The narrator, a teacher in Harlem, has escaped the ghetto, creating a stable and secure life for himself despite the destructive pressures that he sees destroying so many young blacks. He sees African American adolescents discovering the limits placed on them by a racist society at the very moment when they are discovering their abilities. He tells the story of his relationship with his younger brother, Sonny. That relationship has moved through phases of separation and return. After their parents’ deaths, he tried and failed to be a father to Sonny. For a while, he believed that Sonny had succumbed to the destructive influences of Harlem life. Finally, however, they achieved a reconciliation in which the narrator came to understand the value and the importance of Sonny’s need to be a jazz pianist.
The story opens with a crisis in their relationship. The narrator reads in the newspaper that Sonny was taken into custody in a drug raid. He learns that Sonny is addicted to heroin and that he will be sent to a treatment facility to be “cured.” Unable to believe that his gentle and quiet brother could have so abused himself, the narrator cannot reopen communication with Sonny until a second crisis occurs, the death of his daughter from polio. When Sonny is released, the narrator brings him to live with his family.
The middle section of the story is a flashback. The narrator remembers his last talk with his mother, in which she made him promise to “be there” for Sonny. Home on leave from the army, he has seen little of Sonny, who is then is school. His mother tells him about the death of his uncle, a story she had kept from him until this moment. His uncle, much loved by his father, was killed in a hit-and-run accident by a group of drunken whites who miscalculated in an attempt to frighten the young man. The pain, sorrow, and rage this event aroused colored his father’s whole life, especially his relationship with Sonny, who reminded him of his brother. She tells the narrator this story partly in order to illustrate that there is no safety from suffering in their world. The narrator cannot protect Sonny from the world any more than his father could protect his own brother. Such suffering is a manifestation of the general chaos of life out of which people struggle to create some order and meaning. Though suffering cannot be avoided, one can struggle against it, and one can support others in their struggles.
From this conversation, the narrator brings the story forward through his marriage and return to the army; Sonny’s announcement at their mother’s funeral that he intends to be a jazz pianist; Sonny’s attempt to live with the narrator’s wife’s family, teaching himself piano while the narrator is away at war; the failure of this arrangement; Sonny’s term in the navy; and, after the war, a final break between the brothers because of the narrator’s inability to accept Sonny’s way of life. The narrator then explains the suffering he and his wife felt at the death of their daughter, suffering that made him want to write to Sonny at the treatment center and that finally began to make him appreciate the importance of having someone to talk to, a source of comfort in suffering.
In the final third of the story, the narrator and Sonny come to an understanding that seems to reconcile them. The narrator is very worried that Sonny will return to heroin. Sonny invites the narrator to hear him play piano with a group in a Greenwich Village club. When the narrator accepts this invitation, Sonny tries to explain why he took heroin. Heroin is a way to try not to suffer, a way to take control of inner chaos and to find shelter from outer suffering. Though he knows that ultimately heroin cannot work, he also knows that he may try it again. He implies that with someone to listen to him, he may succeed in dealing with “the storm inside” by means of his music:You walk these streets, black and funky and cold, and there’s not really a living ass to talk to, and there’s nothing shaking, and there’s no way of getting it out, that storm inside. You can’t talk it and you can’t make love with it, and when you finally try to get with it and play it, you realize nobody’s listening. So you’ve got to listen. You got to find a way to listen.
At the nightclub, the narrator understands what Sonny means when he finally hears him play. He sees that Sonny’s music is an authentic response to life. He sees that one who creates music “is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air.” He understands that his brother’s music is an attempt to renew the old human story: “For while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.” Having witnessed Sonny’s struggle to play “his blues,” the narrator recognizes that those blues are humankind’s blues, that Sonny’s music gives the narrator and all people a way of finding meaning in their pains and joys. This perception enables the narrator to accept his brother, the life he has chosen, and the risks he must incur.