What are the religious symbols in "Sonny's Blues" by James Baldwin, and what do they represent?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues," there is a revival taking place as the narrator looks out his living room window of his house.  This scene is pivotal to the plot. For, when the woman with the tambourine is

divided by very little from the woman who stood watching her, a cigarette between her heavy, chapped lips, ...her face scarred and swollen from many beatings, and her black eyes glittering like coal.  Perhaps they both knew this, which was why, when, as rarely, they addressed each other, they addressed each other as Sister.

This religious encounter presages the redemptive realization of the narrator that he and Sonny are brothers; he senses that he must accept Sonny's invitation to come hear him play that evening. Furthering the understanding between the brothers is Sonny's telling the narrator that the singer's voice reminded him of what heroin feels like,

It makes you feel sort of warm and cool...And distant  And--sure.

As the brothers talk, Sonny explains that the heroin "makes something real..." out of the suffering.  The narrator tells Sonny, "But there's no way not to suffer."  Sonny agrees, but wishes that people would listen.

On the night that Sonny plays, the narrator truly does listen:

Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did.

It is then that the narrator sees the drink for Sonny as "the very cup of trembling" that Isaiah tells of in the Bible.  This cup, much like the cup that Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane asks to have passed from him, represents suffering.  At that moment, Sonny's suffering is lifted from him in his music and with those who listen.  Sonny's blues can help him to be true to what he is.

jmj616 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Sonny and his brother representing Cain and Abel?  That's a new one to me.  I didn't notice one brother killing the other, or even trying to.

In a general way, "Sonny's Blues" is a story of redemption.  Sonny has been through the hell of drug addiction and incarceration.  His redemption occurs when he returns to piano-playing for the first time.  The author, James Baldwin, clearly uses religious phraseology in describing this scene:

a) Listen, Creole seemed to be saying, listen...He was wishing him Godspeed.

b) Then they all gathered around Sonny and Sonny played.  Every now and again one of them seemed to say, Amen.

c) And he was giving it back, as everything must be given back, so that, passing through death, it can live forever.

The story ends with Sonny's brother sending a drink to Sonny at the piano.  Sonny places the cup on the top of the piano, and "it glowed and shook above my brother's head like the very cup of trembling."

"The cup of trembling" is an image taken from the book of Isaiah (51:22):

Thus saith thy Lord the LORD, and thy God that pleadeth the cause of his people, Behold, I have taken out of thine hand the cup of trembling, even the dregs of the cup of my fury; thou shalt no more drink it again:

The cup of trembling represents suffering and punishment; when God removes "out of thine hand the cup of trembling," that means that He is redeeming you from your suffering.

downeyr | Student

The "very cup of trembling" is an interesting image at the very end of the story, but other than that, I didn't really see any religious symbols.

On the other hand, Sonny and the narrator seem to reflect the Dionysian and Apollonian discussed in the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, specifcally in his book "The Birth of Tragedy." The Apollonian is the force in the world that seeks order and balance (notice the narrator is an algebra teacher and wants his brother to settle down), while the Dionysian is the aspect of life that is uncontrollable, reveling in ecstacy (notice Sonny's musical bent and his heroin use).