Sonny's Blues Analysis

  • James Baldwin set "Sonny's Blues" in Harlem in the 1950s. At that time, the Harlem Renaissance was coming to a close, and Baldwin described the "two Harlems": that of the poor and that of the successful. Baldwin was born in "the hollow," the roughest part of Harlem, and later became famous as a writer. The main characters of "Sonny's Blues" represent the two different versions of Harlem that Baldwin experienced.
  • "Sonny's Blues" is steeped in the African American music traditions of blues, bebop, and jazz. Like many musicians, Sonny draws his best material from his life, and the emotional pain comes through in the music. Though Sonny's music would best be categorized as blues, the story itself is set in Harlem, the jazz center of the 1950s.
  • Baldwin wrote "Sonny's Blues" in part to illuminate the African American experience. Sonny and the narrator represent the two different paths available to African American men at that time: drug abuse or education. Through their characters, Baldwin shows readers how racism has limited options for African American men. 


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Style and Technique

Baldwin emphasizes the theme of opposition between the chaotic world and the human need for community with a series of opposing images, especially darkness and light. The narrator repeatedly associates light with the desire to articulate or give form to the needs and passions that arise out of inner darkness. He also opposes light as an idea of order to darkness in the world, the chaos that adults endure, but of which they normally cannot speak to children.

The opposition of light and darkness is often paired with the opposition of inside and outside. Sonny’s problem as an artist is that inside himself he feels intensely the storm of human passion; to feel whole and free, he must bring this storm outside by gaining artistic control over it, by articulating it for some listener. Inside is also the location of the family, the place of order that is opposed to outside, the dark and predatory world.

These and other opposing images help to articulate Baldwin’s themes of opposition between the meaningless world and the meaning-creating community. The artist, by giving voice to the inner chaos of needs and passions, unites humankind in the face of the outer chaos of random and continuous suffering. The artist helps to create a circle of light in the midst of surrounding darkness.

Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, a new form of jazz music was being developed. The style, called "bebop," "bop," or...

(The entire section is 794 words.)

Literary Style

(Short Stories for Students)

Narration and Point of View
"Sonny's Blues" chronicles the relationship between two brothers at various points in their lives....

(The entire section is 347 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

For most of the story, Baldwin stays within the conventions governing the genre of social realism. The narrative breaks dramatically,...

(The entire section is 221 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

For a short story that focuses on just one central character, "Sonny's Blues" invites a remarkably wide-ranging set of questions regarding...

(The entire section is 432 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

As is the case with many of Baldwin's more than twenty works of fiction and non-fiction, the perceived need to escape from a threatening and...

(The entire section is 361 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Short Stories for Students)

1950s: Jazz innovators, such as Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, Max Roach, and Bud Powell either live in...

(The entire section is 225 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Short Stories for Students)

Read about the development of bebop jazz music in the 1940s. Who were some of the important figures? How was bebop different from traditional...

(The entire section is 106 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

When asked in interviews about his formative influences and literary forebears, Baldwin has claimed a debt to many nineteenth and...

(The entire section is 181 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

As one story among eight in Going to Meet the Man, "Sonny's Blues" gains depth and coherence when read against the others in the...

(The entire section is 244 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Short Stories for Students)

Go Telll it on the Mountain, Baldwin's landmark novel about the condition of African Americans in the United States.


(The entire section is 104 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Short Stories for Students)

Bigsby, C.W.E, Introduction to The Black American Writer, Vol. 1, Everett/Edwards, Inc., 1969.


(The entire section is 279 words.)


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Fabré, Michel. “James Baldwin in Paris: Love and Self-Discovery.” In From Harlem to Paris: Black American Writers in France, 1840-1980. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1991.

Hardy, Clarence E. James Baldwin’s God: Sex, Hope, and Crisis in Black Holiness Culture. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2003.

Kinnamon, Keneth, comp. James Baldwin: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1974.

Leeming, David. James Baldwin: A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.

Miller, D. Quentin, ed. Re-viewing James Baldwin: Things Not Seen. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000.

O’Daniel, Therman B., ed. James Baldwin: A Critical Evaluation. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1981.

Porter, Horace A. Stealing the Fire: The Art and Protest of James Baldwin. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1989.

Standley, Fred L., and Nancy V. Burt, eds. Critical Essays on James Baldwin. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988.

Sylvander, Carolyn Wedin. James Baldwin. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1980.

Tomlinson, Robert. “’Payin’ One’s Dues’: Expatriation as Personal Experience and Paradigm in the Works of James Baldwin.” African American Review 33 (Spring, 1999): 135-148.

Troupe, Quincy, ed. James Baldwin: The Legacy. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989.

Weatherby, W. J. James Baldwin: Artist on Fire. New York: Donald I. Fine, 1989.