The age difference between Sonny and his older brother is crucial because the narrator initially has difficulty understanding the aspirations and weaknesses of his sibling. (And the parable of the prodigal son and the biblical refrain of "my brother's keeper" should resonate for many readers of this text.) The narrator is a high school algebra teacher, a home owner, and a family man, whereas Sonny drifts from place to place—at one time living with his brother, at another time staying with a white woman in Greenwich Village. Despite the significant differences between the two men, however, they are quite similar in the desire to escape their shared past. This is made evident in the narrator's thoughts upon those who live like animals in the housing tenements of Harlem. As he looks out his cab window while escorting Sonny back from prison, he muses:
Some escaped the trap, most didn't. Those who got out always left something of themselves behind, as some animals amputate a leg and leave it in the trap. It might be said, perhaps, that I had escaped, after all, I was a school teacher; or that Sonny had, he hadn't lived in Harlem for years. Yet, as the cab moved uptown through streets which seemed, with a rush, to darken with dark people, and as I covertly studied Sonny's face/it came to me that what we both were seeking through our separate cab windows was that part of ourselves which had been left behind. It's always at the hour of trouble...
(The entire section is 400 words.)
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Although the story is narrated by Sonny's unnamed older brother, Sonny is the most important character. Sonny is described in a common stereotype of the time, a stereotype that his own brother holds until the end of the story: the heroin-addicted jazz musician. Sonny has just been arrested for "peddling and using heroin'' and must do time in a prison upstate.
As the story progresses, however, the reader learns more about Sonny's life before the arrest. He was the "apple of his father's eye," but in his youth he always had a tendency to stray from what his family thought would be the safe route. He decides that he wants to be a jazz musician, a choice that his brother finds regrettable. Sonny takes his music very seriously, and for a time he lives with his sister-in-law's family while his brother is in the army. He takes his music so seriously that the family finds him strange—"it wasn't like living with a person at all, it was like living with sound."
Sonny and his brother fight periodically and are utterly unable to understand each other until Sonny returns from prison and his brother finally goes to Greenwich Village to hear Sonny play. A man named Creole leads the band, and Sonny admires his control of the music they play. As Sonny plays the piano in the jazz club, his brother begins to understand the deep suffering and the blues that have always preoccupied Sonny.
(The entire section is 245 words.)
Creole is a bass player who leads the band that Sonny plays in at the end of the story. He functions as a kind of father figure for Sonny; he believes it is his purpose to guide Sonny through his blues and teach him how to turn them into music. He also attempts to show Sonny's brother how to understand Sonny.
The experiences of Sonny are shown through the eyes of the story's narrator, Sonny's brother. The unnamed narrator is a high school algebra teacher who grew up in Harlem but has made an attempt to escape its cruel streets by getting a good job and integrating himself, as best he can, into white society. In subtle ways, however, he has internalized many of the prejudices of that society. When Sonny tells him that he wants to be a musician, his brother immediately assumes that this means a classical musician. After it becomes clear that Sonny wants to play jazz—a traditionally black genre—his brother thinks that "it seemed—beneath him, somehow."
While Sonny has allowed his blues to dominate his life, his brother has internalized his own blues; only rarely do they make it to the surface. He is married to a woman named Isabel and seems happy, although one of their children dies while Sonny is in jail. He looks upon the streets of Harlem as a place he has left behind, but he is still comfortable there. He feels the blues that possess Sonny, but his moderate success has allowed him to keep...
(The entire section is 434 words.)