"Sonny's Blues" begins in media res. What does Baldwin achieve by beginning the story as he does? 

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In medias res is a Latin phrase meaning “into the middle of things.” This is an important literary tactic employed by many writers. In using in medias res, writers bypass the exposition and background details and opt to fill the reader in on these elements later, often through nonlinear...

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In medias res is a Latin phrase meaning “into the middle of things.” This is an important literary tactic employed by many writers. In using in medias res, writers bypass the exposition and background details and opt to fill the reader in on these elements later, often through nonlinear narrative tactics like flashbacks.

This method allows the reader to feel like they are dropped right into the middle of the plot. The reader must simultaneously figure out the preceding plot points while engaging with the current events of the plot.

"Sonny's Blues" opens with the narrator learning that Sonny was caught in a heroin bust.

This method is successful in "Sonny's Blues" because it puts the central conflict of the narrative at the forefront of the reader's mind. Sonny’s addiction and his escape through music is the main theme of the narrative; however, the reader does not learn that the narrator is Sonny’s older brother until later, which would change how the reader consumes this opening information.

This narrative method does have the potential to be very aesthetically displeasing for the reader. Readers want to know all details, so attempting to figure out what is happening without all information available can be a very difficult reading experience. A writer will use this to mirror the displeasure the main characters feel.

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The term in medias res is a Latin phrase meaning, essentially, "in the middle of things." Beginning a story in medias res means the author is throwing the reader directly into the action of the story without buildup. Typically a story will start off with some sort of backstory and description to help set the scene and establish the characters. Starting in medias res does just the opposite—throws the audience into the events and lets them tease out the details as they go along.

By beginning the story in this way, the author accomplishes several things. First, they eliminate the need for some of the backstory. Because the conflict is central to the plot, they put it in main focus and let the reader drawer draw their own conclusions about the characters' backstories and histories.

Additionally, this allows the hectic nature of the story to truly jump out. Sonny is in the middle of getting in trouble when the story starts, and his brother is trying to wrap his mind around the mistakes Sonny has made to get him to this point. The reader is thrust into a confusing scene that leaves them jarred, just as the characters in the story are feeling jarred as well.

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Beginning in media res allows the reader to immediately be launched into the central conflict of the story: Sonny is in trouble, and his older brother (the narrator) is having a difficult time reconciling the baby brother he's always known with the grown man who has made some poor choices.

This allows the narrator to reflect on his changing relationship with his brother through a series of flashbacks. The reader learns that when Sonny was young, "his face had been bright and open, there was a lot of copper in it; and he'd had wonderfully direct brown eyes and great gentleness and privacy." Quickly, the reader also learns that it has been so long since the narrator has seen his younger brother that he doesn't even know what he looks like now.

Beginning in media res creates tension which drives the tone of the story. Why has the narrator seemingly abandoned his brother? How did Sonny change from a gentle young boy to one riddled with so much conflict that his own brother has cut him out of his life? And why does the reader sense that the narrator carries great guilt about a role he could have played in Sonny's troubles?

These questions are answered bit by bit as the narrator carefully releases the details of Sonny's life. Being thrown right into the conflict allows the reader to continually keep reading and searching for those answers, just as the narrator is searching for answers about both his brother Sonny and about his own role in Sonny's troubles.

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"I had kept it outside me for a long time," Baldwin's narrator says in the fourth paragraph of his story, "Sonny's Blues." The news of his brother Sonny's arrest resurrects what the narrator has tried to bury in his heart.  But, with this resurrection in media res there is also the re-emergence of the memory of his daughter, and of his childhood with Sonny, memories which play an integral part in the narrator's later understanding of the darkness of his brother's life.

With first person point of view, Baldwin's story achieves much more clarity to Sonny's condition by the narrator's providing his history as well as his brother's.  For, in the flashbacks the narrator recalls events that fuse the past, present, and future as parallels are drawn between Sonny and their father, between the boys of Harlem then and the boys of Harlem now.  Like a musical piece, these images mingle with others of darkness and of sound.  Sonny and his brother watch a street revival, and likewise feel a revival of brotherly love.  Clearly, this immersion in the middle allows both the past and the future to be brought together in Baldwin's story, thus enabling the narrator to better appreciate the trouble of Sonny's soul, his blues, and realize that what Sonny feels, he feels:  "My trouble made his real.....And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours."

At the end of the story, the narrator pulls in the reader, as well, with his singleness of theme, saying,

For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard.  There isn't any other tale to tell, it's the only light we've got in all this darkness.

The music has helped Sonny express himself and take control and avoid his suffering, just as the blues can help everyone be true--have the glow above their heads--to what they are.

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