by James Baldwin
Analysis: What's Up With the Ending?
At the very end of the story, the narrator has come to watch Sonny play piano at a nightclub, and it seems that he finally sees how talented his brother is. But more importantly, he also seems to see that music is a part of Sonny. It's something he has to have in his life in order to function. As a gesture of this new understanding, the narrator sends Sonny a drink, which he places above him on the piano as he plays. This creates a striking image for the narrator: "For me, then, as they began to play again, it glowed and shook above my brother's head like the very cup of trembling" (239).
The "cup of trembling" is a biblical reference from the Book of Isaiah 51:22 (the actual quote from the King James Bible is:
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.
Scholars and critics tend to interpret this passage as God's expression of forgiveness and humankind's opportunity for redemption – God has essentially removed the temptation that initially created his anger. For this reason literary critics often read the ending of "Sonny's Blues" as a symbol of Sonny's redemption. Some even liken Sonny to the Prodigal Son in the Bible, who leaves his home and squanders his life but finally returns and redeems himself after seeing the error of his ways. Perhaps Sonny has finally been able to conquer his addiction. Perhaps his brother has truly forgiven him for screwing up his life and for causing their family so much pain. Perhaps Sonny has redeemed himself.
But with any good story (and we think this is one), there's more than one way to read the ending. Is it possible that Sonny's shaky performance in the club suggests that he is still shaky in other parts of his life as well? Is it possible that this single moment at the end of the story is just that – a moment? Will Sonny go back to using drugs? After all, he does tell the narrator that deep down he's still the same person, haunted by the same demons, and that Harlem is still the same rough place that turned him to drugs in the first place. And they both agree that there is an almost inescapable amount of suffering in the world.
We'd probably all like to think that Sonny really does recover, that he's able to face down his "blues," and the text definitely supports this interpretation. But it's important to be open to other interpretations too (and we think that's what's pretty awesome about literature anyway). So maybe Sonny will always be dealing with the "blues." Or maybe there's a whole other way to read the ending that we haven't even thought of. What do you think?