Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 947 words.)
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"Sonny's Blues" opens as the narrator learns from a newspaper that his younger brother, Sonny, has been arrested for dealing heroin. The narrator is taking the subway to his high-school teaching job. At the end of the school day, the "insular and mocking" laughter of his students reminds him that as youths he and Sonny had been filled with rage and had known "two darknesses"—the one of their lives and the one of the movies that made them momentarily forget about their lives. Leaving the school, the narrator comes across an old friend of Sonny's in the school yard.
While Sonny's friend and the narrator talk about Sonny's arrest, they tell each other some of their fears. In front of a bar that blasts "black and bouncy'' music, the friend, who is not given a name, says that he "can't much help old Sonny no more.'' This angers the narrator because it reminds him that he himself had given up trying to help his brother because he had not known how; indeed, he had not even seen Sonny in a year. It disturbs the narrator to see his situation shared by someone who is not even related to Sonny. The friend mentions that he thought Sonny was too smart to get caught in a drug bust. In anger, the narrator criticizes the friend, sarcastically implying that the friend must have been smarter since he had not been arrested himself. The friend pauses and replies that he would have killed himself a long time ago if he were really smart, implying that he believes death is...
(The entire section is 977 words.)