Essay, Research Paper
Theme is an essential element to any story, serving as a central message the author means to convey to the reader. In Sonny s Blues, a short story by James Baldwin, the theme of the story shows the reader the importance of listening, both in the narrator s life, but also in the reader s life. By following the difficult lives of two brothers who grew up in Harlem, New York, Baldwin explains the painful process of one brother s learning to listen. As the two brothers attempt to heal wounds left from the past, the story illustrates the importance of learning to listen. To Baldwin, listening seems to carry a double meaning: the true ability to communicate with one another and really caring for one another.
The relationship between the two brothers shows throughout the story the first type of listening. In the beginning of the story, the narrator is a man who does not know how to listen, and who finds himself unable to assist Sonny in his time of need. When the police arrest Sonny for heroin addiction, the narrator then describes his reaction: “A great block of ice got settled in my belly and kept melting slowly all day long [...] Sometimes it hardened up and seemed to expand until I felt my guts were going to come spilling out or that I was going to choke or scream” (Page 272). Shock and sorrow physically plague the narrator, paralyzing him from any expression. Due to this event, he does not even contact Sonny until the death of his daughter, a year later. Then, in his own time of need, he reaches out for Sonny, perhaps realizing that Sonny might be able to help him.
Through this tragedy, he is finally able to respond to Sonny’s trouble because of his own suffering. Before the death of his daughter, he can not hear or understand Sonny at all, although he really wants to. After her death, he is able to keep in touch with Sonny, and to communicate with him a little when he returns to Harlem. His mother’s last wish is for him to hold on” to Sonny. She says, You got to hold on to your brother 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 [ ] You may not be able to stop nothing from happening. But you got to let him know you s there (Page 282).
When Sonny tries to talk to him after their mother’s death, his brother s communication is unsuccessful. Sonny tries to explain to his brother that he needs to get away from Harlem because of his need for drugs; however, his brother is too concerned in his own life to respond. He cannot hear him, and so he ignores his plea. At that time, Sonny tries to tell him about his music as well, but again, his brother is unwilling to listen.
When Sonny returns from prison, his brother has grown a bit. Then, when Sonny tries to talk to him about his inner life, about his suffering with heroin and about the role of music in his life, he keeps still and tries desperately to listen. As Baldwin describes their conversation, he illustrates how the narrator restrains himself and how he wants to interrupt with contradictions, but now is able to control himself. He keeps silent, and listens.
At the climax of the story, the narrator goes with Sonny to a village club to hear him play for the first time. This experience changes him. He really learns to listen from his brother’s music. As he says, Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free if we would, and that he would never be free until we did (Page 294). Finally, listening and really hearing Sonny frees him for the moment, from the constant struggles and suffering he feels. Although the duration is only a moment, this sense of release allows him to make contact with himself as well as with his brother, Sonny. Finally, he is able to cope with his daughter’s death. Before this, sorrow overwhelms him and makes him unable to comfort his wife. The music somehow seems to carry him through and past this barrier, and he becomes able to feel his wife’s pain as well as his own.
Applying these two meanings of listening, true communication and caring for each other, the narrator progresses throughout the story. At first, the narrator is a rigid and tense man who has completely closed himself off to his own world. At the conclusion, the reader feels he is completely changed by his experience with Sonny’s music. Now he must get in touch with his own feelings, thus making him more capable of responding sincerely and completely to the people he loves. Through all of this, he gains consideration and insight for the Harlem life, for the experiences of his parents, and for his own life. In essence, he has learned to love and to listen.