What is the central conflict of Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues"? How is the conflict a result of colliding worldviews?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In James Baldwin's powerful short story, the narrator of "Sonny's Blues," the older brother, wonders if the differences between his brother and him can ever be bridged.  Because there is a seven-year difference between the brothers, they have never been close or communicated well.  So, when Sonny was arrested for heroin, the older brother did not understand why and also felt that there was nothing that he could do for his brother.

However, after his little daughter Grace dies, the narrator, in his own suffering thinks of his suffering brother, Sonny:  "My trouble made his real." In his reflections, the narrator recalls his promise to their mother that he would look out for Sonny as, being family, they are important to each other.  So, he meets with Sonny after his release from prison; they drive around the elegant part of New York before returning to the "vivid killing streets" of their childhood Harlem.  Then, as they watch a religious revival across the street, there is a spiritual revival in the heart of the narrator as he realizes that Sonny is speaking of something of great import:

'When she was singing before,' said Sonny, abruptly, 'her voice reminded me for a minute of what heroin feels like sometimes...It makes you feel--in control.  Sometimes you've got to have that feeling...in order to stand it, to be able to make it at all.  On any level.

The brothers discuss how one must suffer.  As they talk, the narrator experiences an epiphany:

I realized, with his mocking look, that there stood between us, forever, beyond the power of time or forgiveness, the fact that I had held silence...when he had needed human speech to help him.

Knowing that his older brother is now truly listening, Sonny confesses that he has

 'been something I didn't recognize, didn't know I could be....I was all by myself at the bottom of something...I was just locking me in with it....I had to try to tell you.'

Having suffered himself, the narrator tells his brother that he understands, and the bridge is made between them.  Later, as the narrator sits in the dark listening to Sonny play, he feels in communion with him.  Through the bridge of music, the narrator hears their

tale of how we suffer,...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.

As the musicians gather around Sonny and Sonny plays, the leader

seemed to be saying, listen.  Now these are Sonny's blues....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 narrator has learned the moral truth that meaning in one's life depends upon sharing with those we love.  When the narrator truly listens to his younger brother, a strong bond grows between them, a bridge is forged through the "blues."  Before connecting with Sonny, the narrator has looked outside himself for solutions to his problems of living in Harlem, the death of his child, etc.  Now, he knows that Sonny is right:  He must look inward into the hearts of those he loves.


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Sonny's Blues

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