Sonny's Blues Summary
James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues" is about the unnamed narrator's troubled relationship with his younger brother, Sonny.
- The narrator learns that Sonny has been arrested for drug possession. After some hesitation, he writes to Sonny, who later is released from prison and comes to live with the narrator in New York.
- The narrator reflects on Sonny's youth and his own sense of responsibility for his brother.
- The narrator comes to one of Sonny's jazz shows. As he listens to Sonny's blues, he realizes that the music expresses not just Sonny's pain but all of humanity's—and offers a moment's relief.
Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1446
In James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” the unnamed first-person narrator begins by saying that he read about an unspecified incident in the newspaper while traveling to work on the subway. This incident concerned someone called Sonny, and the thought of it distracted the narrator all day. He describes the feeling as being like a block of ice inside him, which sent cold water trickling through his veins. The narrator, who is a high school algebra teacher, thinks about when Sonny was the same age as the boys in his class. At this point he reveals that the incident in the newspaper was Sonny’s arrest for selling and using heroin and that Sonny is his brother.
The narrator thinks back to his childhood, remembering how similar he and Sonny were to the boys he now teaches. Sonny was about their age when he first tried heroin, and, for all the narrator knows, his whole class might be taking the drug. As he begins to go home, he thinks he can see Sonny standing in a doorway, but he quickly realizes that the man is actually an old friend of Sonny’s, whom the narrator has never liked. The man shuffles over to him and asks if he has heard about Sonny’s arrest. The narrator is reluctant to talk, but the man starts to follow him home, asking what he intends to do about Sonny. He says that he doesn’t think there is much he can do, and the man agrees, expressing surprise that Sonny got himself into this situation.
The man then says that he “felt sort of responsible” for what happened to Sonny. While he never gave Sonny any drugs, he did once come to school high and tell Sonny that it felt great. The man also says that, though Sonny will now be sent for rehabilitation, Sonny will likely never be able to kick the habit.
The narrator notes that he did not contact Sonny for a long time after reading about his arrest. The narrator finally reached out, just after his own daughter died. Sonny’s reply, which the narrator reproduces, made him “feel like a bastard.” Sonny wrote that he needed to hear from his brother but never contacted him, since he knew that he must have hurt him. Now Sonny feels as though he has climbed out of a deep hole. Sonny expresses regret about the past and uncertainty about the future but says that if he does “get outside again” and manage to come to New York, he hopes his brother will meet him.
Eventually Sonny does return to New York, and the narrator comes to meet him. The narrator says that incarceration “had made him older and thinner and it had deepened the distant stillness in which he had always moved.” His smile, however, was familiar. Sonny is seven years younger than the narrator, who suddenly remembers that he was there when Sonny was born, heard his first words, and witnessed his first steps. They drive to the narrator’s home, going beside the park and noting that, although most of the buildings they knew as children have vanished, the neighborhoods and the people in them have remained fundamentally the same. Even the new housing project where the narrator lives is, in terms of atmosphere and community, similar to the houses in which they grew up. The children who live there do the same things and have the same experiences. “The same things happen, they’ll have the same things to remember.”
Sonny gets on well with the narrator’s wife and children. Thinking about his brother’s safety makes the narrator remember their father, who refused to move to a safer neighborhood when they were children on the grounds that nowhere was safe. Their father never got on with Sonny, but the narrator believes that this is because he loved Sonny so much and was afraid for him. He also remembers their mother and the last time he saw her alive. In that meeting, she told him about the death of an uncle he never knew he had, who was hit by a car full of drunken white men while his father looked on in horror. By the time his father got to him, the narrator’s uncle was “nothing but blood and pulp.” She had not allowed his father to mention this in front of the children, but he had never been the same again. Every time he saw a white man, he could never be sure that he was not looking at his brother’s killer. She begs the narrator to look after Sonny and never to desert him, even though he may not be able to prevent him from getting into trouble.
Shortly after this talk with his mother, the narrator joined the army and only returned on furlough to attend her funeral. He tried to keep his promise by asking Sonny what he intended to do with his life and was somewhat shocked and disappointed when Sonny expressed an ambition to be a jazz musician, an occupation the narrator looked down on. The narrator was even more alarmed when Sonny said he was going to drop out of school and join the army or navy. He pleaded with Sonny to stay in school, pointing out that he would graduate in a year and would certainly regret failing to finish. Sonny reluctantly agreed and remained in Harlem.
Sonny moved in with the narrator’s wife, Isabel, and her family while the narrator was in the army, and devoted every spare moment to playing the piano. One day, Isabel’s mother received a letter from the school board saying that Sonny had not been attending school. He eventually told her that he had been spending most of his time in a white girl’s apartment in Greenwich Village “with musicians and other characters,” eliciting a furious reaction from her. After a few days of tense silence and uncertainty, Sonny went to join the navy. The next the narrator heard from Sonny was when he received a postcard from Greece, and they only saw each other again after the war was over. At that point, the two brothers did not get on well and soon had a fight.
The narrator recalls the time when his daughter died of polio and he reestablished contact with Sonny. He thinks he may have written to Sonny on the day they buried her. “My trouble made his real,” he explains.
He then moves forward in time again to a point when Sonny has been living with him and his family for almost two weeks. The narrator is alone in the house and is thinking about searching Sonny’s room without really knowing why. He then sees his brother at a revival meeting outside the window. Sonny comes inside and invites the narrator to come to a nightclub and hear him play that evening. He then compares the effect of music to that of heroin, which he says he takes to help him cope with life. The brothers argue; the narrator points out that suffering is inevitable, and Sonny replies that this fact does not prevent one from trying to avoid it. The narrator says that he is not concerned with people’s suffering in general but with protecting his brother from suffering and death.
Sonny talks about the pain and loneliness of his experience with drugs. He says that when he ran away from Harlem, he was trying to get away from drugs, but nothing had changed when he returned. The brothers go to the nightclub where Sonny plays and the narrator is impressed to find that everyone there knows and respects Sonny. Sonny’s playing on the piano is initially awkward and faltering. However, his fellow musicians seem to understand him and mysteriously guide him back to confidence.
As the story ends, all the musicians play the blues with great depth and power. The music seems to be telling a story about the whole of humanity: “how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph.” More specifically, it tells the story of Sonny’s life, helping the narrator understand what Sonny has gone through and making him relive the tumult of his own life. There is a pause in the music, and Sonny looks at his brother and nods, before the music which has brought such extraordinary understanding and catharsis begins again. The final image compares the drink on Sonny’s piano to the “cup of trembling” in Isaiah 51.17, suggesting that the escape and transcendence in this final scene are fragile and temporary.
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