How do the brothers differ in "Sonny's Blues"?

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The brothers are different in that the narrator is the older, practical, responsible, reasonable brother while Sonny is younger dreamer who tends to be unstable and irresponsible and who gets into trouble.

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In James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues," the narrator is the practical, reason-driven older brother, while Sonny is the younger dreamer and artist who tends to be a little (and sometimes more than a little) unsteady.

The narrator is a responsible person. He went into the military after finishing high school and then earned his college degree and became a teacher. He now spends his days teaching algebra, and we can see that his mind works along the absolutes of mathematics. He has a practical mind, logical and rational. He is also a family man, and he strives to do his best to take care of the people he loves.

This is why the narrator is so bothered by what has happened to his brother, Sonny. Even though the narrator promised his mother that he would watch out for his brother, he could not keep that promise no matter how hard he tried or what he did. This bothers his sense of responsibility, and it makes him rather angry, too.

Part of the problem is that Sonny has a much different personality than that of his brother. He is creative, artistic, and a little flighty. He decides one day that he wants to be a musician, and he throws himself into that goal completely. Yet he ignores everything else. He stops going to school. He fails to live up to his responsibilities. He seems to be able to commit himself to only one thing at a time.

Sonny is also easily influenced by other people, especially by the musical crowd into which he wants to fit. He resents his brother's guidance because he wants to follow his own path, but he doesn't realize the risks of that path. Sonny's instability led him into drugs, and he gets caught up into that life and goes out of control. His poor choices land him in prison. At the end of the story, though, Sonny seems to find himself again through his music and to put that music back at the center of his life where it belongs.

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In "Sonny's Blues," what are the differences between Sonny's personality and his elder brother's?

There are those who have read James Baldwin's powerful story who have also felt the musicality of the words and the arrangement of time.  And, just as there is both the intellectual and the sensual perception of this one narrative, so, too, are the narrator and his brother two parts of a whole.  In a manner of speaking, then, Sonny is the darker side of the narrator.

For, it is the sensual personality, suffering in his private world, seeking escape in heroin, meaning in music that is Sonny; while it is the intellectual personality, the Algebra teacher, fighting logically against his Harlem neighborhood by living in a better building, by being educated, by attempting to dwell in the cerebral areas that is the narrator.  With the age and personality difference between them, little communication and understanding is effected.

Not until his daughter Gracie dies does the narrator begin to realize that he and Sonny share anything:  "My trouble made his real."  After having been in drug rehabilitation, the narrator talks with Sonny, now living with him, who tells him what he has realized as he has just listened to a street singer,

" struck me all of a sudden how much suffering she must have had to go through--to sing like that. It's repulsive to think you have to suffer that much."

I said:  "But there's no way not to suffer--is there, Sonny?"

At this point, the narrator realizes that Sonny has needed "human speech to help him."  As they talk, however, Sonny points out their difference:  the narrator is "hung up" on the way some people try to deal with their suffering.  The narrator explains that he does not want Sonny to die from heroin or drugs in his attempt not to suffer. Touched, Sonny tries to explain that there is a "storm inside" that he tries to play, but he realizes sometimes that "nobody's listening."  Nevertheless, knowing that his brother is now listening Sonny bares his soul to him, confessing that even though he ran from the drugs in Harlem, he was "at the bottom of something" on heroin.  "I had to try to tell you," he says.

The narrator listens, he thinks about what Sonny has said.  Whereas his intellectualism and emotional distance has kept him from understanding Sonny, now he begins to feel what is in the heart of his brother, having suffered himself from the loss of his daughter.  In the nightclub as the narrator listens, hearing the evocations of the music; he begins to understand,

But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air.  What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason.  And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours.

As Sonny fills the piano with his own "breath of life," the narrator recognizes that Sonny becomes part of the "family" of musicians playing.  And he is the listener, the other side:

Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did.

Both Sonny and his brother, the narrator, suffer from the blues.  But it is for Sonny to tell of this suffering, for he feels it so poignantly; and, it is for the narrator to listen to the darker side of his being so that he can share in his brother's burden and give meaning to both their sufferings, emotional and intellectual.

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How is Sonny characterized by his brother in "Sonny's Blues"?

Much like a musical piece, James Baldwin's short story begins with an initial striking note as the narrator is suddenly confronted with memory and the present simultaneously as he reads the newspaper report of Sonny.  After having pushed his brother from his mind for years, the narrator reads one day about Sonny's arrest, and"[H]e became real" to him again, but the image is of the stereotypical heroin-addicted musician. And, yet like a "great block of ice" slowly melting, the brother recalls one specific thing or another about Sonny. He listens to the music of memory that he has kept outside himself for years; he hears it in the laughter of the boys he teaches,

It was not the joyous laughter which--God knows why--one associates with children. It was mocking and insular, its intent was to denigrate.  It was disenchanted,...and in them I heard my brother.  And myself.

This brother Sonny is the dark side of the narrator.  Then, the narrator hears one boy whistling, who is like Sonny for whom music assuages his soul,

at once very complicated and very simple,...[the tune] pouring out of him as though he were a bird, and it sounded very cool,,,holding its own through all those other sounds.

After the narrator encounters an old friend of Sonny's, who is also a heroin addict, he is unsympathetic to him and abrupt; however, when the man says, "I felt sort of responsible" for Sonny's addiction, the narrator remarks, "I began to listen more carefully." The man tells the narrator that Sonny had asked him to describe how heroin felt, and he said "it felt great." The narrator is suddenly immersed into the "menacing" world known to Sonny and his friend. He realizes that Sonny will die if he does not stop his addiction.  And, yet, he does not communicate with Sonny for some time--not until his daughter dies and he, then, understands heartache. At this point there is a break in the narrative, and in her essay "James Baldwin's 'Sonny's Blues': A Message in Music," Suzy Bernstein Goldman contends this is the end of the first musical movement. 

After he writes to Sonny, his younger brother replies to him, asking if he would meet him in New York when he is released. When Sonny arrives they drive through the old neighborhood, the "killing streets of our childhood" which has changed little. Again the narrator mentions the "menace" which is the area's "very breath of life."  For one thing, the narrator's complacency is threatened; he only wants to hear that Sonny has beaten his addiction and is safe, and no longer an addict.

Then, in a movement of flashbacks, the narrator recalls his mother's concern for Sonny's safety; he remembers when Sonny lived with him and his family and Sonny played the piano constantly, as though he were "playing for his life." Later, listening to Sonny from his own dark corner in the nightclub, the narrator realizes that his "trouble" has made Sonny's real for him as he, too, has "played" a role for his life. 

Having witnessed a street revival, Sonny returns with his musical walk and he recalls "how much suffering she must have gone through--to sing like that," and the narrator knows, too, that suffering cannot be escaped.  So, as he listens to Sonny's music at the club, the narrator also listens to Sonny's and his own sufferings.  Sonny has told him that when he took heroin, he often felt the most creative, but he was tortured, "at the bottom of something." All of this emotion is suffused in Sonny's music, the music of his soul. As "freedom lurked about us,"  the narrator and Sonny both are liberated momentarily from their suffering through the musical power of "Sonny's blues"which gives meaning to their fraternity.

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