What is the conflict in James Baldwin's story "Sonny's Blues" that troubles a major character?

The story "Sonny's Blues" is about a young man, Sonny, and his addiction to heroin. As the narrator notes: His habit was killing him; but I supposed that all habits did that. I thought he did not have long to live. It seemed he wanted me to know what it was like—the heroin—to need it so much that you couldn't go on without it, just as he had needed me once, when we were young and close together.

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There are a lot of conflicts at work in "Sonny's Blues." The overarching conflict in the story is that between black existence and white society, and this has strongly influenced how the narrator views the world. He describes the struggle of growing up in Harlem, where many succumb to drug use, and many never escape. He has dedicated himself to teaching because he believes this is the only way to overcome the difficulty of being black in the sort of white world where a black man can be murdered with few repercussions. The speaker describes how badly affected his father was by his brother's murder, and this has reverberated down to the narrator as well.
The conflict between the narrator and Sonny, then, derives from the fact that they negotiate their black existences very differently. Sonny has chosen to devote himself to music, which the narrator does not understand. He is also critical of Sonny's drug use, which he thinks is symptomatic of the people he associates with in the music world. He doesn't understand why Sonny needs music or what it means to him. It is Sonny's way of improving himself, but also of protesting against the way the world views him. The music he creates is an expression of black excellence, which the narrator slowly realizes.
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The primary conflict in "Sonny's Blues" is the interpersonal one between the narrator and his brother, Sonny—specifically over the choices Sonny has made. The narrator is keenly aware that those who have grown up black on the "killing streets" of Harlem are people with the odds already stacked against them. He recalls a story his mother once told him, about how his uncle had been murdered years before by white men, and has internalized the fact that the world does not respect him as a black person. He has therefore tried to improve his own lot, and that of the youth in the community, through education. Sonny, however, has not done this. On the contrary, he has decided to be a musician, and he is also a heroin addict. To the narrator, music and heroin are two parts of the same problem. He sees them both as being unworthy of his brother and does not understand why music is necessary for Sonny to really "live."

At the end of the story, we see this conflict at least partially resolved when the narrator sees the importance of music, not only to Sonny, but as an expression of hope and joy for black people who are otherwise repressed by the society in which they live.

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One conflict in the story that troubles the unnamed narrator, who is Sonny's brother, is how Sonny wound up arrested for selling and using heroin. The narrator recalls Sonny as a promising and bright youth, and he tries to understand how Sonny went wrong since that time. The narrator, who is 7 years older than Sonny, has struggled to maintain a connection to his brother even as his...

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own life presented sorrows and struggles, such as the death of his young daughter.

In addition, the narrator contends with painful memories of his parents, which complicate his feelings towards Sonny and make him feel guilty. Both of their parents have died, and the narrator knows that his father had hoped for something greater for Sonny. The narrator finds out that his father's brother died after being run over by white men in a car, and it's clear that the father's brother was in many ways similar to Sonny. The narrator can't understand exactly how to help Sonny, but, in the end, he realizes that music is helpful to Sonny in expressing his inner pain.

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In James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues," the main character is not the one mentioned in the title, Sonny, but his unnamed brother, who is also the narrator. The narrator and Sonny grew up in Harlem and struggled with inner-city life and poverty. However, they have dealt with their struggles differently. The narrator is now a teacher, a man with a full-time job helping others, as well as a wife and children. He has risen above his difficulties and become successful. Sonny, on the other hand, has gotten involved with the wrong activities and people and has recently been arrested for selling heroin. It seems that the narrator has difficulty expressing his feelings and would rather avoid emotional situations. This may be a part of how he has grown up to defy his surroundings and refuse to let the harsh realities of the community bring him down. His internal conflict is that he loves and wants to protect his brother and therefore cannot fully push away the crime and drug use that surrounds him. He wants to reach out to Sonny but must find the emotional capacity to do so. This is one of the major character conflicts in the story.

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There are two major characters in "Sonny's Blues," Sonny and Sonny's older brother. Each of these characters has an independent conflict and together they share another conflict. Sonny's conflict has multiple parts: heroin addiction; the "vivid, killing streets;" his choice for jazz and blues music over classical, which translates to a choice for poverty and limits to opportunity and freedom and a rejection of an established place in society with at least some economic opportunity, such as his brother attained.   His brother's conflict is what to do to help Sonny. He feels estranged by the seven year age difference that separates him from Sonny. He feels like Sonny's choice of jazz and blues was a mistake and "beneath" him. He feels he failed his mother because she required a promise that as the older brother he would always take care of Sonny...trouble is, he has never known how to help Sonny.Their shared conflict is how to extricate themselves from the suffering of their racially impeded lives. Sonny has fallen deeper and deeper into suffering. His brother has extricated himself from the suffering in large part--though not entirely--and each still wears the shackles of the suffering from their childhood and youth.

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What is the external conflict in James Baldwin's short story Sonny's Blues?

It seems that the primary form of conflict in James Baldwin's short story "Sonny's Blues" is man vs. man, but there are others as well.

There are several types of conflict. They are:

  • man vs. man
  • man vs. nature
  • man vs. society
  • man vs. the supernatural (what is beyond the natural realm) and/or God

We see man vs. man in that the narrator of the story has a difficult time with the way Sonny lives his life. As a teacher who sees lives destroyed by drugs all the time, the narrator struggles to accept the choices Sonny (his brother) makes.

He had been picked up, the evening before, in a raid on an apartment downtown, for peddling and using heroin. 

The narrator cannot understand his brother and cannot deal with what he has become, when he was once so different. So he cuts off all communication with Sonny.

We see man vs. man again when the narrator leaves school and meets one of Sonny's old friends that he had never liked. The guy is grown up now, but always hanging around, high, and looking for a handout. With news of Sonny's arrest so fresh in his mind, the narrator studies this broken man before him and hates him.

We might see man vs. society in the manner in which drug addicts are treated and released. They are cleaned up from using heroin, but then they are simply let back out onto the streets and most often fall back into the same habit. Nothing is mentioned about any kind of support upon a user's release, and the inevitability that he (or she) will return to drugs is almost a certainty.

The narrator stays away from Sonny for a long while.

And I didn't write Sonny or send him anything for a long time. When I finally did, it was just after my little girl died...

The death of the narrator's daughter could be seen as man vs. nature when polio takes her life.

When Sonny responds to the narrator's letter, he introduces the conflict of man vs. God. Sonny notes:

...I don't know what good it does to blame it on the Lord. But maybe it does some good if you believe it.

The author provides another example of man vs. society. As Sonny and his older brother drive past their old neighborhood, things have changed and yet nothing has changed.

Most of the houses in which we had grown up had vanished...But houses exactly like the houses of our past yet dominated the landscape, boys exactly like the boys we once had been found themselves smothering in these houses...

The reader gets the sense that the wheels of society turn and nothing is done to stop the cycle of disaster waiting for the boys that they pass as their taxi moves on.

Some escaped the trap, most didn't.

The narrator escaped; Sonny had not.

The narrator's mother's story reflects man vs. society. She tells of her late husband's dead brother. Their father was with his brother and they were young and drunk. While crossing the street, the brother was hit by a car full of drunken white men:

Then he heard a car motor...This car was full of white men. They was all drunk, and when they seen your father's brother they let out a great whoop and holler and they aimed the car straight at him. They was having fun, they just wanted to scare him, the way they do sometimes, you know. But they was drunk.

Man vs. society addresses the white men's desire to scare a black man walking across the street. Ultimately, the young man lost his cool and/or didn't move fast enough, and the car hit and killed him; but it never stopped.

Your Daddy never did really get right again. Till the day he died he weren't sure but that every white man he saw was the man that killed his brother.

Her words reflect man vs. man.

His mother tells him the story because the narrator also has a brother, and she notes that the world has not changed.

When their mother dies, the narrator runs into a conflict with Sonny again, which is another example of man vs. man. Sonny wants to be a musician and the narrator decides that he is going to live at the narrator's in-laws' home. It is not the life Sonny wants and it does not work out for him—Sonny even stops going to school. Sonny and his brother cannot agree on what is best for Sonny.

Finally, we might venture to say that Sonny's addiction is man vs. nature. Sonny does not want to give in to his addiction (which is internal conflict). However, trying to survive in the world as an addict is difficult because of how the drugs change and control a person: it gets its claws into him or her and won't let go.

Sonny's brother notes that some folks do drugs to keep from falling to pieces. The narrator notes that Sonny's friends seem to do this pretty fast. The struggle of the brothers to understand one another is man vs. man. Sonny seems to be saying that falling to pieces is something everyone faces, on drugs or not. Sonny says:

Some don't [go to pieces]—or at least they haven't yet and that's just about all any of us can say.

At every turn, the narrator, Sonny and those they know and/or love, face a great many conflicts of one kind or another. The author may be pointing out that conflict is a natural and unavoidable part of life.

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What internal conflicts are depicted in the story "Sonny's Blues"?

The narrator of the story, Sonny's brother, who is seven years older than Sonny, struggles with many internal conflicts. The first conflict concerns the theme of the loss of innocence. At the onset of the short story, "Sonny's Blues," the reader finds the narrator contemplating the "bright and open" (paragraph 2) faces of the school boys at the peak of their youth. He compares that to Sonny's formerly innocent face prior to his decline and is conflicted over the why and how that loss of innocence occurs. How does youth change into a stage of rage and defiance?

Secondly, the narrator's main internal conflict deals with the two opposites that exist in the world, that of suffering and delight. It is not until the end of the story that the narrator understands that both emotions exist side by side, and this revelation comes through understanding Sonny's blues. As Sonny plays the piano, the narrator is able to reconcile the suffering of his mother and father, his own suffering over the death of his daughter, and the suffering of his brother and himself caused by their strained relationship and upbringing. Music brings delight and a deep message that concerns freedom and allows one to truly listen to the rhythms of the world. The narrator and his brother now finally understand one another.  The drink that Sonny sips at the piano, Scotch and milk, can be understood as a metaphor for experience and innocence joined together, and it is at this moment that the brothers realize that experience and innocence will always exist in tandem.

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What internal conflicts are depicted in the story "Sonny's Blues"?

One example of internal conflict in Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues" is within the narrator.  The narrator is conflicted about his brother, Sonny, whom he loves but cannot help but judge. 

As the story opens, the narrator learns that his brother has been sent to prison. While the narrator loves Sonny, Sonny is a criminal, a drug addict, and the narrator, who teaches algebra, cannot help but judge Sonny for his misdeeds. This creates a conflict within him.  He has some empathy for his brother, realizing, as he sees his students using heroin, that his brother was very young when he began using drugs and was a product of his environment. But he also realizes that he himself managed to rise above that environment. He feels guilty because he should have seen that Sonny had a problem and helped him, and yet, he had chosen not to see this. He remembers what his mother told him, "You got to hold on to your brother...and don't let him fall, no matter what it looks like is happening to him" (133).  He realizes that he really should be doing something for his brother, but his attitude is that there is nothing he can do. He loves Sonny, but he has given up on him, which makes him feel more guilty. Time passes, and he does not reach out to Sonny in prison, but when the narrator's daughter dies, Sonny reaches out to the narrator with a letter, telling his brother he has needed him. The narrator writes back, keeps in touch, and when Sonny is released from prison and returns to New York, he takes Sonny home with him. While the narrator's wife and sons find it easy to be with Sonny, the narrator still has to some degree a judgmental attitude, for example, checking Sonny for signs of drug use, and thinking about searching his room. Sonny, at the end of the story, invites his brother to hear him perform at a jazz club.  Before Sonny performs, they have a conversation that helps the narrator to see that his silence over the years has harmed Sonny, and he promises himself that he "would  never fail him again" (143). The jazz combo gets off to a slow, ragged start, but finally, the group coalesces around the music and Sonny, with his solo at the piano, comes into his own as a musician, while the narrator cries tears of sadness and hope.  Perhaps the narrator will continue to be conflicted about his brother, who has made choices so very different from his, but the reader feels, at the end of the story, that the loving side of the narrator is finally winning over the judgmental side. 

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What internal conflicts are depicted in "Sonny's Blues"?

The narrator's two major internal conflicts deal with his feelings for his younger brother Sonny and his reaction to the poverty and crime going on around him. Due to Sonny's own problems with drug addiction, these two conflicts become intertwined.

Though his mother charged him with looking out for Sonny, the narrator has mixed feelings about his brother. On one hand, he loves him and wants the best for him. On the other, he is frustrated by Sonny's seeming unwillingness to finish school (not realizing Sonny left school for the navy as a way of trying to escape his drug addiction) and his eventual incarceration for selling and using heroin.

The narrator's relationship with his local community is similarly strained. Harlem is plagued by drug abuse, poverty, and other forms of crime. There is a sense of hopelessness in the atmosphere. However, community members come together to help one another as best they can, despite the obstacles they face on a daily basis.

The narrator is at first reluctant to be involved with his brother or the community, feeling secure in his respectable job and home life. When one of his children dies from polio, he ultimately changes his mind about reaching out.

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