Sonny's Blues Style, Form, and Literary Elements
by James Baldwin

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Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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.

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. 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

(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, 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 entire section is 1,220 words.)