What is the importance of the flashbacks in "Sonny's Blues"?

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The flashbacks are an important and effective technique in this story because they enable the narrator to convey to his readers important snippets of Sonny's life that help us to empathize with both him and the narrator.

The flashbacks allow the narrator to focus on the most emotionally powerful parts...

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The flashbacks are an important and effective technique in this story because they enable the narrator to convey to his readers important snippets of Sonny's life that help us to empathize with both him and the narrator.

The flashbacks allow the narrator to focus on the most emotionally powerful parts of his brother's story and his own. Some of these emotionally moving moments include the polio death of Grace, the narrator's young daughter. Formerly, the narrator has been unable to respond to his brother's letters from rehab, where he has been sent to kick his heroin habit. However, when Grace dies, the narrator's own brokenness and sorrow make it possible for him to reach out to his brother's pain. As he remembers the past, the narrator also flashes back to his mother telling him that his father was harsh to Sonny because Sonny reminded him of his own beloved brother who was unjustly killed.

The flashbacks provide us with insights into the pain saturated lives both Sonny and the narrator have led, despite the narrator having escaped Harlem to lead a middle-class life as a teacher. The narrator is realizing as the story unfolds that it is impossible to flee suffering.

Along with the narrator, we as readers are able through these flashbacks to understand what might have driven Sonny to use drugs to numb his pain and later, along with the narrator, to get a glimmer of understanding of what Sonny's music might mean to him—and to us. It becomes more than just jazz when placed in context, becoming an emblem of pain turned to beauty.

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The flashbacks are the brother's memories that recur at specific points in his narration with the purpose of advancing the development of character and theme.

Interestingly, the author of "Sonny's Blues," James Baldwin, composed songs for Ray Charles and was a close friend of trumpeter Miles Davis. These facts explain the musicality of Baldwin's story, in which recurring motifs are employed along with the flashbacks. These flashbacks clarify at meaningful points in the narrative the brothers' relationship, Sonny's history, and the understanding that the narrator and his brother reach.

Perhaps one of the most significant flashbacks is the memory of the narrator's daughter Grace, whose death has brought the narrator to an understanding of his brother's pains—"My trouble made his real." Another significant memory is the narrator's recollection of his mother's plea that he look out for Sonny. His mother's tale about her husband's brother (the uncle) who was senselessly killed particularly moves the narrator because, like Sonny, the uncle was musical and had trouble "getting through this world."

Indeed, it is the flashbacks/memories that lead the brother to an understanding of Sonny and a willingness to accompany him to the nightclub, where he sits in the dark corner and listens to Sonny's music, the "personal, private, vanishing evocations." In this club, the brother experiences an emotional moment of understanding:

But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumpant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours.

Further, the brother/narrator describes the glass that the waitress puts on top of the piano for Sonny as glowing and shaking "above my brother's head like the very cup of trembling," a symbol of Sonny's trouble and suffering that rests above the music he plays beneath it. This music carries meaning to the brother, who understands its meaning. Sonny's "triumph" is both brothers' "triumph" as they rescue their relationship.

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Flashback is important in “Sonny’s Blues” because it provides a context for the events of the story.  Knowing what happened in the past informs us of the present.

Time in the story goes back and forth between the past and the present.  For example, when the narrator hears his students, they remind him of his brother at that age.

They were filled with rage. All they really knew were two darknesses, the darkness of their lives, which was now closing in on them…

The flasbacks are also relevant to the theme of the story, which is partially that you need to try to understand people before you can judge them.  The narrator remembers his mother telling him to look out for his brother.  He feels bad because he does not think he has done that.

"You got to hold on to your brother," she said, "and don't let him fall, no matter what it looks like is happening to him and no matter how evil you gets with him.

When he does try to get to know his brother, he sees that he is not really the man he thought he was.  The seven years’ difference has resulted in the two of them not really knowing each other.  For example, when Sonny hears the woman singing and confides in his brother about why he used heroin, this helps the narrator understand his brother.

"It makes you feel-in control. Sometimes you've got to have that feeling."

The flashbacks in the story pull the reader along through the narrator’s thought processes.  Through them, we understand not just Sonny but the narrator.  We realize that neither of them has really given the other a chance.

Families are made up of memories.  All of us have experiences with our family members in the past that shape how we look at them.  In this story, we realize that the past is just as important as the present to understanding someone.

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