Style and Technique

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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.

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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.

Literary Style

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Narration and Point of View

"Sonny's Blues" chronicles the relationship between two brothers at various points in their lives. Baldwin arranges the story's events to show the building of an understanding between the two brothers. Sonny's brother, who is never named in the story, narrates "Sonny's Blues." Although the story focuses on the events of Sonny's life, the fact that readers hear his brother's reactions to and feelings about Sonny's actions broadens the scope of the story to include the brother's life as well. Baldwin uses this double focus to bring out one of his most important themes: the growing understanding between estranged brothers.

Setting

The story is set in New York City, although at one point Sonny speaks in a letter from his prison cell upstate. Baldwin varies the time in which the story is set. By blending the time periods together with little separation or even clear notice, Baldwin establishes a sense of duration. Sonny's brother narrates the important events of Sonny's life as if they had happened at the same time. The fact that the events all share a sense of suffering or hardship or alienation hammers home the realization—which Sonny's brother finally arrives at in the jazz club—that suffering has been the dominant mode of Sonny's life. Baldwin arranges the story's events thematically—as opposed to arranging them chronologically—to emphasize their content, instead of their sequence or causality.

Catharsis

In literature "catharsis" refers to the outlet given the audience's emotions at the end of a story. In "Sonny's Blues," the cathartic moment occurs in the jazz club, when both Sonny's brother and the reader watch Sonny overcome, for a moment, the troubles of the world through his music. The growing tension in the story is the reader's and the narrator's gradual understanding of Sonny and the burden he bears. The catharsis Baldwin grants both the reader and the narrator is seeing Sonny find a way to defuse his suffering. In this catharsis, the reader also watches Sonny's own catharsis, as he uses his music as an outlet for his blues.

Literary Techniques

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 221

For most of the story, Baldwin stays within the conventions governing the genre of social realism. The narrative breaks dramatically, however, in the closing scene at the jazz club: as the narrator tires to explain in words the powerful hold that the music has over him, the language becomes richer, the metaphors more extravagant and complex, and the evocations more elusive.

Sonny himself could not tell his own story so thoughtfully: by filtering his life through the eyes of another, Baldwin is able to offer a point of view that is not corrupted by self-pity or sentimental self-righteous indignation. The reader, moreover, may recognize that even though this is a story about Sonny and his transformation, the narrator, too, undergoes significant changes as he comes to embrace Sonny's chosen profession.

Perhaps most crucially, though, Baldwin disrupts the chronology of Sonny's story: the narrative opens with the news of Sonny's arrest, moves forward to Grace's death and Sonny's release, moves backward to chronicle Sonny's slide into addiction and the deaths of their uncle and then their mother before concluding in the present moment of the nightclub scene. By refusing to present the events of the narrative in a sequential manner, Baldwin offers a strong commentary on the need to actively reclaim a past, and to work towards reconstructing a history for oneself.

Ideas for Group Discussions

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

1. Music, and specifically the history of African American music, is an important subject in this story. Sonny plays jazz, of course, but the title also refers to the musical genre of the blues. The story opens with the narrator listening to the sound of R&B filtering through the open door of a barroom, and later he and Sonny stop to listen to gospel revival on a street corner. One might try to trace the connections between these styles of music and how they relate to the African American experience.

2. Sonny's story is not told in a linear, chronological sequence. The tale begins with his arrest and moves through a series of flashbacks before ending up in the present at Sonny's performance. Why would Baldwin choose to disrupt the chronology in this manner? How would the impact of the story differ had Baldwin began with the death of the brothers' uncle? How might Baldwin be commenting upon the difficulty of presenting history and clear narratives of history?

3. The story of Grace, the narrator's daughter who dies of polio, occupies just a few paragraphs in this story, and yet her tragedy can be said to be extremely important to the themes of suffering, innocence, and guilt. How does her death impact the narrator's relationship with his brother?

4. The ending seems to suggest that Sonny has managed to escape his drug problems, but this is never explicitly stated. Are we to imagine that Sonny's problems are behind him now? Or is it possible that he could return to the life he lived before? Why might Baldwin leave this ambiguity in the text?

5. Even though Baldwin's story is fixed in a particular time and place, to what extent does the story work in transhistorical terms? That is, many of the issues he describes are still problems in inner urban communities, and music is still seen by many as a "ticket to freedom." Can you imagine an updated telling of this tale? What would it look like?

6. How might the story be different if told by Sonny instead of the narrator? What would be gained, and lost, by shifting the perspective in this way?

7. Baldwin suggests that one reason many people take drugs is that it offers them an escape from an otherwise painful reality. But he also describes music, and the reason for playing music, in similar language. In what ways are these escapes similar? How do they differ?

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