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

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Lorraine Caplan | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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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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