What are some of the themes used for the story "Sonny's Blues" by James Baldwin?

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

“Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin is a multi-level story. The unnamed narrator shares the story of his brother whom he learns from the newspaper has been arrested. 

I read about it in the paper, in the subway, on my way to work. I read it and I couldn’t believe it, and I read it again…I was scared, scared for Sonny.  He became real to me again…

This initial event makes the narrator reflect back on his life with his brother Sonny.  There are several themes in the story which portray a man who has struggled all of his life to find his way.

Sonny’s Music

Sonny wants to be a jazz piano player, but the narrator thinks this is a waste of Sonny’s life. The brothers’ inability to see eye to eye on this is what causes so much strife between them. This is the issue that kept the brother at odds.

The brother attends the place where Sonny plays his music.  It is there that the brother realizes that Sonny has a gift and how important music is to him.  Finally, he gets what the other people who are listening to him already know. Sonny belongs in the music world.  The brother sends Sonny a drink, and the inference is that the brothers will be able to resolve their problems and have a familial relationship.

Drug Abuse

Harlem, the setting of the story, has been a center for drugs and alcohol abuse.  The initial event in the story shows that Sonny is still caught in this world.  He claims that he is only selling to make money and that he no longer uses drugs.

Everyone who uses drugs impacts all of the people who love them as well.  It destroys lives and families.  The purpose of the drug use offers the user an escape for a small interim---away from the depression and oppression of racial problems, poverty, and suffering.  Drug addiction plagues the user as a destructive force which wrenches his soul away.

In the story, the brother begins to see that Sonny despite his own problems tries to help the people around him by using music to change their frustrations.  Members of the community come together to watch over and protect those who do have problems.

Family and home

The two brothers love each other, do not understand the other, and  hurt each other.  The story illustrates how much the brothers need each other by the struggles they go through trying to find their common ground. In the end, the narrator makes the connection by looking closer at his brother and finding the value in his life.

The narrator’s mother charged him with becoming “his brother’s keeper” when she asked him to watch out for Sonny.  She understood the difference between the brothers: the younger one was more stable and knew the way out of the suffering of his situation.  On the other hand, Sonny needed support because he was weaker and prone to making poor decisions.

Sonny creates his own family from the musicians with which he plays.  The narrator creates his family with his wife and children.  In the beginning, the narrator does not understand Sonny’s ability to surround himself with people who love the same things that he does. 

Unfortunately for Sonny, these people also serve as a negative influence because they too have drug problems.  Hopefully, with the brother’s new understanding of Sonny, the narrator will help Sonny find his way back to his real family.



rileyb | Student

Drugs are a central theme in "Sonny's Blues," impacting both the users and those who love them. Heroin destroys lives, families, and artistic talent. On the other hand, it also offers a momentary escape from the characters' depressing and oppressive physical environments and serves as a coping mechanism to help them deal with the human suffering that surrounds them. While Baldwin doesn't judge the characters who use drugs, he does present drug addiction as horrible, gut-wrenching, and ultimately destructive.

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Sonny's Blues

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