Student Question

What is a character analysis of Sonny and his brother in Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues"?

Expert Answers

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Without knowing what has already been written, suggestions may well be " stabs in the dark." However, since the narrator/brother is included in this analysis, there may be a comparison/contrast set up, perhaps. Or, as in one interpretation of this moving and poignant short story, the brothers are two sides of one man; that is, Sonny is the darker side of the narrator. Support for this thesis can be found throughout the narrative as frequently, the flashbacks serve to remind the narrator of his fraternal commonality.

While their lives have taken separate paths, the brothers are united in their conflict of race, of never having been able to escape "the killing fields."  This marginalization has affected both brothers, but in different ways. Thus, the story highlights what has been called "the two sides of the African-American experience." Sonny, the darker side, has turned to music, especially bebop jazz and the blues, two forms that are distinctly African-American; however, when his melodies do not relieve his suffering, he shoots heroin. On the other hand, the narrator attempts to live as closely as he can in mainstream society. But, he is limited to his old environment of Harlem, simply trading the housing project for a more modern and fashionable home that, nevertheless, still looks out on the same streets.

It is the experience of suffering that unites the two brothers. When his daughter Gracie dies, the narrator writes to Sonny after years, and Sonny replies gratefully. Together then, they talk of "the darkness growing" in their souls from their suffering. The narrator begins to recall how when he lived with him Sonny was at the piano "playing for his life." For, now the narrator's loss of Gracie allows him to commiserate with that of Sonny, "My trouble made his real." 

After Sonny returns one day, having listened to street singers whose faces undergo a change as they sing as 

...the music seemed to soothe a poison out of them; and, time seemed, nearly, to fall away from the sullen, belligerent, battered faces, as though they were fleeing back to their first condition, while dreaming of their last.

When the narrator notices Sunny smiling, too, he notices how music fills his being, even his "slow, loping walk." Then, they talk about the street revival and discuss how there is no way to avoid suffering, but one must try not to drown in it. Sonny tells his brother,

"It's terrible sometimes, inside....that storm inside....when you finally try to get with it and play it, you realize nobody's listening. So you've got to listen. You got to find a way to listen."

Later, Sonny invites the brother to the jazz club where he is playing  that evening. It is there that the narrator and Sonny unite in spirit; it is there that they find the meaning that comes from sharing their suffering. Because Sonny plays for him, and because the narrator listens with his heart and experience, the "very cup of trembling" is lifted in the indiglo light. Sonny plays for his life, and his brother supports him as he listens to the music that provides solace for the suffering souls.

Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did.

The fraternal bond is set. Meaning for Sonny and his brother comes with the sharing of their suffering, each one side of the other.

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