What are 2 strong characteristic traits of the narrator in "Sonny's Blues" by James Baldwin and Why?I'm looking for the narrator's "Characteristic Traits" in both opposing forces that shape the...

What are 2 strong characteristic traits of the narrator in "Sonny's Blues" by James Baldwin and Why?

I'm looking for the narrator's "Characteristic Traits" in both opposing forces that shape the central conflict of the story and thus its central idea. What strong evidence is there throughout the story?

Expert Answers
mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

(1) As suggested by his profession as an Algebra teacher, the narrator is a logical man who suppresses his emotions.  While he does live in Harlem, the narrator attempts to disguise the environment with his nice house, and internalizes his melancholy.  But, as he and Sonny ride in the taxi through the streets of Harlem after the narrator picks him up, the narrator says that he senses as they travel through the old neighborhood that it is "filled with a hidden menace which was its very breath of life."  It is this menace that the brothers deal with in different ways.  The narrator hides in the "parody of the good, clean, faceless life," while Sonny hides in heroin.  As they enter the house, the narrator feels an "icy dread" as what he says seems awkward to him and "freighted with hidden meaning."  With these thoughts come the memory of his childhood in which the "darkness outside" threatens the child, his emotional side.

The narrator is uncertain and uncomfortable with this darkness that threatens Sonny; because he has adopted some of the attitudes and behavioral traits of whites, he has become uncomfortable with the heroin addition of Sonny, something dark from the streets of Harlem.  Also, he does not know how to deal with Sonny's music and his brother as "a sound."  (Even his walk is musical.) 

(2) In his adoptions of some of the attitudes of white society, the narrator has distanced himself from Sonny in understanding.  For example, when Sonny declares his interest in music, the narrator assumes that his brother means classical music.  When, however, Sonny indicates that his interest lies in jazz and blues, which is traditionally a black genre, the narrator feels that this music is "beneath him--somehow."


However, with the presence of Sonny, memories invade his mind, and the narrator recalls the difference between his father and his uncle, a difference not unlike that between Sonny and himself.  The father acted "like he was the roughest, strongest man on earth," while the brother was sensitive and wild.  With this similarity to Sonny, the narrator recalls his mother's words, "You got to let him know you's there."

This moment of truth is what makes the logical math teacher go to the jazz club and listen to the sounds of Sonny, the medium through which he best communicates.  As he sits in the dark corner of the club, the narrator embraces this darkness--the environment of the black man--and looks out from it at his brother whose poignant music that "seemed to soothe a poison out of [him]."  Finally, the brother immerses himself in Sonny's environment, and let's him know he is there, as his mother urged.  He comes to realize that

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 triumphant, too, for that same reason.  And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours.  I just watch Sonny's face.

The symbol of the suffering and trouble Sonny has experienced rises "like the very cup of trembling" and the narrator embraces Sonny's sound in brotherly communion.



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Sonny's Blues

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