Sonny's Blues Analysis

  • James Baldwin set "Sonny's Blues" in Harlem in the 1950s. The Harlem Renaissance was coming to a close, and Baldwin describes "two Harlems": that of the poor and that of the successful.
  • "Sonny's Blues" is steeped in the African-American music traditions of blues, bebop, and jazz. Sonny draws his material from his life, and his emotional pain comes through in his music.
  • Baldwin wrote "Sonny's Blues" in part to illuminate how racism has limited the options for African-American men. Sonny and the narrator represent two of the different paths available to African-American men at that time: drug addiction or higher education.

Analysis

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Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1303

“Sonny’s Blues” was first published in Partisan Review in 1957, at which point James Baldwin was already a controversial writer with two novels and the essay collection Notes of a Native Son to his credit. The story is set in Harlem, where Baldwin himself grew up, and deals with family conflicts similar to those that he experienced. Underlying this domestic conflict is the racial conflict one might expect of a story written and published in the midst of the struggle for civil rights—after Brown v. Board of Education and the Rosa Parks case but before the Civil Rights Act and the Black Power Movement. The narrator hears from his mother about how a group of white men intentionally aimed their speeding car at his uncle, psychologically shattering his father, who, for the rest of his life, looked at every white man as the potential murderer of his brother. In the world of “Sonny’s Blues,” contact with white people, however apparently benign, is always cause for concern. Musicians, however, are more inclined to be color-blind and to mix freely than other members of the community. It is in a white girl’s apartment in Greenwich Village that Sonny meets with his fellow jazz musicians. This is the revelation (rather than the fact that he has not been attending school) that most upsets the family of the narrator’s wife, Isabel, and causes her mother to start screaming at him. This reflects Baldwin’s own experience of his father’s angry reaction when a white teacher wanted to take Baldwin to the theater when he was ten years old.

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The chronology of “Sonny’s Blues” is complex and nonlinear, moving back and forth in time with the narrator’s memory. This emphasizes the continuity in the brothers’ relationship and in their social situation. When Sonny returns to New York and the narrator sees him for the first time after his arrest, he thinks at first that Sonny has been greatly changed by the life he has led. Then he recognizes that time has only “deepened the distant stillness in which he had always moved.” When Sonny smiles, he sees that his brother has remained essentially the same. They drive past the park to the narrator’s house, and he reflects that little has changed in the neighborhoods they pass either. Most of the houses in which they grew up have disappeared, but the people are still living the same type of lives and having the same experiences, including those in the new housing project where he lives. Both brothers have fought in a war—likely the Second World War or the Korean War—and traveled far from their neighbourhood. The narrator is educated and has a responsible job. Neither of them, however, has altogether escaped his origins.

A striking feature of the story is the way in which two normally reticent and uncommunicative people, first Sonny’s mother and then Sonny himself, finally open up to the narrator and talk intimately at some length about their experience of life. One might include a third character, Sonny’s boyhood friend, who, at the beginning of the story, confesses his guilt at what has happened to Sonny. However, readers do not know whether he is usually disposed to reticence—only that his manner is furtive and disreputable. These dialogues, which include lengthy and revealing monologues, bring variance to the first-person point of view of the narrator. In the case of Sonny’s mother, her sudden, shocking revelation of the death of her brother-in-law is clearly intended to impress upon the narrator the importance of taking care of his brother, but it also seems to be a personal relief for her to reveal this dark chapter in the family history after years of silence. When Sonny finally tells his brother about the history of and reasons for his drug use, the two brothers argue, as they usually do. But this final argument in the story concludes not with a rift, as the others have, but with understanding. It is this final understanding of what his brother has suffered, and how he has attempted to cope with this suffering, that allows the narrator to hear and be moved by the blues played by Sonny and the other musicians in the final section of the story.

The story contains a number of motifs. Religion is often mentioned in references to hymns, gospel music, church groups, revival meetings and the final allusion to Isaiah 51.17, when the Scotch and milk on Sonny’s piano is compared to the “cup of trembling,” suggesting the fragility of the escape from suffering which Sonny has managed to achieve through music. References to darkness, literal and metaphorical, also abound. The narrator says of his students:

All they really knew were two darknesses, the darkness of their lives, which was now closing in on them, and the darkness of the movies, which had blinded them to that other darkness.

The passage in which he recalls Sunday afternoons, sitting at home with his family and friends with the evening drawing in outside, is particularly filled with references to darkness, ending with an insistent repetition of the word in consecutive sentences:

And when light fills the room, the child is filled with darkness. He knows that every time this happens he’s moved just a little closer to the darkness outside. The darkness outside is what the old folks have been talking about.

The most pervasive motif, however, is music, which is also a central theme of the story. A boy is whistling as the narrator leaves the school. A jukebox is playing as he talks to Sonny’s boyhood friend. His childhood memories are accompanied by “the jangling beat of a tambourine from one of the churches close by.” Sonny drives Isabel’s family to distraction with his obsessive playing of the piano. The narrator’s memory of his last talk with his mother begins with her humming “Lord, you brought me from a long ways off.” He expresses his pain at a long-term rift with Sonny by whistling “You going to need me, baby, one of these cold, rainy days.” The two brothers begin their most honest and revelatory conversation as they listen to the songs of a revival meeting. The sound of a woman’s singing leads Sonny to reflect on suffering. It is at the end of the story that music takes over completely, providing understanding, resolution and catharsis. None of this is achieved without struggle and suffering, reflected in Sonny’s first faltering attempts to play. Indeed, the progress of the blues music Sonny plays represents the bitterness and sweetness of life, and specifically of Sonny’s life. Baldwin’s prose style becomes increasingly lyrical and expressive in this section, reflecting the effect of the music on the narrator.

Music is a redemptive force, replacing drugs for Sonny, who compares the two. The singing of the woman at the revival meeting gives him the same feeling as heroin, “warm and cool at the same time. And distant. And – and sure.” He also says that both music and heroin make him feel in control at times. It is never explicitly stated that Sonny has escaped from drugs, something he once fled by shipping out to the other side of the world. It may be a heavy-handed interpretation to say that music, which Sonny’s brother thought would be his downfall, has instead been his salvation, making heroin unnecessary. However, the extent to which music overwhelms the story at the end—enveloping both brothers and giving sense and structure to their story, making their troubled past into art—seems to support the idea that the power of music and the community Sonny finds with his fellow musicians have allowed Sonny to dispense with heroin.

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