Baldwin seems to feel a great deal of sympathy for Sonny. He doesn't paint him as a nameless, faceless drug addict but instead tries to get to the root of his problems. Take a look at this passage in which Sonny tries to explain to the narrator why he sometimes felt he had to do drugs:
"It's not so much to play. It's to stand it, to be able to make it at all. On any level." He frowned and smiled: "In order to keep from shaking to pieces." (201)
Baldwin presents us with numerous passages in which Sonny or other characters try to make some sense of his addiction. This helps clue us in to the deep hurt and suffering that contributes to Sonny's problems. The fact that Sonny is also a musician creates even more opportunity for sympathy, since we see that Sonny really has a lot at stake – he has a lot to lose when he's unable to play the piano.
And yet Baldwin is very honest about how ugly drug addiction is. He may be sympathetic to Sonny, but he doesn't romanticize drug use. It's dirty and nasty and painful. It makes Sonny sick of his own smell. And it tears the family apart for many years. Baldwin manages to convey his sympathy without condoning Sonny's decisions. Pretty remarkable for a writer, don't you think?
As a genre, literary fiction depends a great deal on characters, and we think it's the characters that drive the story of "Sonny's Blues." It's true that the story is about music and drugs and family conflict, but in the end we think these all contribute to the creation of really well-developed and fleshed-out characters. We get to know intimately what's going in inside these characters (literary folks would say that Baldwin creates psychological depth) and it's their inner turmoil that propels the plot. Yes, Sonny gets arrested for doing drugs, but this seems secondary to why he does drugs in the first place. And yes, the narrator makes the kind gesture of sending Sonny a drink at the end of the story. But the bigger deal is the fact that he's achieved a new understanding of his brother. It's true that a lot happens in this story (Sonny's arrest, his time in the Navy, Grace's death), but we think these events are really tools of characterization and that's why we would classify "Sonny's Blues" as literary fiction.
This story has one of those nifty titles that does a lot and means a lot in just a couple of words. The phrase "Sonny's blues" doesn't appear until the very end of the story, when the narrator is watching Sonny play at the club. But really, the whole story is about the blues that Sonny must battle as he struggles to recover from drug addiction. He has the blues from growing up in a tough Harlem neighborhood. He has the blues from trying to escape his childhood, from being frustrated as a musician, from the narrator's long silence even when he knew Sonny was hurting. This story is literally the story of Sonny's sadness.
But we think there might also be something else going on in the title, too. When it all comes down to it, Sonny is a musician. Playing the piano tortures him, drives him, and keeps him going all at the same time. Music is really Sonny's lifeblood. And the music he plays at the end of the story is "the blues." As Creole reminds Sonny and the rest of the musicians at the club, what they're playing is not happy music – it's soulful music, it's "blues" music. So, yes, the "blues" in the title might be about Sonny's emotions, but they might also refer to the music he plays. And for Sonny, these are really one and the same. Kinda cool how a two-word title can do all this, right?
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?
"Sonny's Blues" takes place in Harlem during the early 1950s. The city plays a pretty important role in the narrative, since part of the reason Sonny turns to drugs is to escape the feeling of being trapped by his surroundings. There are people suffering from poverty, prostitutes who have been beaten up walk the streets, young men feel the weight of limited possibilities, and "find themselves smothering in their houses" (72). This is a bleak place.
As Sonny and the narrator are driving back to the narrator's apartment (after Sonny gets out of jail), the narrator starts to really think about the streets in this neighborhood where he and Sonny grew up:
We hit 110th Street and started rolling up Lenox Avenue. And I'd known this avenue all my life, but it seemed to me again, as it had seemed on the day I'd first heard about Sonny's trouble, filled with a hidden menace which was its very breath of life. (73)
It's as if the Harlem streets have a life of their own and contain within them an inherent danger that lives just below the surface. This worries the narrator, since he's the one bringing Sonny back to this place, "back into the danger he had almost died trying to escape" (76). Far from being mere background, Harlem is as much a character in this story as any of the actual people.
But "Sonny's Blues" is also set in a smaller world within Harlem: the nightclub where Sonny plays at the end of the story. This is a far less menacing place. In fact, this dark, smoky little club is a refuge for Sonny. It's a place where he can (at least for a little while) forget about being a drug addict, forget about what awaits him outside, and face his suffering head-on by losing himself in his music. Sonny is a sort of celebrity in the club and the people there want him to be OK; they want him to play the music he's so good at playing. The club is like a tiny, shining light in the middle of the darkness that surrounds Sonny every day.
In some ways, "Sonny's Blues" is a pretty straightforward story. It's about family struggles, drug addiction, and music. But there are some other themes that are pretty easy to miss if you're not familiar with James Baldwin's larger body of work and the issues he focused on in his writing. For example, the biblical reference to the cup of trembling at the end of the story isn't something most of us would look for if we didn't know that Baldwin was a preacher himself at one point and that he struggled with his religious identity for much of his life. And if we're not familiar with the difference between Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker's music, we might not get why Sonny is so upset when his brother lumps them together. This isn't to say that we can't still get something rich and meaningful from the story if we don't know this stuff, but it does make mean that we could miss some things. That's why "Sonny's Blues" is a little tougher than it might seem on the surface.
We don't mean poetic in the sense that the story rhymes or that it's structured in stanzas. We mean poetic in the sense that Baldwin's writing is lyrical and beautiful. Check out this passage:
As the singing filled the air the watching, listening faces underwent a change, the eyes focusing on within; the music seemed to soothe a poison out of them; and time seemed, nearly, to fall away from the sullen, belligerent, battered faces, as though they were fleeing back to their first condition, while dreaming of their last. (179)
There is something almost musical about the way Baldwin puts his sentences together here: he's somehow able to make this description of the neighborhood's downtrodden residents really lovely.
And there's something else going on with Baldwin's style as well. The fact that his writing seems musical is certainly appropriate for a story that features music as one of its central themes. In a way Baldwin's style mirrors his subject matter, and it sort of preps us and prompts us to read a certain way. There's a definite cadence (like a musical beat) to his writing and he shows us how technique and plot can work together to create a narrative.
Jazz music symbolizes different things to different characters in this story.
The narrator doesn't know anything about jazz. He associates it with a certain "element" of people, people he doesn't want his brother hanging out with. He lumps jazz together with drugs and Sonny's addiction, blaming the jazz lifestyle for turning Sonny into a heroin addict because he knows that some musicians have to get high in order to play. Jazz music makes the narrator angry and bitter.
But for Sonny, jazz music is like a ray of light. He loves playing it and listening to it. It's the one really positive thing in his life. Jazz music represents passion and escape for Sonny. The very people the narrator negatively associates with jazz are the ones who function as a sort of second family for Sonny. While jazz is alien to the narrator, it's comfortable and comforting for Sonny.
At the end of the story, jazz functions as a bridge between the two brothers. When the narrator goes to see Sonny play, he learns something about his brother that he's never understood before. When he hears Sonny play, he finally starts to appreciate the wonder and terror of being a musician.
Images of ice appear at various points in the story, symbolizing fear, dread, and the feeling of being unsettled or shocked. For example, when the narrator first reads about Sonny's arrest, he describes the feeling as follows:
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. (2)
The narrator can't escape this icy feeling, which returns as "icy dread" (77) when Sonny first gets to his apartment after getting out of jail. We often think of ice (and cold) as causing discomfort, and this is precisely what happens when (figurative) ice appears in "Sonny's Blues."
Light appears in many forms throughout "Sonny's Blues" – as moonlight, as a spotlight, sometimes even as the absence of light. Light illuminates, both literally and figuratively. When Sonny and the narrator's mother tell the narrator about how their uncle passed away, she recalls a moonlit night and a moonlit road. In that moment she reveals a family secret to her son that he never knew about (the fact that he and Sonny had an uncle who was killed). When Sonny is playing in the club, the spotlight on him turns blue and the narrator experiences a sort of revelation about his brother. And when Sonny places the Scotch and milk above him on the piano in the final scene, the narrator says that it "glowed" (1239), just as Sonny seems to be glowing in the light of his music.
"Sonny's Blues" is told in the first person from the point of view of an unnamed narrator who, we find out, is Sonny's brother. The narrator in this story is an interesting figure. He's mostly telling us Sonny's story, and this would seem to make him a peripheral character instead of a central one. But this is also his story. "Sonny's Blues" is not just about Sonny's decisions and struggles but also about how they affect the narrator. This story is as much about family and brotherhood and the relationship between these two men as it as about the single character of Sonny.
There are definite advantages to having a first-person central narrator who's telling both his story and Sonny's. Sonny would probably be an unreliable narrator of his own life story. (How clear-headed could we expect someone in the throes of heroin addiction to be?) The narrator can offer us a glimpse of both his own life and of Sonny's.
But there are also definite disadvantages (or complications) associated with a first-person narrator of this sort. We get the story through the filter of the narrator's own memories and biases. Since he is so emotionally involved, we should perhaps question how accurate his recollections are of the events in the story. And when we're dealing with something like drug addiction, we imagine it's very hard for someone to understand what it feels like (and then relay it to an audience) if he himself has never experienced it. So there are perhaps some things we miss with this central narrator.
This discovery sets off the action in the rest of the story and causes the narrator to reflect on his and Sonny's pasts. Since Sonny's drug use is so central to the narrative, it's fitting that we (and the narrator) learn of this right off the bat.
Although chronologically this takes place before the initial situation in the story, we don't read about it until after the fact. This is the primary conflict between Sonny and the narrator (at least at first). Sonny wants to be a jazz piano player, but the narrator thinks this is a waste of his life. Their inability to see eye to eye on this is what causes so much strife between the brothers.
Although this may seem like a resolution, Sonny and the narrator are both forced to face some difficult things about themselves and about their relationship with each other when they're living under the same roof. The narrator also has access to Sonny's things because his room is right there, so he finds himself struggling over whether or not to trust Sonny, whether or not he should search his room, and whether or not Sonny has recovered.
This is where it all comes out: the narrator's anger at Sonny's drug use, Sonny's anger at feeling abandoned, the narrator's inability to understand Sonny as a musician, and Sonny's frustration at all this. This is their big, loud, brutally honest argument. And this is also when Sonny invites his brother to come hear him play, which may or may not provide some resolution for them and for the story.
Sonny is nervous, the narrator is nervous, the other musicians seem unsure, and the audience doesn't know what to expect. Only Creole seems confident that everything will be OK once Sonny starts playing.
Sonny starts to calm down and to feel more sure of himself. He starts to sound like himself again, too. He finally lets go and loses himself in his music once again.
This drink is the narrator's way of saying that he finally gets it – how important music is to Sonny, how necessary to his life. He finally understands what the other people in the club seem to already know about Sonny, and the implication is that the two men will finally find some peace in their relationship.