The two brothers in "Sonny's Blues " have both tried to escape from Harlem. Both join the armed forces and travel to the other side of the world to fight in a war (presumably either the Second World War or the Korean War, the story does not specify). In...
The two brothers in "Sonny's Blues" have both tried to escape from Harlem. Both join the armed forces and travel to the other side of the world to fight in a war (presumably either the Second World War or the Korean War, the story does not specify). In addition, the narrator has gained a higher education and become a school teacher. However, they both end up in a housing project in Harlem, very similar to the one in which they grew up and beginning to disintegrate, although it was only built recently.
Towards the end of the story, Sonny and the narrator discuss what it takes to survive in this hostile environment. Sonny, having run away and joined the navy to escape the local drug culture, found himself turning to drugs for escape and survival. He describes the sound of a gospel singer's voice at a revival meeting as giving him the same feeling that he used to get from heroin:
It makes you feel sort of warm and cool at the same time. And distant. And—and sure... It makes you feel-in control. Sometimes you've got to have that feeling.
In the final scene of the story, it appears that the power of music has replaced the power of drugs for Sonny. He can survive by telling his story through the medium of the blues, surrounded by other musicians who understand and appreciate him. However, it is not clear whether this is a permanent redemption or a temporary respite. Art can take the place of drugs in helping Sonny to cope with life. The music provides a mental respite, as the welcoming space of the club provides a physical refuge from the squalor, ugliness, and violence surrounding it. However, this may not always be the case, and the image of the "cup of trembling" at the end of the story reminds us how precarious life is in Harlem.