**This is a piece I wrote for a “composition in the humanities” class. I figured why waste my papers when I can publish them here. Spoilers ahead.**
At its core, James Baldwin’s short story, “Sonny’s Blues,” is about the suffering that is native to everyone, and how there’s healing in talking about it (Baldwin). The narrator finds himself in many moments of pontification where he narrow-mindedly assesses his brother’s situation, and applies judgements to him and others like him. It isn’t until he starts to unravel emotionally that he’s able to address the responsibility he feels, the guilt he’s buried, and his own burdens of suffering. There is a river of emotion buried deep in him, but it takes a lot digging to find it. Once he discovers the power of talking and listening, the narrator is flooded with emotional response and the short story ends.
Throughout “Sonny’s Blues,” there are two motifs which are expertly infused into the story: darkness and jazz music. There is the motif of darkness, which Ruth Spence mentioned in the group discussion. She touches on the symbolism, and how it “paints a melancholy and hopeless future for the children of Harlem (Spence).” Lisa Murphy thoughtfully expanded on Spence’s point. She wrote, “The story uses darkness to convey the idea that there seems to be no escape from the crime, drugs, and poverty” that plague Harlem’s community (Murphy). Although the narrator seems to agree with both women’s assessments, he fails to acknowledge that he has overcome the darkness simply by earning himself a respectable teaching position and not succumbing to addiction. He is blind to the hope that he embodies, but as readers we aren’t and this is a real motivator to keep reading and see just what the narrator will learn about himself, Sonny, and Harlem.
The story opens with a metaphor about darkness, as the narrator looks out a subway car’s window (Baldwin 122). This motif is elaborated on further when he discusses the children in his algebra class. “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… (Baldwin 123)” The narrator certainly has a hopeless outlook and subsequent passages drive this point home.
Although Baldwin never blatantly describes his narrator, it’s inferred that he’s got quite the chip on his shoulder. This is especially obvious in the curt way he addresses a childhood friend of Sonny’s, who he describes as “high and raggy (Baldwin 124).” The narrator is eager to escape their dialog, but pulled in by a sense of duty toward his brother. He is self-righteous when he says, “I stay away from them people (Baldwin 125).” And, he’s downright mean when he says, “Don’t tell me your sad story… (Baldwin 125).” He recognizes that it was a cruel thing to say, but his inward dialog is unable to find its way to the surface. It’s these moments that belie the pompousness of his character. He has soul, but he doesn’t know it yet. At this point in time, he is still a man who struggles with all emotional language, and is innately unable to apologize.
The narrator also very rudely checks out of their conversation to condemn what’s happening inside a bar. He describes the dancing bartender as a “semi-whore,” which is a rather quick judgement to make about someone he doesn’t know (Baldwin 125). This is the reader’s first introduction to the story’s second motif, which is music. We learn the narrator has an aversion to music and to those who enjoy it, which is great foreshadowing because we later learn that Sonny is a jazz musician.
For all his judgmental narration, the narrator surprises the reader when he gives the “raggy” man five dollars (Baldwin 126). At the beginning of their exchange, he’d likened the addict to his brother. These five dollars are a symbol of the narrator’s unaddressed guilt, but it’s also a symbol of the deeper empathy he feels.
Soon after, we learn a very sad fact about the narrator. His daughter, Grace, is dead (Baldwin 126). He only briefly mentions her because he’s yet unable to express his suffering. He skims over this tragedy because it is painful, and he’s unable to turn himself over to the emotion; yet, this is also the first turning point, a moment where the narrator lets his guard down and something good happens. He writes to Sonny in prison.
Sonny’s letter is deep, and this gives the narrator a glimmer of hope; although their first face-to-face exchanges are superficial (Baldwin 127). Sonny’s deepness is dismissed as melodrama. The narrator fails to recognize the heart Sonny wears on his sleeve. There is a vast ocean of difference between them, and this causes the narrator to begin an examination of the past.
Finally, we begin to understand the root of the narrator’s guilt. Not only are they orphans, but their mother had called on the narrator to look after Sonny. In many ways, it was her dying wish. Their uncle had been killed by racists in a hit-and-run accident. Their father witnessed this and was powerless to stop it. “You got to hold on to your brother,” she demanded. “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? (Baldwin 132)”
Perhaps the narrator took his mother’s plea a bit too seriously because he made it a point to speak with Sonny about his life goals. Throughout this portion of the story, he is unnecessarily hard on his brother. He pontificates about the importance of school, and dismisses the idea of jazz as a healthy career choice (Baldwin 134). The narrator hasn’t yet learned that there is more power in understanding than judgement, and this mistake of judging Sonny continues for some pages.
Things come to a head when he and Sonny have a particularly nasty argument. It is at this moment that the narrator sings, but not because he understands the profoundness of song, but to stop himself from feeling too much (Baldwin 139). This argument and moment of candid hallway singing is the first chip in the narrator’s wall. He finally elaborates on his daughter’s death. He describes her polio, how she suffered, how they all suffered and how they continue to suffer (Baldwin 140). His wife Isabel cries in the night, but the narrator does not. The cat is out of the bag: he’s built his wall to protect everyone else, so he can be strong for his family, but in doing so has pushed his brother away. He can’t allow emotion to resonate or filter out, so he buries it.
Conversations with Sonny get heavier as the story moves along until Sonny is comfortable enough to invite his brother to a nightclub gig. It will be the first-time Sonny has played in quite some time. The best thing about these passages is how much both brothers have grown up. Sonny still has his issues; he drinks and the narrator is suspicious that he’s using heroin, but there is a growing confidence in their bond. After asking him to come to the show, Sonny jokes, “If you can stand it.” His light sarcasm acknowledges his brother’s judgmental attitude, and the narrator (who is known to fly off the handle, but who has since loosened up) jokes back, “I’ll try (Baldwin 142).”
There is humor between them, and this is self-effacing for the narrator who is only coming to realize that he’s been too quick to judge. The men are then able to discuss suffering in detail, and this is the most intimate of all their conversations. “But there’s no way not to suffer – is there, Sonny?” The narrator asked. This question is very important to the central theme of this short story; because to reach completion, the narrator must first acknowledge how he suffers. “I believe not,” Sonny answered. “But, that’s never stopped anyone from trying.” Sonny’s answer reveals why he uses heroin (Baldwin 143). He uses because he’s attempting to end the suffering of being an orphan and being cast out because he was different.
It is through talking that the narrator rediscovers his brother, and learns to love him for all that he is. He casts aside his judgements and makes a solemn vow to be there for Sonny. Finally, he can hear music. His walls are down, and Sonny’s music penetrates him. And, how wonderful that it’s his brother’s music that moves him to tears (Baldwin 147). Truly, he would have felt nothing had there not been such meaningful conversation before, and in the darkness of the nightclub he can see the light. He orders Sonny a drink, and they are bonded once more. In the final passages, the theme of darkness is turned on its head. The narrator notes, “There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s only light we’ve got in all this darkness (Baldwin 147).” At last, he can mourn his child and accept his brother. There is light, which is a metaphor for hope.
Baldwin, James. “Short Stories for Students.” Sonny’s Blues, Thomas Gale, 1997, pp. 122-148. www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/sonnys-blues.
Spence, Ruth. “The darkness of Harlem.” English 105-66, 23 Feb. 2017, Genesee Community College, Batavia. Discussion.