part in it.

In conclusion, both ‘The Lesson’ and ‘Poor People’ present similar situations that depict the struggles of being at the bottom of a capitalistic society. The self-realization of each individual's economic status brings about feelings of resentment, self-doubt, and alienation. Sylvia's circumstances were not the most appropriate in the beginning. She was forced to accept her life how it was due to only being shown one way of living. After being confronted with her reality, she decides to apply the information from the tour to her current life. She will rather use poverty as a motivation than a tool of defeat. The poor people, on the other hand, were weak and accepted the fact that it was normal. Yes, perhaps life was difficult for them because they could not always remain comfortable in poverty. However, they had a basic right to experience as much joy as they possibly could, under their unfortunate conditions. The writing styles of both stories allow readers to get a clear view of the people's perspectives and their inhumane treatments by the higher class.

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Theme of Poverty in William T. Vollmann’s ‘Poor People’ and Toni Cade Bambara’s ‘The Lesson’. (2023, September 08). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 15, 2024, from
“Theme of Poverty in William T. Vollmann’s ‘Poor People’ and Toni Cade Bambara’s ‘The Lesson’.” Edubirdie, 08 Sept. 2023,
Theme of Poverty in William T. Vollmann’s ‘Poor People’ and Toni Cade Bambara’s ‘The Lesson’. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 15 Jul. 2024].
Theme of Poverty in William T. Vollmann’s ‘Poor People’ and Toni Cade Bambara’s ‘The Lesson’ [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2023 Sept 08 [cited 2024 Jul 15]. Available from:

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