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Introduced to the reader as the stereotypical Harlem resident, the drug-addicted loser, Sonny of James Baldwin's moving "Sonny's Blues," seems little better than the drug addict at the station who also is "trapped in the darkness which roared outside." This darkness of Sonny's life is a "sad story" with which the brother/narrator shares no sympathy until he himself suffers. After his daughter Gracie dies, however, the narrator understands, "My trouble made his real." Then, the narrator writes to Sonny as he truly comprehends his mother's words about his brother,
"...It ain't only the bad ones, nor yet the dumb ones that gets sucked under."
While Sonny returns to the "killing fields" of Harlem and resides with his brother, the narrator notices much about his brother. For instance, even his walk is musical--
a slow, loping walk, something like the way Harlem hipsters walk, only he's imposed on this his own half-beat--
and, as they watch and listen to the street singers, the narrator listens to Sonny who tells him that the music "makes something real for them" after they have suffered so much. Since there is no way to not suffer, Sonny tells his brother, a person tries to drown this suffering or keep on top of it in order to maintain his identity. Life, for Sonny, is "a storm inside"; he tells his brother that sometimes
...when I was most out of the world, If felt tht I was in it, that I was with it, really, and I could play...it just came out of me, it was there.
What has come out of Sonny is his blues, just as the suffering is expressed by the street singers. His "personal, private, vanishing evocations" are in his music; yet, he can find solace from his suffering only when someone listens. Then, he is "triumphant."
As he listens to Sonny in the nightclub, the narrator remarks,
I had never before thought of how awful (awe-inspiring) the relationship must be between the musician and his instrument. He has to fill it, this instrument, with the breath of life, his own. He has to make it do what he wants it to do.
Continuing to play the piano under the leadership of Creole, Sonny finally releases the "fire and fury of the battle which was occurring in him up there." And, then, when his brother truly listens to Sonny's blues, "
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.
Brothers in suffering and in triumph, Sonny and the narrator are one side of each other--Sonny the dark side, of course. Together they can conquer their suffering, for meaning depends upon sharing. Who is Sonny? Sonny is all of the sensitive troubled who suffer the demons lurking in the darkness within their souls. His music, his "blues," are the passage to triumph over this "storm inside."
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