Sonny's Blues Summary
by James Baldwin

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Sonny's Blues Summary

James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues" is about the unnamed narrator's troubled relationship with his younger brother, Sonny.

  • The narrator learns that Sonny has been arrested for drug possession. After some hesitation, he writes to Sonny, who later is released from prison and comes to live with the narrator in New York.
  • The narrator reflects on Sonny's youth and his own sense of responsibility for his brother.
  • The narrator comes to one of Sonny's jazz shows. As he listens to Sonny's blues, he realizes that the music expresses not just Sonny's pain but all of humanity's—and offers a moment's relief.

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Summary

In James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” the unnamed first-person narrator begins by saying that he read about an unspecified incident in the newspaper while traveling to work on the subway. This incident concerned someone called Sonny, and the thought of it distracted the narrator all day. He describes the feeling as being like a block of ice inside him, which sent cold water trickling through his veins. The narrator, who is a high school algebra teacher, thinks about when Sonny was the same age as the boys in his class. At this point he reveals that the incident in the newspaper was Sonny’s arrest for selling and using heroin and that Sonny is his brother.

The narrator thinks back to his childhood, remembering how similar he and Sonny were to the boys he now teaches. Sonny was about their age when he first tried heroin, and, for all the narrator knows, his whole class might be taking the drug. As he begins to go home, he thinks he can see Sonny standing in a doorway, but he quickly realizes that the man is actually an old friend of Sonny’s, whom the narrator has never liked. The man shuffles over to him and asks if he has heard about Sonny’s arrest. The narrator is reluctant to talk, but the man starts to follow him home, asking what he intends to do about Sonny. He says that he doesn’t think there is much he can do, and the man agrees, expressing surprise that Sonny got himself into this situation.

The man then says that he “felt sort of responsible” for what happened to Sonny. While he never gave Sonny any drugs, he did once come to school high and tell Sonny that it felt great. The man also says that, though Sonny will now be sent for rehabilitation, Sonny will likely never be able to kick the habit.

The narrator notes that he did not contact Sonny for a long time after reading about his arrest. The narrator finally reached out, just after his own daughter died. Sonny’s reply, which the narrator reproduces, made him “feel like a bastard.” Sonny wrote that he needed to hear from his brother but never contacted him, since he knew that he must have hurt him. Now Sonny feels as though he has climbed out of a deep hole. Sonny expresses regret about the past and uncertainty about the future but says that if he does “get outside again” and manage to come to New York, he hopes his brother will meet him.

Eventually Sonny does return to New York, and the narrator comes to meet him. The narrator says that incarceration “had made him older and thinner and it had deepened the distant stillness in which he had always moved.” His smile, however, was familiar. Sonny is seven years younger than the narrator, who suddenly remembers that he was there when Sonny was born, heard his first words, and witnessed his first steps. They drive to the narrator’s home, going beside the park and noting that, although most of the buildings they knew as children have vanished, the neighborhoods and the people in them have remained fundamentally the same. Even the new housing project where the narrator lives is, in terms of atmosphere and community, similar to the houses in which they grew up. The children who live there do the same things and have the same experiences. “The same things happen, they’ll have the same things to remember.”

Sonny gets on well with the narrator’s wife and children. Thinking about his...

(The entire section is 1,446 words.)