Discussion Topic

Themes, imagery, and symbolism in "Sonny's Blues."

Summary:

The themes in "Sonny's Blues" include the struggles of growing up in Harlem, different approaches to escaping the ghetto, the complex relationship between brothers, and self-expression through music. Imagery in the story, particularly Sonny's first performance after his struggles, powerfully conveys his emotional journey. Symbolism is seen in the characters' contrasting paths, highlighting the African-American experience and the impact of institutional racism.

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What are the themes and imagery in "Sonny's Blues," and what do they signify?

"Sonny's Blues," by James Baldwin, is the story of a talented young black musician who is recovering from drug addiction and a stint in jail, and his brother, who is a school-teacher.

There are numerous themes in this relatively short piece.  Some of them are:

a) What it was like to grow up in Harlem:

These boys...were growing up with a rush and their heads bumped abruptly against the low celing of their actual possibilities.

b) The different ways that people attempt to escape the ghetto: Sonny tries music and drugs, his brother tries to go "straight" and becomes a middle-class school teacher.

c) The complex relationship between two brothers.

d) The way that a musician expresses his feeling through music:

The man who creates the music is hearing somehitng else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air.

To me, the most powerful "image" is in the story's final two pages, in which the author describes Sonny's first gig after spending a trouble-filled year away from music.  This passage is clearly one of the best, maybe the best, description in literature of a musician using music to express his feelings by telling the story of his life.

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What symbolism is represented through Sonny's characterization in "Sonny's Blues"?

In this story, the author is seeking to portray "the two sides of the African-American experience".  The characterization of Sonny represents the black man who has never tried to assimilate into the mainstream of American society and who thus remains a permanent outsider.  His character is presented as a contrast with that of the narrator, who has devoted his efforts to assimilate as much as possible.  Despite their opposite approaches to life, both characters suffer deeply as members of an oppressed race.  The narrator, despite his attempts to fit in, must constantly face the obstacles of "institutional racism and the limits placed upon his opportunity", while Sonny remains alienated and apart in both a physical and psychological sense. 

In the first part of the story, Sonny, as the outsider, is viewed stereotypically, as a heroin-addicted jazz musician.  As the story progresses, however, the reader begins to see beyond this one-dimensional view of the character.  Sonny is a sensitive man who suffers deeply as a member of an unaccepted and downtrodden minority.  He channels his suffering into his music, expecially "bebop jazz and the blues, forms developed by African-American musicians", and through his sound finds a means of taking control of his life and expressing his deepest feelings.

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What is a symbol in "Sonny's Blues"?

Symbols other than the music are also found in the story. Sonny's self-destructive tendencies, shown by his drug use, represent the entire generation of young black men during this time who were aimlessly wandering through life filled with rage.

Another symbol is found when Sonny and his brother rediscover their love for one another. This symbolizes the need we have as human beings to reconnect with others in order to establish unity and a sense of community. It is difficult to find that unity in Harlem since it is the battleground between good and evil.

Water, in the form of sweat and ice, also becomes a symbol. Sonny gets addicted to heroin because he's unable to express the rage and pain he feels inside. He feels cold inside. At the end of his performance, Sonny is soaking wet with sweat because he's been able to finally express his pain.

Sonny's brother, the narrator, describes how he feels when he finds out Sonny has been arrested for the possession and sale of heroin.

"I was scared, scared for Sonny. He became real to me again. A great block of ice got settled in my belly and kept melting there slowly all day long, while I taught my classes algebra. It was a special kind of ice. It kept melting, sending trickles of ice water all up and down my veins, but it never got less. Sometimes it hardened and seemed to expand until I felt my guts were going to come spilling out or that I was going to choke or scream."

The ice is nature's attempts to numb the terrible shock and pain of learning about Sonny's arrest, and the fear the narrator feels for his brother's future. All of his fears for Sonny are locked inside of him as ice. His "warmth" on the outside is seen in the form of sweat. When the narrator feels it, he freezes it into ice so he won't be overwhelmed by his feelings.

Some of these symbols are found in enotes, but some of them I had in my notes from several years ago. Since I'm unsure of where these came from, I'm unable to document a source for them.

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What is a symbol in "Sonny's Blues"?

“In "Sonny's Blues," Baldwin uses the image from the book of Isaiah of the "cup of trembling" to symbolize the suffering and trouble that Sonny has experienced in his life. At the end of the story, while Sonny is playing the piano, Sonny's brother watches a barmaid bring a glass of Scotch and milk to the piano, which "glowed and shook above my brother's head like the very cup of trembling." As Sonny plays, the cup reminds his brother of all of the suffering that both he and Sonny have endured. His brother finally understands that it is through music that Sonny is able to turn his suffering into something worthwhile.”

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What is a symbol in "Sonny's Blues"?

Jazz is symbolic of Sonny's need for freedom and to express feelings that he otherwise might have trouble voicing.

Jazz is also symbolic of the relationship of the two brothers, the older of whom, (the unnamed narrator of Sonny's story), does not understand the "language" of jazz which Sonny wants to use to communicate. As the narrator's own understanding of jazz grows, so too does his relationship with Sonny.

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What is the symbolism of darkness in "Sonny's Blues"?

In the concluding section of James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues"in which the brother accompanies Sonny to the nightclub where Sonny is going to play, employment of light/dark imagery is significant and plays an integral part in the denouement.

As the brothers go the nightclub, it is on a "short, dark street, downtown.  Inside the lights are very dim, and an enormorous man "erupted out of all that amospheric lighting and put an arm around Sonny's shoulder." Most significantly, the brother is seated by himself "at a table in a dark corner" and sees other "heads in the darkness."  As he watches Sonny from his dark corner, the brother notices that Creole and Sonny are careful not to step into the small

circle of light too suddenly:  that if they moved into the light too suddenly, without thinking, they would perish in flame.

As the musicians begin, the brother notices that the atmosphere begins to "change and tighten."  Out of the darkness, there is an evocation of something of "another order."  As Sonny finally becomes part of the "family" of musicians and they relate in the song "Am I Blue" how they have suffered and how they have been delighted, the brother from his dark corner becomes aware that this communication is "the only light we've got in all this darkness."

For the brother, there is a birth of truth from the darkness of misunderstanding into the light of communion with others.  When Sonny makes the blues his--"Now these are Sonny's blues"--the brothers says,

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.....And he was giving it back, as everything must be given back, so that passing through death, it can live forever.

Man cannot carry his burden alone; he must find an outlet. He must come out of the darkness of misunderstanding and be in communion with those he loves in order to give meaning to his life. This is Sonny's catharsis as he finds an outlet for his suffering by coming out of the darkness into "the circle of light."

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What is the symbolism of darkness in "Sonny's Blues"?

"Sonny's Blues" begins with the narrator's foreboding feelings regarding his brother's fate.  Darkness imagery abounds as the speaker tries to empathize with his brother, symbolic of his other, darker self.

On the subway, the narrator feels "trapped in the darkness that roared outside" (1694).  This triggers dark memories in him, and he flashes back to his childhood, when the silence and darkness used to settle in on Sundays. He says:

"The darkness outside is what the old folks have been talking about.  It's what they've come from.  It's what they endure.  The child knows that they won't talk any more because if he knows too much about what's happened to them, he'll know too much too soon, about what's going to happen to him" (Norton Introduction to Literature 55).

Later, the narrator teaches algebra to a class of little Sonnys. He sees them as full of potential, like his brother, but he knows they too will be threatened by the drugs and violence of the urban ghetto.  He describes them thusly:

"They were growing up with a rush and their heads bumped abruptly against the low ceiling of their actual possibilities. They were filled with rage. 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, and in which they now, vindictively, dreamed, at once more together than they were at any other time, and more alone (Norton Introduction to Literature 48).
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What is the imagery of darkness in "Sonny's Blues"?

The darkness in the story is both literal and figurative. 

The story is set in New York City.  The narrator lives in an area of the projects, which is oppressive and run down. 

The narrator's and Sonny's uncle was killed by white people who ran him over and there is a great hatred for them in his family. The narrator's and Sonny's mother lives in Harlem and races many hardships.  Sonny is in prison for a drug conviction and an addiction to heroin.  This factual information contributes to the dark, depressing nature of the story.  The narrator laments Sonny's plight, being in prison for his drug addiction and wonders if his brother will ever straighten himself out.  He and Sonny are disconnected emotionally and the narrator struggles to understand why Sonny did what he did.  

Despite the darkness of the story, there is a hopeful epiphany at the end of the story because the narrator is able to finally understand one of the driving forces behind Sonny and his potential recovery from drug addiction...Sonny's music.  The narrator realizes that Sonny's music is a driving force, a positive for him in a world of negative, and that the music is a peaceful escape for Sonny.

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How is darkness used as a symbol in "Sonny's Blues"?

Darkness is symbolic of the two brothers' rough lives growing up (the dark periods of their lives) and of the escapism they find in the movies and later, in the jazz club.  The latter represents how darkness helps them both cope with difficult times through escapism.  To avoid drowning in his sorrows, Sonny uses his music.  This is his escape and rescue from the darkness of his own life.

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