Why does "Sonny's Blues" begin in medias res?

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By plunging us straight into the middle of the action, Baldwin is giving us an immediate sense of the importance that the narrator attaches to his relationship with Sonny. As the story begins, the narrator is reading a newspaper story about his brother's arrest for the possession and use of...

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By plunging us straight into the middle of the action, Baldwin is giving us an immediate sense of the importance that the narrator attaches to his relationship with Sonny. As the story begins, the narrator is reading a newspaper story about his brother's arrest for the possession and use of heroin. Straight away, the reader—along with the narrator—wants to know how on earth Sonny got himself into such a terrible mess.

Beginning the action in medias res is a highly effective narrative technique, as it introduces a puzzle that needs to be solved. Most people find the solving of puzzles quite absorbing, and so this is a good way to begin the action. And in the context of a story like "Sonny's Blues," finding out about Sonny is also useful, as it helps us learn a lot about his brother in the process, not least because the two were once so incredibly close.

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As Kip Wheeler Ph.D. says, "Usually in medias res is a technique used to heighten dramatic tension or to create a sense of mystery." The technique of in medias res, Latin for in the middle, allows the narrator, whether third or first person, to introduce background events in strategic positions through flashbacks for dramatic or mysterious effect. An example is when the narrator in "Sonny's Blues" flashes back to the boys youthful anger at the inferiority assigned to them by social and cultural constraints and to the escape--the forgetfulness--from their anger that they found in movies. In addition, in medias res allows for a condensed, compressed recounting of extensive background material so that a dramatic kernel of a life-long story can be told with a heightened impact as a short story that has a keen, undiluted impact and focuses on an individual important theme.

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