Why does "Sonny's Blues" start in the subway?

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The narrator describes learning about his brother's arrest from the newspaper that he reads on his way to work. Based on the context of the story, the reader can infer that the narrator uses the subway as a means of transportation on a daily basis, making it a part of his normal routine.

On this particular subway ride, however, the narrator experiences a disruption in his routine. Routines give us a sense of order and stability, and while we don't tend to think about our routines as comforting, they are. When one's routine is disrupted, either by some inconvenience or stress, one is also mentally disrupted.

This is the case for Sonny's brother in the story. During his daily ritual of reading the newspaper on a darkened subway car while going to work, the narrator is confronted with the existence of his troubled brother. In the paragraphs that follow, the narrator describes "a great block of ice settled in my belly and kept melting there all day long," a feeling that stems from Sonny becoming "real to [him] again." This shows that the narrator's experience on the subway disrupts the rest of the day and maybe even his life.

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The subway car captures the sense of alienation that the narrator feels when he reads about his brother's arrest. The narrator can't believe the news, and he reads it again and again in a state of shock. The subway car is a place of alienation, as the narrator zips through the darkness underground, and he describes feeling distanced from himself and the people around him, as they are "trapped in the darkness." He is in a similar state of darkness and distance from the world around him as he tries to piece together what happened to his brother, Sonny, and how he wound up in the way he did. The story reveals the narrator's attempt to enlighten himself about his brother and remove the darkness and distance that he feels from Sonny.

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Baldwin begins "Sonny's Blues" with the narrator in the subway as a means of setting the scene and the theme simultaneously.  The scene is clearly an urban environment, since suburbs and rural areas do not have subways.  This is important to the story because the experiences of the narrator and Sonny were representative of many African-Americans in larger cities.  The theme, which we see even in the title with the use of the word "blues," is of darkness, and thus, from the story's beginning, we are in a dark place, "trapped in the darkness which roared outside" (1). If you have ever ridden on a subway, you will know that in spite of the fact that there are lights on in the cars, the darkness outside can seem quite gloomy and threatening, and the lights often will go off and on sporadically, too, leaving a car in darkness for several seconds at a time.  This theme of darkness persists throughout the entire story, the people, their lives, and their surroundings, as though they are hurtling through dark tunnels. The subway was a deliberate choice, to begin with darkness and to let the reader know that it was an urban environment that the story was going to unfold in. 

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