I:  James Baldwin Biography 

II: Plot Overview 

III: Socio-historical setting 

IV: Characterization

V:  Imagery

VI:  Themes

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Part I: James Baldwin Biography

James Baldwin was born on August 2, 1924 in Harlem to Emma Berdis Jones, who was not married atyoungbaldwin.jpg the time.  When Baldwin was three, his mother married David Baldwin, a storefront preacher who adopted James and fathered Baldwin's eight younger half-siblings.  Despite James's obedience, his intelligence, his success in school and the efforts he made to be appreciated by his stern stepfather, David Baldwin never accepted the precocious and talented James and so James always felt like an outcast in the family.  He compared his fate as the unloved, unwanted child of his stepfather to that of the Biblical character Ishmael, from Genesis 21.  Ishmael was the first but illegitimate son of Abraham who, with his mother Hagar, the Egyptian bondwoman, was cast out to wander in the wilderness when Isaac, the legitimate son, was born. (For the Biblical text of Genesis 21, see http://www.ccel.org/bible/brenton/Genesis/21.html).  Scholars have observed that many of Baldwin's works are a re-writing of this archetypal story that depicts an inscrutable God's preference for one child over another.  Indeed, using Ishmael's story as a metaphor for both his own experience and for the experience of blacks in a racist America, Baldwin comments on the feelings of dispossession and alienation that accompany African American identity in a predominately white society.  Baldwin reflects on growing up with a fundamentalist preacher father in an austere religious home in his first semi-autobiographical novel, Go Tell It On the Mountain, where he explores these feelings of dispossession and alienation.  Like the teenaged Baldwin, who turned to religion to help him understand both his father's disapproval of him and the church's expectations of him, John Grimes, the main character of Go Tell It On the Mountain, undergoes an ambiguous religious conversion.  Although John is "saved," he uses his newfound religiosity only as a weapon against the zealous cruelty of his stepfather. As Baldwin himself did, John Grimes also grapples with his homosexual leanings.  A frank portrayal of homosexuality also characterized Baldwin's second novel, Giovanni's Room, which tells of the relationship between a young white American and an Italian in Paris. 

youngmustachedjbaldwin.jpgAn exceptional student, Baldwin began his writing career in junior high school under the tutelage of renowned Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen, who taught and advised the school's literary club.  In high school, Baldwin published numerous stories for the school newspaper, eventually becoming its co-editor with Richard Avedon, who later became a renowned photographer. Baldwin graduated from high school in 1942 and, to support himself, took a construction job for the railroad in New Jersey.  In 1944 he moved to Greenwich Village (a neighborhood in downtown Manhattan where many artists, musicians and writers lived) and began his first novel.  His work was appreciated by older writers and editors almost immediately and he received several important writer's fellowships. In addition to fiction, he began to write book reviews and opinion pieces; thus Baldwin began his career as a professional writer. 

In 1948, fleeing what he had felt and experienced as the poisonous racial atmosphere of the Unitedbaldwinin1958.gif States, Baldwin moved to France.  Though Baldwin remained in France for the rest of his life, he did visit the United States periodically to participate in the Civil Rights Movement, to teach, to lecture, and to write about the continuing racial drama of his native land.  His life experience as a citizen of two lands allowed him to conclude that although Europe did permit him some relief from the pernicious atmosphere of racial discrimination he had experience in the U.S., no European country was without the sort of racial tensions that limited the opportunities of some group of "browner" people.

USAbaldwin.jpgBaldwin's long list of literary accomplishments includes essays, plays, and novels, most of which were set in the United States or concerned the struggles of people from the United States.  In addition to Go Tell It On The Mountain (1953) and Giovanni's Room (1956), Baldwin's novels include Another Country (1962), Tell Me How Long The Train's Been Gone (1968), If Beale Street Could Talk (1974), and Just Above My Head (1979).  Among his books of essays are The Fire Next Time (1962), Notes of a Native Son (1955), Evidence of Things Not Seen (1985), and The Price of the Ticket (1985).  His plays include The Amen Corner (1955) and Blues for Mister Charlie (1964).  Baldwin also collaborated on a book of photographs called Nothing Personal (1964) with his high-school colleague and long time friend Richard Avedon. During the last decade of his life, Baldwin taught and lectured frequently at various American universities, including University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Bowling Green State, and University of California, Berkeley. Baldwin died of cancer in December of 1987.

A 1995 John Stevenson essay of appreciation of James Baldwin in the Boston Book Review.

The New York Times obituary for James Baldwin.

A review of David Leeming's James Baldwin: A Biography, by David Van Leer of the University of California, Davis.

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Part II: Plot Overview

"Sonny's Blues" is narrated in the first-person by an unnamed character, Sonny's brother.  An algebra shoppinginharlem.jpg teacher in a high school in Harlem, this narrator is a stable family man with a wife and two sons. He is seven years older than Sonny and has tried, at various times during their lives, to parent him and to protect him.  The story opens as the narrator, who has been estranged from Sonny for over a year, is on the subway, reading about a drug raid in which Sonny has been arrested and jailed.  As guilt and sorrow wash over him, the narrator is approached by one of Sonny's childhood friends, an addict who blames himself for Sonny's addiction and subsequent arrest.  The narrator and the friend discuss what has happened to Sonny, and we see the narrator begin, with anger, to try to understand how and why Sonny has become an addict. 

Pause, Reflect, and Chat

Chat #1: Reread the exchange between the narrator and Sonny's friend. How would you characterize the narrator's behavior and feelings towards Sonny's friend? Is the narrator kind, cruel, compassionate, abrupt, empathic, angry? Explain your view and the evidence supporting it.

The narrator doesn't contact Sonny while he is in prison/rehab until his own daughter, Gracie, dies of polio (see "grace" as defined by Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology). 

Pause, Reflect, and Chat

Chat #2: In your own dictionary (preferable), or via this link, review the theological or religious meaning of the word "grace" (It has to do with the mercy and protection of God that is granted true believers). Now consider why Baldwin named the narrator's doomed child "Gracie." What might Baldwin be saying about religion in the lives of his characters? Is Sonny religious? Is the narrator?

When the narrator does finally contact Sonny, Sonny responds immediately, asking for forgiveness, trying to explain how and why he developed his heroin addiction, and expressing his uncertainty over what will happen to him when he is released from prison. When Sonny is released from prison, the narrator brings him back to live with his family in Harlem and begins trying to repair their relationship.

At this point in the story, the narrator flashes back to several scenes that occurred during their young adulthood.  In one scene, their mother asks the narrator to take care of Sonny and to watch out for him when she dies.  She tells him that his own father had had a brother who was very much like Sonny, but who was killed by drunken whites on a rural road in the South. 

Pause, Reflect, and Chat

Chat #3: Consider the ways that the narrator's relationship with Sonny might be similar to that of their father with his murdered brother. In what ways is Sonny like his uncle? How is the narrator's temperament like his father's? Do they share any coping strategies?

In a second flashback, the narrator tells us that following his mother's funeral, the narrator arranges for the teenaged Sonny to live with his fiancée Isabel's family while he is at war.  In a third flashback, Sonny clashes with Isabel's middle-class family, who don't understand his passion for music, his desire to "hang out" downtown with other musicians (both white and black) or his rejection of Isabel's family's values and lifestyle.  He runs away and joins the Navy, goes to Greece and returns to live a Bohemian lifestyle in New York's Greenwich Village.  Presumably, he struggles there as a musician and a heroin addict, maintaining a harlemstreet.jpgfragile and intermittent relationship with his brother until he is picked up the final time on drug charges.  Following these flashback scenes, we see the brothers trying to repair their relationship, threatened still by Sonny's addiction, which is under control but hovering in the wings, and by the narrator's continuing mistrust and misunderstanding of Sonny's commitment to his music.  As the narrator slowly comes closer to understanding Sonny, Sonny invites him to a nightclub in Greenwich Village, where he is able to witness Sonny in his element, playing the music that helps him remain whole and stay sane.  Here, at the end of the story, the narrator finally begins to understand Sonny's struggle and how music helps him, and his audience, endure and perhaps triumph over it.

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Part III: Socio-Historical Setting of "Sonny's Blues" and Characterization of Brothers Within That Context

a.  Growing Up in Harlem: 

"Sonny's Blues" takes place during the mid-20th century, probably during the early 1950s.  The action of Harlem.gifthe story occurs prior to the gains made by the Civil Rights Movement, during the dark days of segregation and supposedly "separate but equal" accommodations in public institutions.  You'll notice that the narrator and Sonny have grown up in predominately black and poor neighborhood of Harlem, the sons of a working-class, embittered father whose pride and optimism have been worn down by his own brother's violent death at the hands of rural Southern whites and the ensuing years of struggling to support a family in an overtly racist Northern urban community.  The father has given up trying to move his family out of Harlem:  "'Safe!' my father grunted, whenever Mama suggested trying to move to a neighborhood which might be safer for children.  'Safe, hell! Ain't no place safe for kids, nor nobody'" (Norton Introduction to Literature 54).  As the brothers reach adulthood and the narrator begins his own family, their material circumstances haven't changed much; though the narrator is not impoverished himself and enjoys the comfortable trappings of middle class life, he and his family remain in impoverished surroundings, probably due to the de facto segregation of the safer, suburban and largely white communities they might have been able to afford.

Pause, Reflect, and Chat

Chat #4: "De facto" means "in reality," or, "actually existing though not legally or officially established." So "de facto segregation" would be a separation of the races that "just" happens, not because of a law saying that African Americans must live, work, go to school or worship in one place and whites in another. Do you see any de facto segregation around you, in your school, neighborhood or city? What are some of the reasons why de facto segregation might occur?

The narrator is teaching algebra to boys very much like he and Sonny had been, full of potential but threatened by the drugs and violence of the urban ghetto, their futures limited by segregation and discrimination.  The narrator describes the boys he teaches, to whom he likens Sonny and himself as boys, in the following way:

"They were growing up with a rush and their heads bumped abruptly against the low ceiling of their actual possibilities. They were filled with rage. All they really knew were two darknesses, the darkness of their lives, which was now closing in on them, and the darkness of the movies, which had blinded them to that other darkness, and in which they now, vindictively, dreamed, at once more together than they were at any other time, and more alone (Norton Introduction to Literature 48).

Although he doesn't approve, the narrator begins to understand how such a child can go wrong, or can become addicted to drugs.  He suspects some of his own students to "be popping off needles every time they went to the head," and surmises that "maybe it did more for them than algebra could" (Norton Introduction to Literature 48). The narrator is aware, then, that in spite of his own success at attaining the valued middle class lifestyle, most of his students wouldn't be so lucky. 

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b.  Military Service 

The brothers' military service plays an important role in the socio-historical context of the story.  The narrator refers to being "home on leave from the army" during the war; he remarks that his father "died suddenly, during a drunken weekend in the middle of the war, when Sonny was fifteen" (Norton Introduction to Literature 54) and he informs the reader that both he and Sonny served in the military. It is important to notice and understand these references to the military service of the brothers.

In her book American Patriots, Gail Lumet Buckley chronicles the history of blacks in the military.  Buckley writes that throughout American history, up until the first efforts at desegregation of public institutions in the 1950s, blacks had had a long and distinguished record of volunteering for military combat, from the Revolutionary War through the Korean War. But their patriotic efforts were often spurned by white officers (George Washington, for example, expelled blacks from military service during the Revolution until he needed the manpower) and the racist atmosphere of the pre-1950s military was at best inhospitable and at worst lethal to black soldiers (in 1953, a rash of lynchings of blacks in uniform finally spurred President Truman into action to desegregate the military). Beginning after their liberation from slavery, black men had tried to prove their patriotism and to improve their standard of living by serving in the U.S. military.  Hoping that service to their country would prove them worthy of the same respect and opportunities accorded to whites, black men readily enlisted in the military.

Pause, Reflect, and Chat

Chat #5: For extra credit, rent the film Glory to see a historical portrayal of an African American regiment during the Civil War, or A Soldier's Story to see a representation of an African American regiment during World War II. Chat about your responses to these films.

The characters in "Sonny's Blues" reflect this tendency:  As a teenager, Sonny yearns to enlist in the army or navy because it would take him away from the "killing streets" (Norton Introduction to Literature 53) of Harlem and give him the opportunity to get a college education on the GI Bill (Norton Introduction to Literature 60).  That enlistment in the Army during a war might seem safer or more sane than remaining at home is part of the cruel irony of this family's urban experience.  The narrator, too, has struggled in spite of his military service to his country to attain success and safety at home.  He dutifully fought the war, returned to become an algebra teacher and a productive member of the middle class, and yet because of segregation and discrimination, his family must live in a new but already rundown housing project, "a parody of a good, clean, faceless life" (Norton Introduction to Literature 53).

Indeed, though African Americans' service in the military forces was crucial to American efforts to 159th.jpgpreserve democracy for herself and for her Western European allies during the 20th century, America abrogated her democratic promise of equal opportunity for African Americans after the conclusion of each military contest in the first half of the 20th century.  This continually frustrated desire to prove one's Americanness, of wanting to assimilate and to exercise the privileges that white citizens took for granted, contributed to the feelings of dissatisfaction and alienation expressed by the narrator in his story and by Sonny and other artists in their blues music.

For more on African Americans in the military, see "The African American Experience in the Military" and this "U.S. Armed Forces Integration Chronology."

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c.  Jazz Music, Class Divisions and Racial Politics  

In his article entitled "Baldwin, Bebop, and Sonny's Blues" (in Understanding Others: Cultural and Cross-Cultural Studies and the Teaching of Literature, eds. Joseph Trimmer and Tilly Warnock Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1992, 165-176.), Pancho Savery concludes that the story most likely takes place during the Korean War rather than during World War II.  Savery argues that the story's discussion of the 1950s jazz music scene illustrates a division in the black community represented by the brothers themselves.  To understand Savery's argument, we first must understand some of the personality and philosophical differences between Sonny and his brother. The division within the black community can best be described as between those of middle class, like the narrator, who downplay the barriers to their success, who want to believe that they can improve their standard of living in the US, who feel confident that through hard work, determination and self-denial, they can make their world safe for their children, and who would readily assimilate into white society if given the chance. 

Pause, Reflect, and Chat

Chat #6: This world-view held by the narrator is sometimes referred to as "The American Dream." Do you believe in the American Dream? What evidence might you offer to suggest that the American Dream is possible or impossible to attain?

The other group, Sonny's group, is more radical and less accepting of the status quo. They suspect that as blacks their struggles will always be fierce, and that, unless drastic social change were to occur, they will always be shut out from the privileges most whites enjoy.

This opposition can be seen mainly in several conversations between the brothers.  First, when thecharlieparker.jpg younger narrator confronts the teenaged Sonny about his plans for the future, Sonny avers that he would like to become a musician.  Seeing this career goal as an impractical and therefore dangerous choice, the narrator says, "Well, Sonny, you know people can't always do exactly what they want to do--."  This quotation sums up the narrator's personality: he is cautious, responsible, willing to deny himself the things he might want so that he can maintain his foothold as a middle class family man.  He's also afraid for Sonny, afraid that Sonny will fail or, because he doesn't understand them, that Sonny's goals are not lofty enough.  Sonny responds with "No, I don't know that.  I think people ought to do what they want to do, what else are they alive for?," (Norton Introduction to Literature 59) indicating his unwillingness to subordinate his dreams and goals to someone else's standard of success.

sadbillieholiday.jpgIn another conversation, which takes place during the present day time frame of the story as the brothers watch an emotionally arresting street singer, Sonny says "it struck me all of a sudden how much suffering she must have had to go through -- to sing like that.  It's repulsive to think you have to suffer that much" (Norton Introduction to Literature 65).  Sonny here shows the sensitivity and perception of the artist that he is; clearly, he feels other people's pain acutely and in thinking about it deeply, is transformed such that he gains an insight into an art form and how it is produced.  The brother responds in a practical, almost dismissive way by saying, "But there's no way not to suffer--is there, Sonny?"  The narrator has essentially missed Sonny's point (Sonny seems to have realized long ago that there's no way not to suffer). 

Pause, Reflect, and Chat

Chat #7 An article in the November 2000 Atlantic magazine suggests that jazz listeners have always believed that the singer Billie Holiday can feel their pain. Visit this site to read her lyrics and listen to her music to see if you agree.

Sonny's response -- "I believe not, but that's never stopped anyone from trying, has it?" -- shows what he understands about art, music and even drug use that his brother has not yet understood.  Their conversation here mirrors the early conversation the narrator has with Sonny's friend by the subway.  The anguished narrator is only beginning to comprehend Sonny's drug use, his bohemian lifestyle and the risks he takes to express his true self.  He says to Sonny's friend "Tell me, why does he want to die?  He must want to die, he's killing himself, why does he want to die?"  The friend, surprised by the narrator's lack of understanding, responds with "He don't want to die.  He wants to live.  Don't nobody want to die, ever" (Norton Introduction to Literature 51).  What Sonny and his friend understand, which the narrator misses throughout most of the story, is that living by another man's definition of success or, worse, being hemmed in by a discrimination that deprives one of true freedom, is like being dead.  Music, art, and even drugs are avenues out of that social death, even as they are, in their own ways, dangerous or subversive.  See below for a further discussion of Baldwin's attitude towards drugs in "Sonny's Blues."

One might make a connection here to the last line of Langston Hughes's poem "Weary Blues," in which the jazz musician comes alive as he plays music all night and then, when he's no longer at his piano, sleeps "like a man that's dead."  Baldwin and Hughes might be saying that years of struggle living as an oppressed minority kills vital parts of one's humanity and that that humanity can be reclaimed only through the creation of some sort of original art, in this case, blues music.  We might use this idea to interpret Baldwin's oxymoronic description of the "vivid, killing streets of [the brothers'] childhood" (Norton Introduction to Literature 53). This important descriptive phrase, in which "vivid"-- meaning "lifelike," or "full of the vigor and freshness of immediate experience" -- opposes the word "killing," suggests that the experience of growing up as a African American child in a white oriented-society is a paradoxical one; it promises suffering, but also offers opportunities to transcend that suffering through music and culture.

Looking at yet another conversation between the brothers, critic Pancho Savery (in his essay "Baldwin, Bebop and Sonny's Blues") notices the way in which Baldwin uses jazz music as an analogy for the way the brothers don't really understand each other and for the distinction between those who would give up a great deal of independence and personal satisfaction to stay safe and those who would risk everything to express themselves and to claim their rights.  As the narrator and Sonny discuss Sonny's career plans, the narrator asks Sonny if he wants to be a jazz musician "like Louis Armstrong."  Sonny's reaction is almost violent: "No, I'm not talking about none of that old-time down home crap."  It turns out that Sonny admires a newer, edgier kind of jazz music, one not yet accepted by mainstream culture, a fresh sound exemplified by the music of Charlie Parker (see Parker in Downbeat Magazine, 1947).  This new jazz, also called Bebop, had revolutionized music by 1952 (Savery 167), but traditionalists like Sonny's brother, who don't place a high value on art, music or African American culture, might not have heard of Charlie Parker.  Bebop fans in the early 50s were looking for a replacement for, in Sonny's words, "that old-time down home crap" that Louis Armstrong had pioneered and that white artists like Benny Goodman had subsequently popularized among mainstream white audiences. 

Pause, Reflect, and Chat

Chat #8: Listen again to the Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker sound clips. How do their styles differ? What do you hear that is "radical" in Parker's music? How is Armstrong's music conventional? For more samples of their music, visit

Perhaps because mainstream white musicians were now playing Armstrong's music, avant-garde, radical music fans and musicians felt such music was watered down, conservative, and not revolutionary. Thus, dating the rift between Armstrong fans and Bebop fans to just after WWII, Savery places the story in the early 50s. 

Savery tells us that Bebop fans appreciated much more than the new sound in music.  "Bebop was part of [a] new attitude," one that challenged the status quo.  Savery quotes jazz critic Gary Giddins: "The Second World War severely altered the texture and tempo of American life, and jazz reflected those changes with greater acuteness by far than the other arts." (Giddins qtd. in Savery 170).  Moreover, Savery writes,

"when Bebop began in the 1940s, America was in a similar position to what it had been in the 1920s.  A war had been fought to free the world (again) for democracy; and once again, African Americans had participated and had assumed that this "loyal" participation would result in new rights and new levels of respect.  When, once again, this did not appear to be happening, a new militancy developed in the African American community.  Bebop was part of this attitude" (Savery 170-171). 
Savery tells us that this militancy threatened some Americans (both white and black) and some people feared the music as "un-American." This response is akin, perhaps, to the way some more socially conservative groups have historically felt about other new trends in music, including punk rock, grunge, rap and heavy metal. 

Pause, Reflect, and Chat

Chat #9: Can you remember your first reaction when you fist encountered one of these types of music? Did you immediately embrace and enjoy it?

Savery points out that "the threat represented by Bebop was not only felt by the white world, but by the assimilationist black middle class as well. [Amiri] Baraka [a contemporary black poet and critic] offers these perspectives:

When the moderns, the beboppers, showed up to restore jazz, in some sense, to its original separateness, to drag it outside the mainstream of American culture again, most middle-class Negroes (as most Americans) were stuck; they had passed, for the most part, completely into the Platonic citizenship.  The willfully harsh, anti-assimilationist sound of bebop fell on deaf or horrified ears, just as it did in white America (Baraka, qtd. In Savery 171, originally from Blues People, Negro Music in White America. New York: Morrow, 181-2).

Bebop rebelled against the absorption into garbage, monopoly music; it also signified a rebellion by the people who played the music, because it was not just the music that rebelled, as if the music had fallen out of the sky!  But even more, dig it, it signified a rebellion rising out of the masses themselves, since that is the source of social movement -- the people themselves (Baraka, qtd. In Savery 171, originally from "War/Philly Blues/Deeper Bop" in Selected Plays and Prose of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones, New York: Morrow, 236)

What made bop strong is that no matter its pretensions, it was hooked up solidly and directly to the Afro-American blues tradition, and therefore was largely based in the experience and struggle of the black sector of the working class. (Baraka, qtd. In Savery 171, originally from "War/Philly Blues/Deeper Bop" in Selected Plays and Prose of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones, New York: Morrow, 241)

In light of this historical context, Sonny's brother's never having heard of Bird [Charlie Parker] is not just a rejection of the music of Bebop; it is also a rejection of the new political direction Bebop was representative of in the African American community" (Savery 171-72). 

To summarize, Pancho Savery has observed the way Bebop, the innovation in jazz music Sonny favors, represents figuratively the personal and philosophical rift between the narrator and Sonny.  Conservative, safe, hopeful that he will ultimately be accepted and respected by mainstream society, the narrator plods along dutifully, enduring, but not really questioning his lot in life.  In contrast, Sonny fights against the "low ceiling of [his] possibilities," refuses to "go along to get along," and follows with his art those who would challenge the conservative status quo.  If you would like to read Savery's excellent essay in its entirety, you'll find it in Understanding Others: Cultural and Cross-Cultural Studies and the Teaching of Literature, eds. Joseph Trimmer and Tilly Warnock Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1992, 165-176.

To see Audio and Video of Charlie Parker playing with Dizzy Gillespie, scroll to the bottom of the Audio/Video section of "Eras in Black History."

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IV: Characterization

Like with so many other stories, in "Sonny's Blues," the dramatic action mainly concerns the characters' changes or lack of them. The character changes in "Sonny's Blues" are particularly interesting, and subtle, in part because the plot features a character's battle with heroin addiction, and the narrator's efforts to come to grips with this character's addiction and recovery. 

We might begin thinking about characterization in this story by asking ourselves what we think Baldwin wanted his story to be about, or more specifically, what Baldwin wanted to say about drugs and addiction in his story. 

Is "Sonny's Blues" a story:
* That moralizes against drug use?
* That tries to explain why people become addicted to drugs?
* About a man's struggle to kick a drug habit?
* About an artist's struggle to kick a drug habit?
* About the effects of drug use on a family?
* About the ways in which drug use and self-expression can sometimes serve the same purposes.

Of all of the bulleted items above, only the first is wholly unlikely.  Not that Baldwin or his characters in "Sonny's Blues" approve of drug use or advocate it, but the story is far more than simply a cautionary tale warning readers against drugs or exhorting them to "just say no."  In fact, through the characterizations of the brothers, we see that Baldwin wants to illustrate the answers to the other bulleted items.  That is, "Sonny's Blues" helps us to understand the various ways people experience pain and suffering.  As a musician and artist, Sonny tries to make known, to speak through his music, the pain he sees around him.  Extremely sensitive to that pain himself, Sonny becomes an addict to try to dull his perception of it. 

Pause, Reflect, and Chat

Chat #10: Read Sonny's speech on page 65 of the Norton Introduction to Literature and write a short paraphrase in your own words. How would you describe Sonny's attitude towards addiction?

The narrator, on the other hand, denies his own pain and hardship, and that of those around him.  But when he is finally forced to see it, he begins to understand Sonny as both an artist and as a recovering addict.

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a. Sonny, the artist: 

As readers, we realize that our knowledge of Sonny comes only through the narrator, who has acted largely as Sonny's guardian, a father figure, rather than a brother-peer.  The narrator describes Sonny as "wild," but not "crazy."  He says Sonny had "always been a good boy, he hadn't ever turned hard or evil or disrespectful, the way kids can, so quick, so quick, especially in Harlem" (Norton Introduction to Literature 48).  He compares Sonny to his students: dreamy, disenchanted, and obedient, but struggling against the hopelessness their impoverished lives promise. 

Sonny's one hope is that he can become a musician.  Discouraged from that goal by his practical minded brother, Sonny agrees to finish high school living with Isabel's family, only because the family has a piano. But he cannot change who he is to satisfy their expectations.  At some level, the narrator writes, all of the adults understood that "Sonny was at that piano playing for his life" (Norton Introduction to Literature 61)

Pause, Reflect, and Chat

Chat #11: What does this quotation mean to you? How is Sonny "playing for his life?"

When Isabel's mother discovers Sonny is truant, and "that he'd been down in Greenwich Village, with musicians and other characters in a white girl's apartment" (61), she is frightened for him. The ensuing confrontation, in which Sonny realizes that they have not appreciated or understood, but only endured, his efforts to create something from his music, so saddens and angers him that he flees and enlists in the Navy. 

This pivotal flashback scene tells us a lot about Sonny and his family. Sonny is desperately trying to express himself, first to his brother when he reveals his aspirations, and then, through his music. Neither the narrator nor Isabel's family really hear him or understand him: "It was as though Sonny were some sort of god, or monster. He moved in an atmosphere which wasn't like theirs at all.  They fed him and he ate, he washed himself, he walked in and out of their door; he certainly wasn't nasty or unpleasant or rude, Sonny isn't any of those things; but it was as though he were all wrapped up in some cloud, some fire, some vision all his own; and there wasn't any way to reach him" (Norton Introduction to Literature 61). Perhaps some of you might think that this description suggests that Sonny was already using drugs at this point; people who are under the influence of mind-altering substance are often described in such terms.  But we have no hard evidence that suggests that Sonny was already using drugs. In fact, later in the story, Sonny tells his brother that he left Harlem as a teenager to escape the lure of the drugs; thus we can reasonably assume that music was Sonny's only drug at this time, his only way of expressing his hopes and dulling his pain. Rather than seeing Sonny's difference here as evidence of a drug altered mind, we should see Baldwin as simply depicting a sensitive, artistic mind and how it expresses what it perceives. Sonny has a radically different world view than that of the narrator and Isabel's family, who are frightened of the disorder, uncertainty, and suffering his artistic nature represents. Sonny wants to confront his pain and those of others like him, while the narrator wants to deny it.

Because he is arrested for drug use, goes to prison, kicks his drug habit, and returns to society to live with his brother, we may think of Sonny as the character who changes the most in the story.  In fact, it would be easy to assume, after a cursory reading of the story, that Sonny, the addict, is the character who must change.  But Sonny's attempts to change are not really the focus of the story.  Readers never glimpse Sonny "high," or actively struggling with his addiction; we meet him only after he's served prison time and come home clean.  We also never find out whether he continues to maintain control over his addiction.  Therefore, we might conclude that to Baldwin, the questions of how Sonny became addicted and how or whether he reformed are secondary.  More important to Baldwin is how the narrator changes as he begins to listen to and understand Sonny. 

Pause, Reflect, and Chat

Chat #12: Does the narrator ever come to understand Sonny's music and his addiction and what they have to do with one another?

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b. The narrator: 

The narrator of "Sonny's Blues" is an upstanding man.  He's a dutiful son to his parents, and a caring husband and father.  He has worked hard to attain the trappings of middle-class success.  Up until Sonny's arrest, he has tried not to think about things that bother him.  It's logical that the narrator would exhibit this particular trait, as his parents have set a good example for him by not telling him and Sonny about their uncle's murder by a group of drunken white men.  Certainly the boys had felt the effects of their father's great sorrow -- the father appears to have been an alcoholic himself, as "he died suddenly, during a drunken weekend" (Norton Introduction to Literature 54)-- but the root of this sorrow had never been spoken in their family.

Pause, Reflect, and Chat

Chat #13: Do you think it was right for their parents not to tell them about their uncle's death? What are the benefits of keeping such a secret? What are the dangers?

Because of this generational silence, Sonny grows up virtually alone.  Though the narrator and his parents are physically there for most of Sonny's childhood, they never really hear him or listen to him.   After Sonny returns from military service, the narrator begins to harbor unspoken suspicions about Sonny's lifestyle and the brothers fight whenever they see each other.  As we saw in the scene where the narrator discourages Sonny from becoming a musician, he refuses to accept Sonny for who he is: "I didn't like the way he carried himself, loose and dreamlike all the time, and I didn't like his friends, and his music seemed to be merely an excuse for the life he led. It sounded just that weird and disordered" (Norton Introduction to Literature 61).  We might understand this reaction if the narrator were disapproving the drug use.  But notice how the brother never explicitly articulates his fear that Sonny is a drug addict.  In fact, we know from the opening paragraphs that the brother has always pushed that realization aside, never allowing himself to believe it.  Only when he reads about Sonny "being picked up for peddling and using heroin" does the narrator accept the facts:  "I couldn't believe it: but what I mean by that is that I couldn't find any room for it anywhere inside me.  I had kept it outside me for a long time.  I hadn't wanted to know.  I had had suspicions, but I didn't name them, I kept putting them away" (Norton Introduction to Literature 48).  Thus, we get a picture here of the narrator as shutting Sonny out, not because just he's a drug addict, but because he can't face pain and uncertainty of the way Sonny lives.

The narrator does as many of us might do, were we to walk in his shoes.  Afraid of the dangers or misfortune that might befall him, he tries to keep safe.  But in trying always to stay safe, the narrator is always afraid. The story opens with the narrator feeling an icy dread as he reads about Sonny in the paper.  Images of darkness surround him in the subway; he feels "trapped in the darkness that roared outside" (1694).  In the first flashback to his childhood, he remembers family gatherings on Sunday afternoons not with warmth and nostalgia, but with a recollection of silence and a darkness that settles over everything. He says,

"The darkness outside is what the old folks have been talking about.  It's what they've come from.  It's what they endure.  The child knows that they won't talk any more because if he knows too much about what's happened to them, he'll know too much too soon, about what's going to happen to him" (Norton Introduction to Literature 55).  

The narrator as a child and now as an adult has tried to ignore or deny those feelings of dread and despair because he is afraid of them.  But Sonny has tried through his blues music to face them.  Sonny doesn't understand his brother's fearful reaction, just as the narrator doesn't understand Sonny's drug use as a way of coping with his terror. Sonny accuses the narrator of "sound[ing] so -- scared" at the thought of Sonny becoming a musician (57).

The narrator begins to end his silence toward Sonny and to try to understand Sonny's pain when his own daughter dies.  "My trouble," he says, "made his real" (62).  We see here the narrator beginning to appreciate not only Sonny's experience, but also the meaning and purpose of blues music, the music he had scoffed at and dismissed when Sonny first mentioned to him his interest in it. A blues musician sings of his sorrow and trouble; listeners are transformed, and their pain is at least momentarily assuaged when they hear another's blues. 

Pause, Reflect, and Chat

Chat #14: Recall the preview questions about the function of the artist in society. How, specifically, does the blues musician fulfill a social function?

The narrator begins to realize the importance of breaking his silence toward Sonny and sharing his own feelings and receiving Sonny's. 

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c. The story’s final scenes and how they develop the narrator’s changes:

In the pivotal penultimate scene of "Sonny's Blues," the narrator agrees to go with Sonny to the jazz club and the brothers finallyharlemstreet2.jpg talk about Sonny’s addiction. This scene is pivotal because it demonstrates the extent of the narrator’s changes, particularly when compared with the flashback of the narrator’s last conversation with his mother. In the flashback scene, the narrator is cautioned by his mother: “You got to hold onto 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 going to be evil with him many a time. But don’t you forget what I told you, you hear?” (Norton Introduction to Literature 57). In this scene, the narrator perfunctorily promises: “I won’t let nothing happen to Sonny.” His mother smiles as if amused at his naiveté. She knows he can’t prevent Sonny’s struggles, but she wants the narrator to be there for Sonny, to help him get through life by listening to him. In almost the next sentence, the narrator admits that once he left for the war, he “pretty well forgot [his] promise to Mama.” What we understand, though, when we see how the narrator interacts with Sonny, is not so much that he’s forgotten his promise, but that he’s never really understood that promise or what his mother was asking him to do. As a man who denies or tries to ignore what frightens him, what makes him uncomfortable, and what he doesn’t understand, he has believed that “taking care” of Sonny means trying to get Sonny to live the way he does. When this strategy doesn’t work, he essentially breaks his promise to his mother and gives up on Sonny, letting years pass between their meetings.

125thstreetin1935.jpgIn the penultimate scene, the narrator shows how far he’s come since Sonny has come back into his life. As we’ve discussed previously, here the brothers discuss the nature of suffering and how different people try to overcome it – through song, or art, through drug use, and through denial. Here the narrator begins to see that his way – denial – is not effective. The narrator thinks to himself that he wants to reassure Sonny that with “will power” he can conquer his addiction, that “life could be – well, beautiful,” and that he “would never fail him again” (Norton Introduction to Literature 65-6). But the narrator finally realizes here that these promises, because they deny and ignore Sonny’s true nature and needs, would have been “empty words and lies,” like his first forgotten promise to his mother. Instead of making these promises publicly, then, the narrator “made the promise to [him]self and prayed that [he] would keep it.”

He begins right away to keep his promise as Sonny describes his loneliness and alienation.

“It’s terrible sometimes, inside,” he said, “that’s what’s the trouble. You walk these streets, black and funky and cold, and there’s not really a living ass to talk to, and there’s nothing shaking, and there’s no way of getting it out – that storm inside. You can’t talk it and you can’t make love with it, and when you finally try to get with it and play it, you realize nobody’s listening. So you’ve got to listen. You got to find a way to listen.” (66)

Sonny’s use of the pronoun “you” in the speech above is generic; that is, he is referring to himself and to addicts and artists in general. But he is also exhorting the narrator himself to listen, and the narrator does. He draws Sonny out for the first time, asking him “What have you been, Sonny?”

Sonny’s response describes the worst moments of his drug addiction, the way in which heroin seemed to promise a way “to listen” to himself and to what he, as an artist, wanted to say about his world. But as his addiction tightened its grip on him, Sonny realized that its promises (like those of the narrator) were really just false promises that drove him to depths he hadn’t imagined. He ends his speech by warning his brother (and himself) that his dependence on heroin “can come again.” In the narrator’s response, we see how far the narrator has come: “’All right,’ I said, at last. ‘So it can come again, All right’” (67). Here, the narrator finally accepts that Sonny’s addiction needs to be faced before it can be dealt with, that Sonny will continue to struggle with it and with his artistic goals and temperament. To truly help Sonny, the narrator must accept this bitter battle and fight it with Sonny. As the scene ends, Sonny has turned, as if toward a lodestone (a magnetized stone used by sailors to find their way on the sea), to the window that looks out onto the Harlem street. The lodestone image suggests that Sonny is and will be continually drawn to street life, to explaining the sorrows of the people. The scene ends with Sonny expressing his main concern, the wonder that motivates his music: “’All that hatred down there,’ he said, ‘all that hatred and misery and love. It’s a wonder it doesn’t blow the avenue apart’” (67).

The narrator’s realization that he must accept Sonny as he is sets the stage for the narrator’s first trip to the nightclub where Sonny has played. Here he meets Sonny’s musician friends, who appreciate Sonny in a way the narrator never has, as a “real musician” (67). The tables are turned on the narrator and he begins to understand the value of jazz and blues music. Rather than trying to make Sonny fit into his world, he is now “in Sonny’s world. Or, rather: his kingdom. Here it was not even a question that his veins bore royal blood” (67).

Pause, Reflect, and Chat

Chat #15: How does this quotation about Sonny's veins bearing "royal blood" connect to the narrator's first assumption on page 57 that being a musician was "beneath" Sonny?

In the ensuing scene the narrator begins to understand the language of jazz music, the way in which it helps artists express their torment and their fear. As he describes the musical scene, the narrator uses another analogy of the sea, with its threatening deep water.

[The band leader Creole] was having a dialogue with Sonny. He wanted Sonny to leave the shoreline and strike out for the deep water. He was Sonny’s witness that deep water and drowning were not the same thing -–he had been there, and he knew. And he wanted Sonny to know. He was waiting for Sonny to do the things on the keys which would let Creole know that Sonny was in the water. (68)

Thus, as Creole tries to get Sonny to put everything into his music, to really express a true emotion, to abjure his fear, the narrator himself finally sees the benefit of such risk-taking. He learns

…what the blues were all about. They were not about anything very new. He and his boys up there were keeping it new, at the risk of ruin, destruction, madness, and death, in order to find new ways to make us listen. For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness (69).

Pause, Reflect, and Chat

Chat #16: What does the narrator mean by "the tale of how we suffer . . . must be heard"? Do you agree? Why or why not?

Thus, music has a communal function; it tells the stories of a community of people, it evokes feelings in performers and in listeners, helping them to heal from the misfortunes of their lives or to at least find solace in the company of others who are similarly afflicted. The narrator sees that “Sonny’s fingers filled the air with life, his life. But that life contained so many others” (69). The music makes the narrator remember the tragedies that befell his parents, the death of his own daughter and the sorrow of his wife, and he is moved to tears as he feels the power of the music to evoke his own pain. Somehow, this experience is transformative, helping the narrator to see into himself at the same time as he connects with Sonny and the other nightclub patrons.

We might wonder about the final image of the story in which waitress puts a “Scotch and milk on top of the piano for Sonny” (70).

Pause, Reflect, and Chat

Chat #17: Is Baldwin saying that Sonny must depend on some sort of drug-induced release from his pain, even as he has given up heroin? What is the connotation of the combination of hard liquor and milk (a wholesome child’s drink)?

We might wonder whether a recovering heroin addict should be drinking an alcoholic beverage.

And what, we might wonder, is the “cup of trembling”? This biblical allusion is to Isaiah 51: 17-22, which reads as follows:

Awake, awake, stand up, O Jerusalem, which hast drunk at the hand of the LORD the cup of his fury; thou hast drunken the dregs of the cup of trembling, and wrung them out.
There is none to guide her among all the sons whom she hath brought forth; neither is there any that taketh her by the hand of all the sons that she hath brought up.
These two things are come unto thee; who shall be sorry for thee? desolation, and destruction, and the famine, and the sword: by whom shall I comfort thee?
Thy sons have fainted, they lie at the head of all the streets, as a wild bull in a net: they are full of the fury of the LORD, the rebuke of thy God.
Therefore hear now this, thou afflicted, and drunken, but not with wine:
Thus saith thy Lord the LORD, and thy God that pleadeth the cause of his people, Behold, I have taken out of thine hand the cup of trembling, even the dregs of the cup of my fury; thou shalt no more drink it again:
But I will put it into the hand of them that afflict thee; which have said to thy soul, Bow down, that we may go over: and thou hast laid thy body as the ground, and as the street, to them that went over.

In these passages, God tells the Israelites that He knows they have suffered His fury, that they have been afraid of his wrath and of their enemies (“drunken the dregs of the cup of trembling”). God promises here that they will no longer drink from the cup of trembling or feel His wrath and that the cup of trembling will instead be put into the hands of their enemies. As an allusion at the end of the story, this passage implies hope that those, like Sonny and his brother, who have been afflicted with fear and suffering, will no longer be tormented.

Pause, Reflect, and Chat

Chat #18: Who or what in "Sonny's Blues" might be analogous to the "enemies" referred to in the Biblical passage?

As you can see, the passage’s images of drunkenness and of the street resonate with the plot and setting of Sonny’s Blues. In the Biblical passage, God speaks to those “afflicted, and drunken, but not with wine” (verse 21) and promises to assuage their pain by taking away the cup of trembling. Sonny’s drink is likened to a “cup of trembling” which he sips from as he plays. This seems an ambiguous image. Baldwin may be saying that the artist/musician can never escape the “cup of trembling,” that his music depends on feeling, understanding and expressing the fear and sorrow of his people. Or, Baldwin may be saying that Sonny, in taking from the cup of trembling himself, allows his listeners to abstain; that is, his suffering translated into music inoculates his audience from feeling the same depths of suffering. We might see a connection here to the last verse of the Biblical passage: The artist is he who “hast laid [his] body as the ground, and as the street, to them that went over.”

Taking the analogy further, we can see that, as the artist, Sonny performs a sort of sacrifice; he internalizes and then expresses all of the anguish and joy of his listeners, as though he were laying his body down for them to walk over from a stormy emotional state to a place of peace and contentment. Don't miss the religious, Christ-like implications of this depiction of the artist's sacrifice.

Another very persuasive interpretation of the final image of the drink appears in the article "Words and Music: Narrative Ambiguity in 'Sonny's Blues.'" Here, Keith Byerman comments on this final ambiguous image. He writes that the Scotch and milk drink is "an emblem of simultaneous destruction and nurture to the system; it cannot be reduced to one or the other. Sonny's acceptance of it indicates that he will continue on the edge between the poison of his addiction and the nourishment of his music" (371). The rest of this article can be found in Studies in Short Fiction 19 (1982), 367-72. For an equally enlightening discussion of addiction and the twelve step process of recovery in the story, see Sandy Norton's chapter, entitled "'To Keep from Shaking to Pieces': Addiction and Bearing Reality in 'Sonny's Blues'" in The Languages of Addiction, eds. Jane Lilienfeld and Jeffrey Oxford, New York: St. Martins, 1999: 175-192.

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Part V: Imagery

Following a story’s prevailing imagery can help us to understand an author’s focus or concerns. A story can have a pattern of recurring imagery as well as sentences which describe in figurative or imagistic language certain concepts, ideas or scenes such that the reader can gain a full understanding of the author’s intent. This section of the lecture looks at one recurring pattern of images and then asks you to consider how other images Baldwin uses help him create meaning.

a. Darkness and light, a recurring pattern of images:

In Sonny’s Blues, Baldwin relies on the opposition between images of darkness and light. We first see darkbwbaldwin28.jpgthis imagery in the opening scene, where the narrator is contemplating Sonny’s fate in the dark subway. The “swinging lights of the subway car” allow him to read about Sonny’s arrest, while the “darkness roared outside” (Norton Introduction to Literature 47). This image sets up a major plot development in the story, which is the narrator’s growth as he realizes his duty to Sonny. The coming of a realization or the dawning of knowledge and understanding is often described as a “light going on.” Depression and fear are often

Pause, Reflect, and Chat

Chat #19: How does the image of the piano, which Sonny plays, with its combination of black and white (or dark and light) keys, reflect Baldwin's interest in black and white imagery? How is Baldwin's approach to this theme more complex than that of the 1980s pop song "Ebony and Ivory"? Also, see Nat King Cole at the piano.

described as “darkness” or “night.” The narrator has to find a way to absorb and live with this new understanding of Sonny as an addict and as a blues musician. Similarly, in the final scene of the story, the narrator notices Sonny and the other jazz musicians standing behind the light of the bandstand. “I had the feeling that they… were being most careful not to step into that circle of light too suddenly: if they moved into the light too suddenly and without thinking, they would perish in flame.” Perhaps this description suggests that the musicians like Sonny must be careful with how they approach the truths of their lives; full awareness of their suffering can be painful and dangerous.

We might also consider images of darkness and light in terms of race and the historical context of the story. The narrator refers to his own students and the “darkness of their lives” (48).

Pause, Reflect, and Chat

Chat #20: Can you find other places in the story where Baldwin makes use of the images of darkness and light? Look at the seasonal setting of the story. Look also at the flashback scene in which the narrator describes the hour at dusk on a Sunday.

Pause, Reflect, and Chat

Chat #21 How does Baldwin use the following images or groups of images?
• Images of addiction, or the way heroin is described, on pages 64-5.
• The image of the sea, in the final scene in the nightclub.
• The image of the world, “hungry as a tiger,” on page 70.

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Part VI: Themes

A story’s themes are best and most specifically expressed as complete sentences. Thus, rather than saying “one theme of Sonny’s Blues is suffering” or even “coping with suffering” we should be more precise and say: “One theme of Sonny’s Blues is that tragedy and suffering can be transformed into a communal art form such as blues music.” We might even go further to claim that blues music can be viewed as a catalyst for change, as the narrator begins to understand not only the music but also himself and his relationship with Sonny. Similarly, we might explore the theme of brotherhood in Sonny’s Blues, and suggest that the story implies that we are “our brother’s keepers,” and that a brotherly support amounts to more than control or coercion. It requires listening and true understanding.

Pause, Reflect, and Chat

Chat #22: The lecture above contains much of the proof for the themes articulated here. What other proof can you find for these themes? What other themes do you see in the story?

Notice how the themes elaborated above are similar to thesis statements. That is, they make an assertion about the story, one that is not immediately obvious and one that requires development and explanation with evidence from the text. For more on thesis statements, see the interactive thesis handout.

Pause, Reflect, and Chat

Chat #23: What does it mean that an idea about a literary text is not immediately obvious. Does it mean merely that an idea is surprising? What parts of "Sonny's Blue" surprised you?



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