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

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booboosmoosh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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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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