How do Sylvia, Dee, and Sonny overcome difficulties in social settings in "Sonny's blues"?

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues" is definitely about overcoming difficulties in social settings, in this case, for Sonny.

The narrator of the story, Sonny's brother, has been able through hard work and struggle to find a place in the world. He is a teacher and able to provide for himself and his family. However, Sonny has not been able to do so. He has never found a comfortable fit in society. He has done drugs and dealt them, and has just been sentenced to jail as the story opens, for dealing heroin. Taking care of Sonny has become an impossible task for the brother: he doesn't know what to do for him any more. This is a bitter pill for the narrator to swallow.

The narrator runs into an old friend of Sonny's, another drug user, and they discuss Sonny's arrest. Sonny's "friend" notes:

…ain't nothing you can do. Can't much help old Sonny no more, I guess.

This might well represent a certain portion of society that believes that the problem is well beyond what anyone can do to fix it, and instead, they turn away.

The friend notes addicts don't really want to die, but that using makes them feel good. He paints a sad picture for Sonny's future: that once he gets to jail, they'll try to cure him. Once he gets out, he'll start using again. Again, the friend may represent society's sense of helplessness in trying to deal with the problems of illegal drugs and those who cannot find a "cure."

The one glimmer of hope comes from Sonny's association with musicians, and how music speaks to Sonny. In fact, it transports him, almost like a drug, but to a good place where few, except perhaps other musicians, can truly follow. In this setting, the narrator can see the beauty in his brother's soul, and perhaps that moment of realization represents those in society who have not given up on people whose lives are ravaged by drugs.

They all gathered around Sonny and Sonny played. Every now and again one of them seemed to say, amen. Sonny's fingers filled the air with life, his life...And Sonny went all the way back, he really began with the spare flat statement of the opening phrase of the song. Then he began to make it his. It was very beautiful because it wasn't hurried and it was no longer a lament…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 wed did.

In this passage, the narrator seems to say that society can help if we only continue to care and to listen to the cry for help that the addict offers. The drug does not define the person, nor does its use. There is hope for each "victim" of drug abuse. And if we stop listening, all is lost.


Note:  "lament" - an expression of grief or sorrow