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"Sonny's Blues" is the tale of brothers who grow to understand each other as one brother has assimilated somewhat into mainstream society while the other remains marginalized. But, the two brothers finally unite in their experiences of suffering and understanding.
At first, the older brother, the narrator, tries to live as though there are no problems in his life, but when he reads the newspaper article about Sonny, his brother "became real" again to him as before this moment he has kept the memories outside himself. One day from his students he hears the insults of their laughter, and in this laughter he remarks, "I heard my brother. And myself." Further, after his little girl dies from polio, the narrator understands suffering and, so, he writes to Sonny, who also suffers, and he receives a grateful reply.
When Sonny arrives, the narrator does not recognize him; however, when they shake hands,
the baby brother I'd never known looked out from the depths of his private life, like an animal waiting to be coaxed into the light.
Yet, the narrator feels that the seven years' difference in their ages lies between them "as a bridge" that can be crossed. Nevertheless, he worries that he has brought Sonny back into the dangerous environment in which Sonny--much like the uncle--has almost died. It is with this memory of their uncle that the narrator becomes anxious for Sonny's care.
Then, one day after Sonny returns from listening to street singers across from the brother's home, he remarks that the singing is emotive, suggesting the street singers' suffering. When Sonny says,
"No, there's no way not to suffer. But you try all kinds of ways to keep from drowning in it, to keep on top of it, and to make it seem--well, like you."
This remark elicits a realization in the narrator that Sonny is a very deep and sensitive man. Then, as he accompanies Sonny to the jazz club and listens to Sonny play his own music--"the personal, private, vanishing evocations--the narrator understands that
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.
The brothers rescue each other through the emotions elicited in the playing and listening to the music. Music is solace for the suffering soul, a redemption. With this music of the heart in both of them, the narrator and Sonny find strength together.
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