How does music define the two brothers in "Sonny's Blues"?

Quick answer:

In "Sonny's Blues" by James Baldwin, the narrator and Sonny are brothers who are defined by music in different ways. Sonny is a musician who makes music his identity but then loses himself for a while until he discovers his life again in the music. The narrator learns about his brother and his brother's identity through the music.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In "Sonny's Blues" by James Baldwin, both brothers in the tale, the narrator and his young brother, Sonny, are deeply affected by music.

The narrator first mentions music when he hears one of the boys at the school where he teaches whistling. The music pours out of the boy and runs over the top of the harsh laughter of the other boys. It holds out against the other noise, and it seems to suggest hope.

The narrator hears music again as he is walking with Sonny's friend past a bar. This music is "black and bouncy," and the waitress dances to it as she works. When she smiles at the music, she looks like a young girl. There is, again, perhaps some hope to be found in the music. By focusing on the music, the narrator can cope with the painful conversation he is having with Sonny's friend. Yet the conversation colors everything, even the music, with a kind of menace.

We first find out that Sonny is a musician in the letter he writes to his brother. He wants the narrator to know that his drug problems don't stem from him being a musician. We don't know whether or not to trust his opinion at this point, but we can sense that being a musician defines Sonny in some way, and he wants to hold onto that.

As the narrator moves into a flashback scene, he recalls his mother humming an old hymn just before she asked him to take care of Sonny and told him about his father's brother who was killed, hit by a car as he stood in the moonlight with his guitar on his back. Here is another defining music reference for this family. The narrator's father remembers the noise the guitar made when it was crushed. This anti-music defined the tragedy for him and now for his son.

After their mother dies, Sonny tells the narrator that he wants to be a musician. He wants to play the piano, he says, and his brother asks him what kind of musician he wants to be. Sonny laughs, but he also admits that he's scared. He wants to play jazz. His brother truly does not understand, and he makes fun of Sonny a bit, which offends Sonny, for he is serious. He believes that jazz music is meant to be his life, and he is certain he can make a living at it. Yet Sonny's longing for professional musicianship leads a conflict with his brother, who wants Sonny to think more practically about his future. Sonny's musical desires seem to arise partly from his desire to get out of Harlem.

Sonny does, however, practice continually on the piano. He plays daily and is completely wrapped up in learning to play along with his records and improvise from them. Music has become a huge part of his life. Sonny, as the narrator says, seems to be "playing for his life." But Sonny is not going to school. Instead, he has been spending his time among the musicians in Greenwich Village. Sonny stops playing the piano when he is confronted with this fact, and he takes his records and leaves. When Sonny returns to New York, he immerses himself in his music again and wants nothing to do with his brother, who leaves Sonny's apartment whistling a tune about how he will be needed again one day to comfort himself.

When Sonny returns to live with his brother after he gets out of prison, the two brothers converse to the sound of Gospel songs outside their window. One of the women's voices reminds Sonny of the feeling of heroin in his veins, making him feel in control. Some people, he tells his brother, need to have that feeling to play their music or at least to be able to stand living. In the woman's voice, Sonny also hears how much she has suffered.

At the end of the story, the brothers go to a nightclub together. The narrator listens to his brother play, and he realizes how little people actually truly listen to music even when they hear it. He also realizes that creating music is something else entirely. Sonny struggles with the music at first, and another musician pushes him, wanting him to move out in the deep water, so to speak. The narrator understands that a musician must fill his instrument with life, and as he watches and listens, he sees Sonny do that, and in the process Sonny finds his life again, making the music his own and discovering freedom.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial