’s Blues Essay, Research Paper
“Sonny’s Blues”, by James Baldwin, is a story about the past and present lives of two brothers. The story is told in first person point-of-view by Sonny ’s brother, whose name is never mentioned. The narrator begins with the event of his brother getting caught in a raid for using heroin. The significance of this event triggers many memories and emotions for the narrator and his brother.
The narrator tells many stories from, the place they grew up, the death of their parents, and how they parted which explains a little of why they didn’t communicate so well. Through these stories lies, as to what I believer the theme of the story. At the end of paragraph 70, rite before paragraph 75, the narrator is describing the two of them riding in a cab and taking Sonny to his home. He says, “…, it came to me that what we both were seeking through our separate cab windows was that part of ourselves which had been left behind”. I think that the story revolves around this thought because both of these characters want to retrieve some of their past to maybe help them cope with what has happened in their lives and try to find a way to go on.
At the end of the story they seem to find a common bond through Sonny’s music. This is a bit ironic because never before did Sonny’s brother ever have an interest for his music. At this last event all the pieces come together or both of them. For one, through the music all the pain that they had felt like the death of Grace and Sonny’s addiction, came out. For once the narrator really gets into Sonny’s world and in return Sonny’s brother comes to an understanding. Through Sonny playing the blues, the narrator comes to an understanding of what has happened in Sonny’s life and his own.
In a story called “Sonny’s Blues”, James Baldwin writes about two brothers who bothgrew up in Harlem together. As each of the boys grew older, they fell apart from one another and lived two completely different lives. The narrator, who is the older brother, seemed to be more conservative and more determined for a good future. Sonny, the younger brother, was more free-willed and did not even know what his plans were for the next hour, much less for the rest of his life. It is sometimes difficult to understand how two people who come from the same background can turn out living like complete opposites from each other. As the narrator and
Sonny grew into adults, one moved towards success and the other moved towards failure.
Once both of their parents died, their lives changed drastically. Sonny was forced to move in with his brother’s fiancee, Isabel, where he was to stay until he finished high school. Sonny was constantly skipping school and eventually he ceased to go all together. Nobody was even aware about this problem until it was too late. While Sonny was on the streets, his older brother was creating his future by being an Algebra teacher. Eventually, Sonny turned to heroin for comfort and his brother stopped all communication between them. Both of them were raised by the same parents, but the only problem was that Sonny became sucked into the
streets of Harlem. In an essay called “From Halfway to Dick and Jane,” Jack Agueros writes about a boy who is a Puerto Rican and he had been forced to move by his parents. In this neighborhood, there are gangs and violence, which eventually pull this young boy in. All because of a neighborhood, a young boy’s life is turned upside down, much like Sonny’s (53-5). It must be hard not being able to fit into society and that is why most people like Sonny turn to drugs for a sense of belonging.
Although the streets of Harlem were harmful to Sonny, they helped his brother to reach for success. He saw what it was like to be a failure and he wanted to get away from that. It was hard for him to see why people were judged by color and why blacks felt inferior. On an episode of “Seventh Heaven,” the family’s friends were black. Even though they were black, they led a normal life like everyone else. When the two fathers and the two oldest sons tried to eat at a restaurant, the owner felt it was necessary to serve only the white two and not the black two. Just because of a skin color, they were discriminated against by white people who felt they
were superior. The narrator had to live through these acts of ignorance all of his childhood and he decided to be better than that by getting out of the streets of Harlem. These streets were full of discrimination and violence. Similar to the story of “American History”, name calling played a large role. Judith Cofer writes, “Gail, the biggest of the black girls who had the other end of the rope yelled, ‘Didn’t you eat your rice and beans and pork chops for breakfast today?”‘ This name calling destroyed the little girl on the other end which set an example of exactly what the narrator wanted to move from to be free from this type of behavior. The streets of Harlem showed Sonny’s brother the life which he did not want to have and it gave him a will to be successful.
Many critics have depicted James Baldwin’s, “Sonny’s Slues” by interpreting what they got out of the story. Donald Murray in “James Baldwin’s ‘Sonny’s Blues’: Complicated and Simple,” focuses on the important aspects of the story. He writes,
To be aware of oneself, Baldwin believes, is to feel a sense of
loss, to know where we are and what we’ve left behind: Sonny’s
presence forces the narrator to examine his own past; that is,
the past which he left behind in the ghetto. (255)
This explains how the narrator lived his life successfully by leaving the past behind and by knowing to learn from his and Sonny’s mistakes. He became successful because he moved on from the streets of Harlem. Another critic writes about the turning point when Sonny breaks from his brother and turns to the streets as a cry for a sense of belonging in a family. In “James Baldwin’s Image of Slack Community,” John Reilly writes,
His musical friends became Sonny’s family, replacing the brother
who had felt that Sonny’s choice of his style of life was the same
thing as dying, and for all practical purposes the brothers were
dead to each other in the extended separation before Sonny’s
arrest on narcotic charges. (261)
This shows the l?eginning of where Sonny’s life became distraught and miserable. Sonny had found his sense of belonging in and on the streets of Harlem. Another critic, Marcus Klein, also writes about how Sonny got sucked into the slumminess in the streets of Harlem in “A Question of Identity.” Klein writes:
Sonny’s problem is precisely the burden of his racial identity: he
must keep himself from drowning in the degradations and sorrows
of Negro life, but something within him demands also that he be
with it, meaning, within the bounds of the story, that he not be
white, that he acknowledge his racial community. (32)
This tells the inner problems which Sonny has to constantly battle within himself in order to escape the difficult obstacles that he faces in life. Harry L. Jones criticizes “Sonny’s Blues” in “James Baldwin: A Critical Evaluation”. Jones writes about the realization between the narrator and Sonny’s music. He realizes that Sonny has found peace within himself by using the expression of music. Sonny has saved his life through his music and he gives himself the will to be successful (49). All four of these critics have taken different aspects and interpretations of James Baldwin’s story of “Sonny’s Blues” and attempted to explain the effects of the Streets of Harlem. While Sonny was being pulled down into the slums of Harlem, his brother was busy being successful and he eventually realized that he was different from his brother and he saved him from being a complete failure.
Although Sonny’s life was brought back by his brother and by his music, the streets of Harlem played a large role in both of their lives. From the very beginning of adulthood, the narrator was thought of as being successful and having a great life. Sonny was headed in the wrong direction in the beginning but he was eventually saved and brought back to having a successful life by his brother. “The Parable of the Prodigal Son,” written in the book of Luke, states,
And he answering to his father: Lo, these many years do I serve
thee, neither transgressed at any time thy commandment: and yet
thou never gave me a kid, that might make merry with my friends:
but as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy
living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf. (79)
The difference between these two sons are clearly displayed and yet they both come from the same family. The younger brother, much like Sonny, sinned and participated in things that were considered to not be morally correct. The older brother, much like the narrator, stuck to the rules of the book and was successful. These two brothers realized their difference and decided to love each other. Shadowing these two brothers, Sonny and his brother reconciled themselves and decided to act like brothers. Even though they lived their lives differently, they were family and they needed each other. The narrator helped Sonny to realize that he had a life that was
worth living. The two brothers fought the temptations of Harlem and overcame the dangers that the streets held. Way down deep inside of these two brothers, a small portion of Harlem will always lie inside of them. Sonny helped his brother to realize that everybody lived in different ways and with different moral standards and the narrator helped Sonny discover his talent and his life.
I read about Sonny’s trouble in the spring. Little Grace died in the fall.” (p. 62) I thought it was interesting how the author decided to put those two peices of information together. It caused me to think about the significance of Sonny’s name. Monday we discussed how the narrator misunderstood his mother’s instructions and as a result took on the role of being Sonny’s father. Then reading about Grace just after Sonny was mentioned, I thought that Sonny’s name can be seen as significant to show the father-son relationship between the narrator and his brother. Especially since it is being told from the Big Brother’s point of view. -Nancy Thom “Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until he did.” (paragraph 240). I believe that this quote in the second to last paragraph of the story by the narrator summed up the main point of the story. Throughout the story, it seemed to me that Sonny was constantly battling the odds, trying to ascertain a level of success that the narrator had. More than anything, Sonny was trying to find himself, or find his place in the world. Within this place, he could do whatever he wanted. For him, however, he had trouble finding this place, although he kind of had an idea of where it was. Therefore, as the narrator said, this freedom Sonny was looking for was around him, and it was music, specifically the blues. Once Sonny found this freedom, he could fully enjoy it. However, until he demonstrated it to his disbelievers, especially his brother, he would not be fully free. Also, the narrator spoke of himself and everyone outside of Sonny being free once Sonny showed off his talents. This freedom, however, was simply knowing and being assured that Sonny had found his place. This quote, because it spoke of Sonny and his brother in such a broad yet specific sense, exemplified what this story was about. -Bob Tolone
In the story “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin, several quotes throughout the story caught my eye and made me think about the lives of Sonny and his brother. One quote that I feel has a great meaning to is in a conversation between Sonny and his brother, the narrator. It appears on page 65. It begins by the narrator telling Sonny, “But there’s no way not suffer-is there, Sonny?” Sonny then responds by saying, “I believe not, but that’s never stopped anyone from trying.” I believe that this quote is explaining both Sonny and the narrators lives. For example, I believe that both Sonny and the narrator have gone through suffering for their entire lives and they have been trying to stop themselves from suffering. For instance the narrator of the story has been trying to stop his suffering by losing contact with his brother. By doing this he. in a sense brushed his sorrow and suffering away. Sonny has also been trying to stop his suffering but in his case he used drugs in order to calm his hard times. In return he ended up suffering even more. So he again tried to stop his suffering by leaving Harlem and finding his brother. This quote, I feel, explains most of the story. Every goes through pain, loss, and suffering, but that is in some sense what life is about. Becoming happy and putting your sorrows aside. -Lisa Sim
Sonny’s Blues contains the line “It can come again,” he repeated. It is found in paragraph 220 on page 67. I believe this line has two meanings. First of all Sony just finished telling his brother that he wanted to get out of Harlem to avoid all of the drugs. He mentioned in great detail how low he had fallen since becoming involved in the drugs. Sonny himself said, “I was all by myself at thebottom of something, stinking and sweating and crying and shaking, and i smelled it, you know? my stink.” I think he realizes that while he may not be at rock bottom anymore it can come again unless he finally maintains some sort of ties with his brother. It is easy to fall back into that routine again. I also feel that The line “It can come again,” means that even though Sony has gone through all of this he and his brother can still go back and have a relationship like they once had. It is not too late to try and understand Sonny and take him for what he is. the minute sony makes this statement, I think his brother realizes where he went wrong with Sonny before. He wasn’t charged to control his life, just to watch over it. -Jonathan Saeger
“You’re going to need me, baby, one of these cold, rainy days.” (paragraph 176) This quote was placed for irony after Sonny slammed the door in his brother’s face. The narrator, Sonny’s brother, was asked by his mother to look after Sonny. The narrator incorrectly assumed that his way of life and his values would apply to Sonny as well. This was not the case. Sonny loved music and his brother could not accept the fact that Sonny would choose a profession/lifestyle based on feelings and talent rather than practicality and necessity. The narrator tries to be Sonny’s savior instead of his brother. He sees Sonny’s heroin addiction as his own failure as a “guardian”. Sonny tries to communicate several times that if he would have been allowed to continue his musical studies full time without distractions from school or in-laws, he may have made it out of the ghetto permanently. -Denise Loomis
After reading this short story and discussing it in class I believe that when at the end, “Creole and Sonny let out thier breath, both soaking wet, and grinning.”, (241) that Sonny had finally been freed from his depression and the narrator could finally understand. In Sonny’s letter to his brother he says, “I feel like a man who’s been trying to climb out of some deep, real deep and funky hole and just saw the sun up there, outside.”(50) There was a hint that Sonny may have used drugs in this story and I think that this quote shows that he had used drugs and with rehabilitation he can now see what he has done, and where he wants to go. Another example of this could be seen in paragraph 220 when Sonny and the narrator are discussing what happened when he was younger. Sonny says that, “it can come again,”. With this quote he could be referring to his previous drug use. Sonny has made known that he wants to clean up but because he is back in the “projects” that he could fall to temptation. The narrator and Sonny had both had lots of hard times in their life. I don’t think that either could understand one another’s pains, creating a communication problem. The narrator thought that Sonny was being unrealistic with his dream of music and Sonny knew that his brother would never understand his relationship with music. I think that Sonny dealt with his pain and problems through his music and the narrator dealt with problems by hiding from them. I think that Creole could almost be the brothers’ guardian angel. He knew of the situation between the two brothers and I think that because he started so soon after the first set was over he had planned to attempt to help. Creole knew the power of music and used it to his advantage. An example of this would be in paragraph 237 when the narrator says, “Yet, watching Creole’s face as they neared the end ofthe first set, I had the feeling that something had happened, something I hadn’t heard.” The narrator and Sonny had both missed something. Then Creole started in right away and the narrator was now more attentive and after awhile Sonny began his climb out of his hole. Then in paragraph 238 the narrator says, “He hit something in all of them, he hit something in me, …,and the music tightened and deepened, apprehension began to beat the air,” In this quote I believe that both Sonny and the narrator were finally on the same wavelength. Finally at the end in paragraph 240 the narrator states, “Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free if we would listen.” I think that both Sonny and the narrator had finally connected and each had reached their own “outside”. With the help of Creole and music each had reached their own peace with the world. -Veronica Jacobson
The passage that I chose to write about is from “Sonny’s Blues.” It is line 165, the narrator says, “Sonny, you hear me?” Sonny responds, “I hear you, but you never hear me.” This line is a big part of the whole story. The narrator has never understood his brother. He doesn’t listen to his brother because he seems to be so woried about watching over him. The narrator doesn’t understand why music is so important to Sonny. The whole discussion leading up to these lines is more examples of the narrator not listening to Sonny. The narrator was told to watch over his brother, but he took these instructions and tried to control Sonny. At the end of the story, Sonny is finally heard. The narrator goes to a club and listens to Sonny. He then finally understands what is so important to Sonny and why his like is so much about his music. -Laura Harding
This passage between our narrator and a former friend of Sonny is interesting to me. It causes me to wonder if by talking to this man that it helps the narrator to feel less guilty about not being there for Sonny. Mainly the part where he gives the guy five dollars. I think by helping someone Sonny was associated with that it makes the narrator feel less guilty about breaking his promise to his mother. Ialso think that by asking the other man,”What the hell can I do anyway”. By asking him this he might be looking foe reassurance that there is nothing he can do. If I am way offbase please write back and tell me. -Bryan Hanvey
Lines 105-110 in Sonny’s Blues. “Everyone is looking at something a child cn’t see. For a minute they’ve forgotton the children….The silence, the darkness is coming, and the darkness in the faces frighten the child obscurely. He hopes that the hand which strokes his forehead will never stop- will never die.” On the surface, this quote is talking about how it is getting late in the day and the sun is going down and darkness is falling on a lazy, peaceful, Sunday afternoon. To the children, everything is perfect. There is hidden meaning in this. What the narrator is really talking about is his own life and the life of his brother Sonny. As children, they were happy and didn’t have a care in the world. They were not aware of all of the bad things, or “darkness” that would happen to them in the future. All children are innocent and are never prepared for the trials and disappointments of adulthood. -Leigha Bergstrand
Although deep water and drowning are sometimes related, they are not the same thing. “Deep water” is/are challenges that face us all. They can face us in the classroom, the workplace, the weightroom, or on the playing field. The challenges present themselves, and the question is, “Are you going to sink or swim?” (”Are you up to the challenge at hand?”). Drowning occurs when one is unable to survive the deep water. One can also drown by refusing to accept the challenge. A great feeling occurs when one accepts a challenge and then defeats it. An even greater feeling can be felt when one not only accepts a challenge, but also goes on to excel past the limit of expectations. I had these feelings after my father passed away during spring break last semester. The question was, “Are you going to allow this tragedy ruin your education opportunity?” I was able to look defeat right into its eyes and say, “I’m too mentally strong to allow this misfortune to be any form of an excuse. I must carry on, as if were by my side, and make him proud.” I hope I did. My GPA was a 3.4. -Peter Slavish
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Themes of personal importance include the significance of community identification, the communion achieved in “Sonny’s Blues,” for example; the conflicted feelings following success when that requires departure from the home community; the power of love to bridge difference. The chief historical issue centers on the experience of urbanization following migration from an agricultural society. The philosophical issue concerns Baldwin’s use of religious imagery and outlook, his interest in redemption and the freeing of spirit. Interestingly, this philosophical/religious issue is often conveyed in the secular terms of blues, but transcendence remains the point.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Baldwin’s frequent use of the first-person narration and the personal essay naturally associates his writing with autobiography. His fiction should be discussed in relation to the traditions of African-American autobiography which, since the fugitive slave narratives, has presented a theme of liberation from external bondage and a freeing of subjectivity to express itself in writing. As for period, his writing should be looked at as a successor to polemical protest; thus, it is temporally founded in the 1950s and 1960s.
In class I ask students to search out signs that the narrative was written for one audience or the other: What knowledge is expected of the reader? What past experiences are shared by assumption? Incidentally, this makes an interesting way to overcome the resistance to the material. Without being much aware that they are experiencing African-American culture, most Americans like the style and sound of blues and jazz, share some of the ways of dress associated with those arts and their audiences, and know the speech patterns.
In James Baldwin’s Sonny’s Blues he deals with a man trying to find his identity in a very hostile society. The blues in this story is used in a more emotional manner which recollects the past. It also repairs the relationship between the two brothers who have chosen two different ways of coping in their ghetto environment. The blues also serves as a communication devise between the two brothers. Baldwin uses the blues to state a fact; the ugliness and meanness inherent in the human condition. In order to really understand the message of the blues you have to be one that has suffered just like Sonny and the elder brother. The blues that they play also communicates to other sufferers who have had their own trials, so they know what this music is all about. Sonny’s suffering are within himself, but deep suffering is common to all his listeners. Even his brother can attune himself to this suffering, which is brought on by the death of his little daughter Grace. When the brother is at the club listening to the blues he recalls his mother, the moonlit road on which his uncle died, and his wife’s tears and he responds deeply to the music and is able to find himself through his own suffering. The blues move farther than just being simply a lament. The brother reveals that, “the song is no longer a lament. I seemed to hear with what we had yet to make it ours, how we could cease lamenting. Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did.”( ) This discovery reiterates Creole’s earlier assessment of the blues: “There isn’t any other tale to tell, its the only light we’ve got in all the darkness.” Here the blues provides for the player and listener a temporary flight away from the despair of their daily condition. The blues that they are playing touches the heart without words.