Why are the order of events in "Sonny's Blues" written in this manner?  Is it effective?

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The order of events in "Sonny's Blues" involves present time narrative and flashbacks to earlier times that come in the form of the narrator's memories. The story starts at a near-past moment in time when Sonny's brother finds out Sonny has been arrested. The narrative stays there for awhile with at least one brief interjection of a past memory. During a conversation in that same time period, the brother briefly looks forward to the future by means of a question asked about what will happen to Sonny next.

The story progresses through the narrator's life from that day onward until he suffers a family catastrophe in which his daughter dies. This brings thoughts of Sonny to his mind and he goes to see Sonny after he is released from prison. They continue together in that present time for awhile, then a major flashback interrupts, taking the narrative back to when they were boys watching the darkening sky darken the faces of the adults they love. The boys are frightened by the darkening effect, and this represents a symbol of the suffering that is and that is to come, especially for Sonny.

This flashback is followed by a short flash forward in time to a conversation between Sonny's brother and their mother. She tells about their family with the objective of impressing him with the importance of brotherhood and the necessity of taking care of Sonny as the younger of the two. She extracts a promise form him that he will always help Sonny. It is this promise that sets up the brother's major conflict because he does not know how to help Sonny. Another near-time flash forward recalls Sonny's choice for jazz and blues music over classical music, which his brother thought was a form of music beneath him (it turns out he may have been right because, despite the degree or emotional freedom it gives Sonny, it has helped to bind him to the impoverished and dangerous neighborhood of their childhood).

The story ends by returning to the time following Sonny's imprisonment. This leads to the climax of "Sonny's Blues," which is the conversation between them during which the older brother listens to Sonny's point of view for the first time and learns that Sonny strives to learn from his suffering, caused by flagrant racism, instead of railing against it, and that the blues helps him to do this by allowing him to take control--if only for a time--of the suffering and owning it instead of being owned--drowned--by it. The narrative's falling action moves forward chronologically from there to another near-time event in which they go to a jazz club together and Sonny's playing gives both brothers the beginning of release from their shackles of suffering.

reidalot eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In the short story "Sonny's Blues" by Baldwin, the author uses an interesting narrative technique in the work that is very effective. This technique involves jumping forwards and backwards in time as well as narrating the story from the present. The story begins with Sonny's arrest, the past, as his brother narrates the events. From there, the journey continues to Sonny's release, and then backwards again with flashbacks of their mother and father and the retelling of the events of their father's brother's death.

The reader is then told that Sonny got in trouble in the fall and Grace, the narrator's daughter, died in the spring, the past. These past events are recollections of the first person narrator, Sonny's brother. However, most importantly, the story ends in the present. Why is this effective?

At the end of the story, told in the present, the narrator finally accepts Sonny and listens, really listens, to Sonny as he plays the piano. The narrator understands that the montage of their lives is an integral part of both brothers' identities. The narrator envisions his mother's face, the road where his father's brother died, his little girl, and Isabel's tears. At the end of the story, for the first time, the narrator's life makes sense. He has had to reconstruct his past in order to understand his present and understand his brother Sonny. In this cathartic moment, the narrator reclaims the past, yet he also realizes this is a fleeting instance in time and "that the world waited outside."