At a Glance
- Sonny, a drug addict and musician whose suffering fuels his music.
- The narrator, a schoolteacher in Harlem, who tries to be a father figure to Sonny.
- Isabel, the narrator's wife, who holds the family together.
- Grace, the narrator's daughter, who dies at the age of two of complications from polio.
- Sonny's father, a hard man who dies during a drunken weekend.
- Sonny's mother, who dies while the narrator is away at war.
- Creole, who plays the fiddle in Sonny's band.
The age difference between Sonny and his older brother is crucial because the narrator initially has difficulty understanding the aspirations and weaknesses of his sibling. (And the parable of the prodigal son and the biblical refrain of "my brother's keeper" should resonate for many readers of this text.) The narrator is a high school algebra teacher, a home owner, and a family man, whereas Sonny drifts from place to place—at one time living with his brother, at another time staying with a white woman in Greenwich Village. Despite the significant differences between the two men, however, they are quite similar in the desire to escape their shared past. This is made evident in the narrator's thoughts upon those who live like animals in the housing tenements of Harlem. As he looks out his cab window while escorting Sonny back from prison, he muses:
Some escaped the trap, most didn't. Those who got out always left something of themselves behind, as some animals amputate a leg and leave it in the trap. It might be said, perhaps, that I had escaped, after all, I was a school teacher; or that Sonny had, he hadn't lived in Harlem for years. Yet, as the cab moved uptown through streets which seemed, with a rush, to darken with dark people, and as I covertly studied Sonny's face/it came to me that what we both were seeking through our separate cab windows was that part of ourselves which had been left behind. It's always at the hour of trouble and confrontation that the missing member aches.
The space of Harlem then is contrasted with the space of the nightclub: one is claustrophobic and threatening, the other open and inviting. It is in the club where the narrator realizes, "Here I was in Sonny's world. Or, rather, his kingdom. It was not ever a question that his veins bore royal blood."
Although Baldwin focuses upon the relationship between two brothers, the introduction of peripheral characters serves to deepen the story's emotional charge. The death of the narrator's daughter Grace, of polio, instills in him an extreme sense of guilt which is then displaced onto his feelings about his brother and thus serves as a trigger to re-establish fraternal bonds. Of Sonny's fellow musicians, the bass player Creole functions as a kind of surrogate brother to Sonny, instructing him in the language of the blues.
Although the story is narrated by Sonny's unnamed older brother, Sonny is the most important character. Sonny is described in a common stereotype of the time, a stereotype that his own brother holds until the end of the story: the heroin-addicted jazz musician. Sonny has just been arrested for "peddling and using heroin'' and must do time in a prison upstate.
As the story progresses, however, the reader learns more about Sonny's life before the arrest. He was the "apple of his father's eye," but in his youth he always had a tendency to stray from what his family thought would be the safe route. He decides that he wants to be a jazz musician, a choice that his brother finds regrettable. Sonny takes his music very seriously, and for a time he lives with his sister-in-law's family while his brother is in the army. He takes his music so seriously that the family finds him strange—"it wasn't like living with a person at all, it was like living with sound."
Sonny and his brother fight periodically and are utterly unable to understand each other until Sonny returns from prison and his brother finally goes to Greenwich Village to hear Sonny play. A man named Creole leads the band, and...
(The entire section is 1,079 words.)