Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
As the narrator feels united with his brother and, by implication, with all humankind in shared sorrows, he reflects, “And I was yet aware that this was only a moment, that the world waited outside, as hungry as a tiger, and that trouble stretched above us, longer than the sky.” This opposition between moments of meaning in loving community and the terrifying, troubled, and apparently meaningless outside world pervades the story in theme and in technique.
The opposition appears in multiple guises. It appears in the housing project where the narrator lives, an attempt to impose order on the old dangerous neighborhood that fails when the project is transformed into merely a new version of the old dangerous neighborhood. The opposition is reflected in his memories of childhood, of being secure in families, not having yet to deal with the horrors of the world, and yet being aware even as a child, that with each passing moment, he came closer to having to live unprotected in the dark, chaotic world. It appears in the story of the death of his uncle: On a warm, beautiful night when the brothers were walking, enjoying each other’s company, a wild car suddenly swooped over a hill, to destroy a beloved brother. For African Americans in the middle of the twentieth century, racism is another of the dark forces of destruction and meaninglessness that must be endured. Beauty, joy, triumph, security, suffering, and sorrow are all creations of community,...
(The entire section is 380 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of Sonny's Blues Themes. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
In "Sonny's Blues," a man finally comes to understand the darkness and suffering that consumes his brother, and he begins to appreciate the music that his brother uses to calm those blues.
The main theme of "Sonny's Blues" is suffering, particularly the sufferings of black people in America. Although Baldwin presents only one example of overt racism in the story—the death of Sonny's uncle under the wheels of a car driven by a group of drunken whites—the repercussions of the treatment received by black people is omnipresent. Sonny's father is tormented by the memory of his brother's death and suffers from a hatred of white people as a result. This hatred, Baldwin suggests, warps his soul. Sonny's mother also suffers from the harshness of life in Harlem and from her knowledge that her younger son feels this suffering more strongly than most.
Sonny's brother, the narrator of the story, also suffers. Although he tries to block them out, the blues become apparent in the darkness that he sees everywhere, even in his students. He imagines them using heroin in the bathroom between classes and says that "their laughter ... was not the joyous laughter which—God knows why—one associates with children." For him, childhood has no joy.
His neighborhood, too, is "filled with a hidden menace" that the new housing project in which he and his wife live cannot hide. "It looks like a parody of the good, clean, faceless...
(The entire section is 702 words.)
Although Sonny first tries to relieve his pain by submitting to the mind-numbing effects of heroin, he almost simultaneously discovers that playing jazz provides him with a similar kind of escape from his worldly troubles. Baldwin makes a powerful statement about the affirmative and recuperative value of creativity, and "music," therefore, functions thematically on several levels. First, it provides a means by which Sonny can express his rage in a less self-destructive manner; second, because he is not an articulate speaker, music gives Sonny a non-linguistic medium through which to voice his feelings to his brother and thus re-establish family bonds which had been severely strained; and third, the music itself becomes a way to transmit the larger, historical story of the African-American experience.
When the narrator (who is ignorant, and even suspicious, of jazz) finally agrees to hear Sonny and his band play, he has an epiphany about the power of music as a means of communicating a shared experience. "He and his boys were up there keeping it new," he writes,
At the risk of ruin, destruction, madness and death, in order to find new ways to make us listen. For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it must be heard. There isn't any other tale to tell, it's the only light we've got in all this darkness.
As the narrator gets swept up in the...
(The entire section is 477 words.)