Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 735
Sonny wakens, shivering, from dream-filled sleep to the sound of his parents quarreling. Such tension between Mama and Daddy is new to Sonny; it turns him into a keen observer and his story into a series of dialogue-driven episodes. Although he cannot always interpret it, he knows well what people say around him. Daddy works hard and long cutting cane on a sugar plantation. Lately he has been neglecting his wife and son, devoting his free time instead to repairing an old car. When Daddy repeats that he needs love, Mama responds, “Get love from what you give love. . . . You love your car. Go let it love you back.” When Daddy goes off to work, Mama and Sonny gather a bundle of clothes and leave for Grandma’s, a short distance away in the workers’ quarters. Sonny is sleepy and confused, not pleased to stay with Grandma, because he tires of Grandma’s constant fussing. Besides, she is trying to get Mama to leave Daddy and go live with the despised Freddie Jackson. It is a relief to run off to his one-room school.
The second section, more dreamlike than the first, is set in the quarters’ tiny school, which is always cold in November. Sonny shivers even more today because he does not know his lesson. Normally, Mama teaches it to him at night and Daddy goes over it again in the morning. With all the fussing today, however, no one has helped him. As Daddy has violated one of the adult rituals, so Sonny has done with his. Miss Hebert, his teacher, would understand if he explained, but the other children, especially those his age, would only laugh. So, when called on to recite, he simply cries and wets his pants. As the other children tease him and mop up the puddle, Sonny can only get colder.
Sonny takes home a note asking his parents to come to the school the next day. Grandma’s place is hardly a refuge: she is still yelling, Freddie Jackson is still chasing Mama, and Daddy is still standing at the gate, begging Mama to come home. When Grandma drives Daddy away with her shotgun, Sonny follows him onto the road. News of Freddie Jackson spurs Daddy to a desperate decision: “Madame Toussaint . . . I hate it, but I got to.” Sonny hates it too, for he is afraid of the wizened old voodoo woman of the quarters. However, she is the last hope of men in trouble with their women. She knows everything that happens and seems to know Daddy’s problem, but he does not have her three dollar fee. From a fellow cane worker named Charlie, Daddy gets both the money and the reassurance he needs. Charlie lends him five dollars, all he has, and tells him of the troubles he has been having with his own wife. “I’m following her advice, Brother Howard, and I wouldn’t be a bit surprise if there ain’t a little Charlie next summer sometime.” Charlie is happy to do what he can to bring the family back together, believing that family love is the most important thing in the world.
Once Daddy pays Madame Toussaint, she gives him the very advice that he does not want, to set fire to his car. Dumbfounded, he pretends he has not heard. She repeats that he must burn it—another necessary ritual, this one of expiation. At most, he will sell it, he says. So he runs to Mama, seeking a reprieve. “Burn it,” she commands.
With the whole community gathering to watch, Daddy parades the car, towing it a few miles to an unused field. There, with everyone agape—for the other men love cars as much as he—he pours gasoline and sets it on fire. Grandma is the most incredulous: “I never would’ve believed it . . . I just do declare. . . . He’s a man after all.” Like a Greek chorus, the people of the quarters agree.
Daddy believes all the rituals are over, but Mama knows better. She brings in a big switch and insists that he whip her before they can eat dinner. Only then will he save face in this tightly knit community; only then will the affair be concluded. Lulled to sleep by the familiar sounds of his parents’ bedsprings, Sonny, feeling warm and happy, begins his best dreams in a long while.