“Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin is a story based on the narrative of a young mysterious jazz musician Sonny from Harlem, New York. This young boy becomes a drug addict and is arrested for using and peddling narcotics. Some time later he returns to his childhood neighborhood right after his release from prison. In this short story, the author continues to explore a major theme of “identity disclosure”. This story does not only dramatically state the motive of the author’s famous polemics in the cause of Black Freedom, but it also provides an aesthetics that associates the author’s work with the culture of the African-American ghetto. The fundamental idea of “Sonny’s Blues” represents the slow accommodation of a first-person narrator’s consciousness to the meaning of life for his younger brother. The two brothers reunite after a very tense few weeks of trying to deal with their anger towards each other. In fact, drugs mark the major part of the story, but it also dwells on family issues, music, and trying to overcome challenges of life. This paper provides an exclusive analysis of Baldwin’s story “Sonny’s Blues” from Schilb John and John Clifford’s “Making Literature Matter: An Anthology for Readers and Writers.”
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The structure of the story is a bit complex and thought-provoking, as it may seem at first glance. This is why the author has employed numerous literary devices such as allegory, symbolism, and imagery. In this case, the reader realizes that jazz music symbolizes dissimilar ideologies for different characters in the story. The writer associates jazz with certain element of familiar and absolutely unacquainted people for him. The narrator blames this type of music for turning his brother’s life upside down since jazz lifestyle made adolescent become drug addict. When the story ends, jazz acts as the bridge between the two brothers. He also uses the image of ice to symbolize dread, feeling of shock, and fear. For instance, the narrator describes the feeling of Sonny’s arrest as “A great block of ice got settled in my belly and kept melting there slowly all day long... It was a special kind of ice. It kept melting, sending trickles of ice water all up and down my veins, but it never got less.” (John and Clifford 337). It becomes difficult to cope with a horrible feeling that turns into “icy dread” when Sonny first enters the apartment after coming from jail. People always associate ice with discomfort and this is what we can realize once again after reading the story. Light also appears in various forms, as moonlight or as spotlight, illuminating both figuratively and literary.
The genre of “Sonny’s Blues” is fiction, diligently employed through a great range of characters. It is clear that the story dwells on family conflict, drugs, and music, but in the end the reader can suppose that all these things contribute to the creation of well-developed characters. The biggest advantage is that the narrator was able to achieve a new understanding of his brother. The story is truly satiated with different occurrences, ranging from Sonny’s arrest and his time in the navy to Grace’s death, but finally these events clearly become the result of proper characterization.
When the reader goes through the story, it appears so smooth and it is easy to overlook the fact that it begins in a in medias res (John and Clifford 347). “Sonny's Blues” commences with the title character’s arrest for both possession and peddling of heroin and it ends in a jazz club with the older brother’s eventual sympathy and approval of Sonny regardless of his life struggles. Subsequently, this is interrupted by a long flashback that offers a description of the uneasy earlier relationship between the narrator and his brother. Since already at the beginning of the story we understand that their parents are not alive, the flashback offers an insight of the father and mother. The mother becomes the central moral figure in the entire story. Her last conversation with the narrator immensely contributes to the two brothers coming back to terms. Another compelling instance is the death of the narrator’s small daughter of polio, whereupon he confesses “My trouble made his real.” The storyteller makes the promise of taking care of his kid brother; the mother warns him that it will likely be difficult. “You may not be able to stop nothing from happening,” she tells him before adding “but you got to let him know you’re there.” In one sense, “Sonny's Blues” is essentially the story of the narrator’s struggle to fulfill the promise he made to his mother before she died (John and Clifford 341).
When looking at the title one is likely to conclude that it is a nifty title that does a lot in just a few words. The phrase “Sonny’s Blues” does not appear until the end of the story, when the narrator watches his brother play in the club. As a matter of fact, the whole story focuses on music that Sonny plays in order to overcome addiction. Sonny was accompanied by the blues owing to his arduous growing up in Harlem neighborhood. He does not stop to feel the blues trying to cope with his eroded childhood, going through frustration of being a good pianist, not supported by his family. This story basically and literally centers around Sonny’s sadness. There is still so much that meets the eye in regards to the title since Sonny is a musician.
The story also presents the conflict, which is actually important to remember. This is the older brother’s story. This shows the narrator’s inability to comprehend and respect the style of life of his younger brother. The siblings are carefully recognized as opposites by the author. Elder brother is cautious family man with a lot of respect. He is proud of his profession as a teacher of math. He is also viewed as capable of understanding the surrounding dangers in his Harlem Housing Project. That is why he solidly condemns and dislikes Sonny's friend, the drug addict, when he encounters him in the school courtyard. This is brightly represented in the opening of the story. However, the narrator is also compassionate, and this is clearly seen when he recognizes and responds to the addict’s tattered humankind. Such a kind of gesture prefigures the author’s reconciliation with his brother. Sonny is actually a romantic artist who does not fear taking risks in pursuit of what he believes in and loves. His passion for music makes him impatient with all other endeavors. Sonny drops out of school and, according to his brother, he is “wild” but not “hard or evil or disrespectful.”
The outer story of “Sonny's Blues” is the title character’s rehabilitation from drug addiction, reconciliation with his estranged brother, and recognition as a jazz pianist. When the reader goes deep inside the story, the narrator’s spiritual and emotional growth into a person who understands his younger brother can be considered unorthodox. Nevertheless, he treasured life and there should be no doubt that the author of this fiction, the former boy preacher, considered the narrator’s inner growth religious to some extent. When the book ends in the nightclub with a religious vision of the blues, listening to the play of Creole, who is the group leader, the narrator says:
“He hit something in all of them, he hit something in me, myself, and the music tightened and deepened, and apprehension began to beat the air. Creole began to tell us what the blues were 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, and it's the only light we've got in all this darkness.” (John and Clifford 348)
The above passage offers a good explanation of the blues and jazz, better than any other man can give. It is vital for students to pause over it since the final scene of “Sonny's Blues” is set in a dark, smoky nightclub. The lyric creates a kind of a tone that is far from the realistic narrative style, dominated in the entire story. The closing incidence has provoked several criticisms since many people have different hypotheses of the story’s ending.
In conclusion, “Sonny's Blues” is not merely a tale of the narrator’s experiences; it is a clear process of the storyteller’s inner transformation. In short, this story does not only dramatically state the motive of the author’s famous polemics in the cause of Black Freedom, but it also provides an aesthetics that associates the author’s work with the culture of the African-American ghetto.