Sonny's Blues Themes
The main themes in “Sonny’s Blues” are the power of music, escaping the past, and family support.
- The power of music: Sonny compares music’s affective power to that of heroin. The narrator reflects on music’s ability to transmute suffering.
- Escaping the past: Both Sonny and the narrator try to flee the woes of their early lives through various means.
- Family support: The difficulty of life requires that mothers, fathers, and brothers form lasting bonds and support one another.
Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1087
The Power of Music
When Sonny says that he wants to become a musician, the narrator is apprehensive. He tries to frame Sonny’s ambition in the most conventionally respectable terms he can, first asking if he plans to be a concert pianist and play classical music. When Sonny replies that he wants to play jazz, the narrator thinks this pursuit is beneath him, for it entails “hanging around nightclubs, clowning around on bandstands, while people pushed each other around a dance floor.” He knows that their parents would have disapproved. Even so, he tries to mitigate this reaction by referring to a well-known and established jazz musician, Louis Armstrong, whose music Sonny dismisses contemptuously as “old-time, down-home crap,” preferring the more contemporary style of Charlie Parker.
Sonny compares the effects of music to those of heroin. It makes him feel “warm and cool at the same time,” distant, sure, and in control. The narrator, Isabel and their families worry that becoming a musician will bring Sonny into louche, disreputable company, increasing the likelihood of his becoming a drug addict. They also worry that such an occupation would increase his contact with white people. Isabel’s mother is horrified to discover that he has been spending time with a group of musicians at a white girl’s apartment in Greenwich Village, a fact which shocks her more than his missing school.
Music, which is everywhere in the story—from juke boxes to revival meetings to the characters’ humming, whistling, and singing—is therefore seen by the narrator and the older generation as a seductive and dangerous force. In the final scene of the story, however, the redemptive and cathartic power of music comes to the fore. This change in perspective is signalled by an increasingly dense and poetic style of writing, in which the narrator describes the intense power of the music to evoke suffering, delight, and triumph. The two brothers have just had the most honest, profound conversation of their lives, one which, after many years of bitter arguments, has ended with understanding and acceptance. However, it is not talking, but music, which cements the wordless understanding that passes between them as the story ends. Baldwin’s literary style reflects this by abandoning cool realism in favor of lyrical expressiveness.
Escaping the Past
Sonny and the narrator both try to escape the past, a time defined by several elements: the darkness which is a constant presence in the story, the physical environment of Harlem (including the smell, which disgusts Sonny), drug addiction, and the inevitability of suffering. These elements might be regarded as themes in themselves, but they are bound together by the ways in which the two brothers attempt to escape from all of them. Most of the story chronicles their failure to do so, though the last scene, in the nightclub, allows them a temporary and transcendent escape through the power of music.
The narrator is an educated, responsible man with a job teaching high school algebra. He lives in a fairly new housing project, which started to become rundown almost as soon as it was built. He realizes as he brings Sonny back home to stay with him that his home is “really just like the houses in which Sonny and I grew up.” He continues:
The moment Sonny and I started into the house I had the feeling that I was simply bringing him back into the danger he had almost died trying to escape.
Sonny himself later recalls that he ran away and joined the navy to escape from drugs, an attempt that proved ineffective, since he was later arrested for selling and using heroin. However, even the drugs themselves are only another attempt to escape from suffering. The brothers both agree that “there’s no way not to suffer,” but Sunny maintains that this has never stopped people from trying.
While the brothers are talking about suffering, Sonny refers to a woman who has just been singing at a revival meeting. It has suddenly occurred to him how much she must have suffered to sing like that, and he vehemently declares, “It’s repulsive to think you have to suffer that much.” This foreshadows the final scene, in which Sonny understands that the way he can overcome suffering, and every other aspect of his past, is not to flee from it but to confront, express, and surmount it through his music.
The supportive bonds of family recur as a central theme in the story. In the last conversation he ever has with his mother, the narrator learns that his father has spent years living with the guilt and fury caused by witnessing his own brother’s death, which he was helpless to prevent. At the same time, the narrator discovers how strong and resilient his mother has been in supporting his father and hiding his grief from their children. His mother’s selflessness is shown when she expresses how thankful she is that she was able to help her husband to “get safely through this world” before dying herself. However, suspecting (correctly, as it turns out) that she may never see her older son again, she passes on to him her responsibility for Sonny’s welfare. When he protests that Sonny is a good boy, she responds that this is not the point. “It ain’t only the bad ones, nor yet the dumb ones that gets sucked under.” She also warns him that the two of them will quarrel but that this must not prevent him from keeping his promise.
The narrator indeed quarrels with Sonny several times and allows his anger to estrange him from his brother, for which he duly feels guilty. It is a tragedy within his own family—the death of his daughter—that finally motivates him to reestablish contact with Sonny after his arrest. Despite his feelings of guilt, the narrator and his extended family, including his wife’s parents, attempt to look after Sonny, and their quarrels with him stem ultimately from the frustration of these attempts. In this sense, the narrator emulates his father’s relationship with Sonny. He tells us himself that his father and Sonny never got on well, explaining: “It was because he loved Sonny so much and was frightened for him, that he was always fighting with him.” Despite these difficulties in sustaining his bond with Sonny, the narrator feels that he cannot forsake his responsibility to support his brother. The bonds of family are deeper than fraternal quarrels.
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