What is the narrator's struggle in "Sonny's Blues"?

Quick answer:

The narrator's struggle is that he feels guilty for not being able to guide and protect his brother, Sonny, as he had promised their mother that he would.

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In "Sonny's Blues" by James Baldwin, the narrator struggles with guilt because he feels he has failed to protect and guide his brother, Sonny, according to his mother's request.

The narrator's parents died when Sonny was still quite young, and the last time the narrator saw his mother, she told him all about his father's brother, who was a musician and was hit by a car and killed one night. The narrator's father never really got over his brother's death. His mother wanted him to look out for Sonny. "You got to hold on to your brother," she almost begs the narrator, "and don't let him fall no matter what it looks like is happening to him and no matter how evil you gets with him."

But Sonny does fall. Sonny wanted to be a musician more than anything in the world, and he worked hard at it and became good. The narrator was in the military when his mother died, so Sonny went to live with the narrator's wife, Isabel, and her parents. Sonny stopped going to school and began working on his music all the time. Isabel's mother scolded him, and a few days later, Sonny left their home.

Things went downhill from there. Sonny and his brother fought when they saw each other, and Sonny told the narrator that "he was dead as far as [he] was concerned."

Sonny ends up in prison for heroin use. The narrator struggles with what has happened between him and his brother. He feels that he has not kept the promise he made to his mother, but he also feels helpless to do anything.

It is not until the end of the story that Sonny and the narrator really reestablish their relationship. Sonny is out of prison and staying with the narrator and his family, and the narrator finally realizes what Sonny's music means to him and how, perhaps, Sonny had to take his own path through life no matter what the narrator could have done.

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