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,
"...it 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.