What literary elements are used in "Sonny's Blues" including reference to connotative language?

Expert Answers
mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Literary elements are those basic components that form a literary narrative such as a short story or a novel. While there is no fixed, or standardized, list of these elements, the following are commonly referred to in discussions of literary works:

Action, Character, Conflict, Dialogue, Genre, Language, Mood, Narrative, Mode, Pace, Plot, Point of View, Setting, Style, Theme, and Tone 

Here is a discussion of a few of these elements: 

Interestingly, the action of the plot of "Sonny's Blues" is not linear. In order to interrupt the action, Baldwin makes use of several flashbacks (which are a technique) in order to develop his characterization of the two brothers as well as to present two sides of the African American experience [eNotes: "Introduction"]. Sonny has remained in the world of the projects (setting) in which the boys were born, while the brother/narrator has become educated and moved up economically. 

The use of flashback temporarily halts the present action, and Baldwin also changes the pace of the narrative's action by providing insights into the characters with some returns to the past. This relating of past actions and conflicts also assists in character development since so often what has happened in the character's past provides additional information that aids in the understanding of a character in the present. In one particularly poignant and significant passage in "Sonny's Blues," the older brother remembers what his mother has told him about his father's brother, who was not unlike Sonny:

...your father's brother would sing, he had a fine voice, and play along with himself on his guitar....

But one night the uncle, who had been drinking, went behind a tree in order to relieve himself. When he came out, he went into the street, into the light. Unfortunately, there were some drunken and racist men coming, and before he could jump out of the way or his brother could get to him, these men had hit him with the speeding vehicle. Then, they were shooting and laughing. 

After hearing this horrific (mood) story about the senseless death of his uncle, the narrator realizes that he must try to keep Sonny from being destroyed (conflict: man vs. society). Since Sonny is like his uncle in several ways and has music in his soul, the brother accepts Sonny's invitation to accompany him to a jazz "joint in the village" (Greenwich Village). There Sonny plays piano from time to time.

The brothers talk. From the point of view of the narrator, the music of the street singers he has just listened to across the street has "soothe(d) the poison out of them," so he hopes that something similar may happen for Sonny when he plays at the club. Also, the narrator has listened as Sonny speaks of musicians. (At this point in the story, there is much dialogue.)

From his point of view Sonny describes them, using connotative language, words that carry cultural and emotional associations. As he speaks of a female street singer, for instance, Sonny observes, 

"...it struck me all of a sudden how much suffering she must have to go through--to sing like that. It's repulsive to think you have to suffer that much."

"Repulsive" has strongly negative connotations.

As he talks with his brother, the narrator has many things that he wants to say, but he cannot. So, he promises himself that he will never fail Sonny while he continues to listen.

"You walk these streets, black and funky and cold, ...and there's nothing shaking, and there's no way of getting it out--that storm inside. You can't talk it and you can't make love with it, and when you finally try to get with it and play it, you realize nobody's listening. So you've got to listen. You got to find a way to listen." (Reflective tone and connotative language)

When his brother hears these words, his heart is touched, and he knows that he certainly must go and listen to Sonny play. At the club in the indigo light, Sonny plays the piano and he makes the piece his because he plays it with "burning." Those listening join Sonny in feeling free. Perceptively, the narrator observes,

Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us to free if we would listen [a theme], that he would never be free until we did....And I was yet aware that this was only a moment, that the world waited outside, as hungry as a tiger, and that trouble stretched above us, longer than the sky.

Certainly, the connotative language of this passage--the emotional associations that certain words make for readers--is very powerful and lends the narrative and themes of "Sonny's Blues" much significance and meaning.

Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Literary elements, a category of literary devices, are common to all literature. This is in contrast to literary techniques among which a writer chooses freely as they are not common to all literature. To illustrate this, a literary element is theme, another is conflict: These are common to all literature. A literary technique is onomatopoeia (words that sound like an action or happening, e.g., "the clap of thunder"), another is personification (endowing inanimate objects like hats or apples with human powers, thoughts, feelings, attitudes, etc): These are not common to all literature.

In the short story "Sonny's Blues" James Baldwin employs, along with other ones, the structural elements of theme, point of view, setting, narrator, protagonist, dynamic character, Man versus Society conflict, conflict, plot, foreshadowing, suspense, complication, crisis, climax, resolution. Connotative language is part of the diction the writer chooses. In "Sonny's Blues," Baldwin chooses middle (daily talking style of educated people) and low diction (uses colloquialisms, idiomatic phrases, slang, contractions, and may contain grammar and vocabulary and syntax errors). Connotative language is emotional language that elicits an emotional response from the reader, like in the resolution of the story in which the narrator and the reader both come to see that Sonny rises above his suffering--if only for a while--through the music he plays.

Read the study guide:
Sonny's Blues

Access hundreds of thousands of answers with a free trial.

Start Free Trial
Ask a Question