At a Glance

  • The most important themes in Sonny's life are music and suffering. His blues stem from the physical and emotional pain he has suffered over the years as an orphan and drug addict in a poor African American neighborhood. Without this pain, Sonny would have no material for his music and would be unable to create art.
  • For the narrator, the most important theme of the story may well be loss. His life has been riddled with tragedy: the deaths of his parents, the horrors of war, the loss of his two-year-old daughter to polio, and the sadness of watching his brother's life deteriorate. This sadness permeates his narrative voice, making the tone of the story one of pain and disappointment.
  • Race and racism are underlying themes in "Sonny's Blues." The narrator and Sonny represent two different paths for African American men: one, education and respectability; the other, criminal activity, drug abuse, and prison time. Baldwin uses his characters to illustrate the harm systemic racism has had on the African American community.

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Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

As the narrator feels united with his brother and, by implication, with all humankind in shared sorrows, he reflects, “And I was yet aware that this was only a moment, that the world waited outside, as hungry as a tiger, and that trouble stretched above us, longer than the sky.” This opposition between moments of meaning in loving community and the terrifying, troubled, and apparently meaningless outside world pervades the story in theme and in technique.

The opposition appears in multiple guises. It appears in the housing project where the narrator lives, an attempt to impose order on the old dangerous neighborhood that fails when the project is transformed into merely a new version of the old dangerous neighborhood. The opposition is reflected in his memories of childhood, of being secure in families, not having yet to deal with the horrors of the world, and yet being aware even as a child, that with each passing moment, he came closer to having to live unprotected in the dark, chaotic world. It appears in the story of the death of his uncle: On a warm, beautiful night when the brothers were walking, enjoying each other’s company, a wild car suddenly swooped over a hill, to destroy a beloved brother. For African Americans in the middle of the twentieth century, racism is another of the dark forces of destruction and meaninglessness that must be endured. Beauty, joy, triumph, security, suffering, and sorrow are all creations of community, especially of family and familylike groups. They are temporary havens from the world’s trouble, and they are also the meanings of human life.

The narrator and Sonny have found alternative ways of making meaning and order. The narrator makes a literal family and a conventional career, as his father did. Sonny becomes an artist, one who expresses for himself and his community and to himself and his community the passions that unite them. By expressing these passions, giving them order in articulation and making them meaningful, he also makes and sustains a kind of family, a community of shared moments of meaning.

James Baldwin often deals with these themes in his fiction and other prose, especially with the problems of the black artist or intellectual trying to find or create a sustaining community.


(Short Stories for Students)

In "Sonny's Blues," a man finally comes to understand the darkness and suffering that consumes his brother, and he begins to appreciate the music that his brother uses to calm those blues.

The main theme of "Sonny's Blues" is suffering, particularly the sufferings of black people in America. Although Baldwin presents only one example of overt racism in the story—the death of Sonny's uncle under the wheels of a car driven by a group of drunken whites—the repercussions of the treatment received by black people is omnipresent. Sonny's father is tormented by the memory of his brother's death and suffers from a hatred of white people as a result. This hatred, Baldwin...

(The entire section is 1,559 words.)