What are the narrator's ways of coping with his pain and fear in "Sonny's Blues"?

The narrator of "Sonny's Blues" at first copes with his pain and fear by trying to bury it deeply. He distances himself from his former life and tries to forget its pain. However, after his daughter dies, he can no longer ignore it, and he reaches out to Sonny to try to understand how Sonny copes through music.

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In the beginning of the story the narrator thinks about the way he has compartmentalized the pain and fear he feels regarding his brother Sonny. He reads about Sonny's arrest in a drug raid and is forced to deal with the feelings he had long buried. He admits to himself...

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In the beginning of the story the narrator thinks about the way he has compartmentalized the pain and fear he feels regarding his brother Sonny. He reads about Sonny's arrest in a drug raid and is forced to deal with the feelings he had long buried. He admits to himself "I hadn't wanted to know." When the narrator runs into Sonny's friend, he deals with his feelings by asking a lot of questions about what will happen to Sonny after his arrest. By focusing on the process of what the judicial system is likely to do and whether or not rehabilitation works for addicts, he is able to continue to postpone experiencing the emotions that he clearly is unable to process.

The narrator resumes keeping his distance from Sonny for quite some time. Once they are reunited in New York, he finds himself watching Sonny closely for signs that he has been using drugs again. As he had earlier, he tries, but fails, to understand Sonny's desire to become a jazz musician. He is too caught up with worrying that Sonny will fall into the wrong crowd and come to a bad end. The brothers return to estrangement, and more time passes. The narrator continues to bottle up his unresolved grief for many things in his life: for their dead parents, for his broken promise to their mother to be there for Sonny, for the death of his young daughter, and for his feelings of guilt for failing Sonny.

Only at the story's end does the narrator have a sort of epiphany and is able to lay his fear and pain to rest. After he sees Sonny play piano at a jazz bar, he recognizes that Sonny has found a place to belong. He is with people who understand and appreciate him and is pursuing a vocation that he has long dreamed of attaining.

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The narrator, Sonny's brother, copes with the pain and fear he has experienced growing up in Harlem in different ways than Sonny. Sonny has used jazz music and drugs, such as heroin, to cope with his pain.

In contrast, the narrator has tried as much as possible to distance himself from his Harlem upbringing. He becomes a public school teacher, marries, and has a family: he seems to have adopted a safe, middle-class life. He tries to be a father figure for Sonny, too, and a good role model. However, he cuts off Sonny after he learns that Sonny has been busted for drugs and sent to a rehabilitation center. This is a characteristic response to the crises that bring up reminders of his past: the narrator shuts himself down emotionally and becomes frozen so that he doesn't have to feel.

However, his response changes when his daughter dies of polio and pain and grief enter his life despite all his attempts to build walls to keep them at bay. At this point, the narrator opens up and begins to understands some of Sonny's pain in a way he never had before. He reaches out to Sonny after Sonny is released from rehab, and he seems to hope that Sonny will exhibit the warmth that the narrator himself is too emotionally repressed to fully show.

The narrator is finally able to unfreeze parts of himself that he locked away as he begins to have an understanding of Sonny and the way his music acts as emotional expression and release of pain.

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Having grown up in the "vivid killing streets" of Harlem, Sonny, a sensitive musical man, senses the fear about which the older people do not speak; he suffers from the despair of his environment, the confrontation and and "the darkness which roared outside":

The darkness outside is what the old folks have been talking about....It's what they endure...Some escaped the trap, most didn't.  Those who got out, always left something of themselves behind, as some animals amputate a leg and leave it in the trap.

In order to deal with what Baldwin calls "the menace [that] was ...reality," Sonny shoots heroin into his veins as it gives him a feeling of being "in control," "some vision of his own," as he reveals to his brother when they peer through the window at a woman singing during a revival on the street.  Sonny remains in a "loose and dreamlike" state most of the time while he uses heroin.

Playing music, also, "makes something real" for Sonny.  His jazz helps Sonny release "that storm inside" him, and this is why he tells his brother that sometimes the musician will do anything to play as he recognizes all "that hatred and misery and love" that exists on the streets.  For, he is able to release much of his suffering when he plays music, especially, the blues.

When the brother/narrator accompanies Sonny to the club and hears Sonny play the blues, he realizes the power of Sonny's blues to deal "with the void," and to impose order on things.  About Sonny, he notes,

What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason.....[the tale of how he suffers]...is never new, [but] it's the only light we've got in all this darkness.

For the first time, the narrator realizes the power of music as a release from suffering.  For, after his daughter Grace has died, the brother understands Sonny:  "My trouble made his real."  In this realization, the narrator has an epiphany, perceiving his brother as, perhaps, a darker side of himself, and a side with which he can join in his efforts to keep out the darkness and fear of their environment.

 

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