Sonny's Blues Characters
The main characters in "Sonny's Blues" are Sonny, the narrator, Isabel, Grace, and Sonny's parents.
- Sonny is musician with drug issues whose suffering fuels his music.
- The narrator is a schoolteacher in Harlem who tries to be a father figure to his brother, Sonny.
- Isabel is the narrator's wife; she connects with Sonny and holds the family together.
- Grace is the narrator's daughter; she dies at the age of two of complications from polio.
- Sonny's father is a hard man whose brother's death causes him immense grief.
- Sonny's mother is supportive and wise; she dies while the narrator is away at war.
Last Updated on March 18, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 999
The story is called “Sonny’s Blues,” and it is very much Sonny’s story. He is the younger brother of the narrator, and there is a substantial seven-year age gap between them. Sonny is described as having been a good boy, polite and mild-mannered but always somewhat distant and wild. As he grows up, he becomes increasingly unhappy with his environment and is desperate to leave Harlem. His brother persuades him to stay there and finish school, but he runs away to join the navy, later telling his brother that he did so to avoid the drugs that surrounded him. The escape proves ineffective, as he becomes a heroin-user and is arrested for selling and possessing the drug. The experience of rehabilitation changes his appearance and he becomes gaunt and weathered, with a manner that is more detached than ever.
Sonny is highly sensitive and tends to be taciturn. His relationship with his brother has always been difficult, and it is not until the end of the story that he is able to talk honestly about the suffering that led him to use drugs. His great ambition has always been to become a jazz musician, and he compares the effect of music to that of drugs in helping him to cope with life. By the end of the story, it becomes clear that he has achieved his goal: he is a brilliant musician who plays the blues with great expressive power.
The narrator, like several other characters in the story, is never named. He is Sonny’s older brother and, having finished school, he has a responsible job teaching algebra at a high school. At the beginning of the story, he is married with children, and his respectable life is markedly different from Sonny’s. The narrator feels a strong sense of responsibility towards his younger brother, along with guilt at his failure to protect him. He relates how his mother, the last time he saw her alive, asked him to look after Sonny. However, he finds Sonny exasperating and incomprehensible, and the two fight frequently. It is significant that the narrator never mentions his own name; he divulges very little about himself, certainly in comparison with his detailed descriptions of Sonny and his insights into the characters of their parents.
Isabel is the wife of the narrator, who describes her as “much nicer than I am.” She gets on well with Sonny and has an easier relationship with him than the narrator does. When the narrator is in the army, Sonny lives with Isabel and her parents until he runs away to join the navy. Apart from her sympathy, good-nature, and easy rapport with Sonny, readers learn relatively little about Isabel who, like all the other characters, is described chiefly in terms of her relationship with him, rather than as a personality in her own right.
Creole is one of Sonny’s fellow musicians at the nightclub. He is the only musician who is named, but in his respect and affection for Sonny, and his understanding of the blues, he is a synecdoche for the band—that is, he represents the whole of which he is one part. Creole is “an enormous black man” who is much older than Sonny or the narrator. He has a booming voice and a genial, welcoming manner. When he is playing the fiddle, he seems to be deeply connected with Sonny and to be encouraging him to play bravely and brilliantly. Like Sonny, he is a highly gifted musician, and his music tells a story.
Sonny’s late father is not named. He had a troubled relationship with Sonny, but the narrator says that this was because “Sonny was the apple of his father’s eye,” and he fought with Sonny because he loved him. He drinks a lot and appears extremely tough. However, Sonny’s mother eventually reveals that he was deeply scarred by the death of his brother, which he witnessed and was unable to prevent. She often saw him cry about this and had to support him in his private grief, which he would never reveal to anyone else.
Sonny’s mother, like his father, is unnamed and is mainly described in terms of her relations with her husband and children, which reflects her devotion to the family. She has had to be strong to support her husband, who was devastated by his brother’s death, and she is fearful that some similar misfortune may overtake Sonny if his elder brother does not protect him. She is highly religious, and her life revolves around church and family.
For a long time neither Sonny nor the narrator knew that they had an uncle. Their mother finally told the narrator his uncle’s story before he went to join the army. He was a young man who was rather like Sonny and shared his enjoyment of music. Sonny’s mother recalls that “he was a fine boy. He was maybe a little full of the devil, but he didn’t mean nobody no harm.” One night when he was drunk, he was run down by a car full of white men, who were also drunk. His brother, Sonny’s father, was there and was powerless to save him.
Sonny’s Boyhood Friend
A boyhood friend of Sonny’s, who is not named, appears at the beginning of the story, waiting for the narrator on his way home from work and asking him if he knows about Sonny’s arrest. This man, whom the narrator sometimes calls a boy despite his age and who reminds him of Sonny, is a drug addict and a drifter himself. He feels somewhat guilty for Sonny’s plight, since he once told Sonny of the pleasures of drugs. The narrator, who dislikes him, recalls that as a boy he was always trying to borrow money. True to form, he parts from the narrator by asking him for a dollar.
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