Sonny's Blues Characters
by James Baldwin

Sonny's Blues book cover
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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.

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Characters

Sonny

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

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

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

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.

(The entire section is 999 words.)