How does the narrator in "Sonny's Blues" cope with fear and pain?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The narrator of James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues" seems to cope with fear and pain by not really coping with them at all. In the beginning of the story, when he reads about Sonny's arrest in a newspaper, the narrator reacts with denial:

It was not to be...

See
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

The narrator of James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues" seems to cope with fear and pain by not really coping with them at all. In the beginning of the story, when he reads about Sonny's arrest in a newspaper, the narrator reacts with denial:

It was not to be believed and I kept telling myself that . . . I was scared, scared for Sonny. He became real to me again. A great block of ice got settled in my belly and kept melting there slowly all day long . . . but it never got less.

This passage indicates that his initial denial is followed by a sense of fear. He is obviously concerned about his brother. In the past, when Sonny told him that he wanted to be a jazz musician, the narrator worried about how Sonny's non-conventional life would turn out. The arrest is an example of his fears being realized. At the same time, it seems that his relationship with his brother has become quite distant. It seems to have been too painful for the narrator to think about his brother at all. Now that he knows of his brother's whereabouts, Sonny "became real . . . again." The narrator must face his fear and pain. This is why the ice that forms in him never really lessens; it is a burden the narrator cannot free himself from.

When Sonny gets out of jail, he and the narrator spend some time together, and the narrator even goes to see Sonny play his music. Seeing Sonny in his true element allows the brothers to establish a more meaningful bond. However, the story ends on a sort of ambiguous note, with the biblical allusion to "the very cup of trembling." This suggests that even though the brothers have reconnected, Sonny will still face troubles, and the narrator will have to find a way to cope with his anxiety and pain. Both characters need strategies for this, but Sonny says music helps him to work through those emotions. The narrator will need to find his own coping mechanism, as most of the story shows him avoiding what causes him pain.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Throughout most of the story, the narrator of James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” keeps his feelings to himself. From the opening scene, in which he reads in the newspaper of his brother’s drug arrest, he acknowledges that he doesn’t have room for his feelings “inside,” and so he pushes them away. The narrator doesn’t write to his brother until after the loss of his little girl, a death he states rather matter-of-factly; the narrator seems to deal with all the trials and traumas in his life by bottling up his feelings and plowing ahead on his life path. This is in stark contrast to his brother—Sonny spends a lot of time analyzing the how’s and why’s of his life, and he copes with fear and pain in ways both dangerous, like drugs, and transcendent, like music. Sonny’s ease with emotions slowly lets the narrator open himself up to his own and by the last scene when both experience something like ecstasy while Sonny is playing a jazz show with his brother in the audience, the narrator is better able to be in touch with his feelings and with his difficult past in a whole new way.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The narrator in "Sonny's Blues" does not have a healthy way of dealing with fear and pain.  For the most part, the narrator keeps his feelings bottled up inside him, and he finds distractions from the events that give him pain.  The narrator refuses to really talk about his problems or the pain that he is feeling, and often he deflects onto Sonny.  The narrator often points out how Sonny has failed in life--like when Sonny stops going to school--but he does not consider that Sonny is actually trying to grapple with his own pain and fear.  Later in the story, Sonny tells the narrator that as time passes,

"[Y]ou realize nobody's listening.  So you've got to listen.  You got to find a way to listen."  

This advice is key to the moment at the end of the story when the narrator finally opens up to Sonny's music and thinks about the pain he has experienced from the deaths of his father's brother, his mother, and his daughter.  So, the narrator is able to find a way out of his closed mindset when he learns how to really listen.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team