Study Guide

Sonny's Blues Themes

  • Drugs and Alcohol

    Drugs are a central theme in "Sonny's Blues," impacting both the users and those who love them. Heroin destroys lives, families, and artistic talent. On the other hand, it also offers a momentary escape from the characters' depressing and oppressive physical environments and serves as a coping mechanism to help them deal with the human suffering that surrounds them. While Baldwin doesn't judge the characters who use drugs, he does present drug addiction as horrible, gut-wrenching, and ultimately destructive.

    Questions About Drugs and Alcohol

    1. Does the fact that Sonny is addicted to heroin make you think differently about his character than if he were, say, an alcoholic?
    2. Do you think Sonny can actually beat his drug addiction?
    3. Is it fair for the narrator to associate jazz music with drug addiction?

    Chew on This

    There is no justification for Sonny's drug addiction, no matter how hard his life is.

    Although we don't condone Sonny's drug use, he does a good job of explaining why he turned to drugs in the first place.

  • Suffering

    The idea of suffering hovers inescapably over "Sonny's Blues." Every character suffers in some way – from grief, from poverty, from addiction, from limited opportunities in life. The constant presence of suffering wears the characters down, and while some are resigned to it, others continue to fight it (even if they know they can never really escape it). Suffering is expressed in multiple ways in this story – through music, through drug use, on people's faces, through the ways they interact with each other, and even through recurring nightmares. Although suffering is more immediately present for some characters, it's a part of all of their lives.

    Questions About Suffering

    1. Do you feel that one character deals better with suffering than the others?
    2. Does the story suggest that suffering is something handed down from one generation to the next?
    3. Is one type of suffering more difficult to deal with than others?

    Chew on This

    Suffering is so oppressive and ever-present in this story that it destroys everyone on some level.

    Suffering can in some ways be a creative or generative force.

  • Family

    Ah, family. They can make us crazy and angry; they can love us and drive us away at the same time. This is precisely what happens in "Sonny's Blues." The two brothers in this story clearly love each other, but they don't understand each other and they don't condone each other's lives. It's precisely because they love each other so much that they have the power to really hurt each other. But they also illustrate how strong the ties are that bind them, because in the end they find their way back to each other and reaffirm how much they need each other. It's a hard road they travel to get to this point, but they do get there.

    Family operates on another level as well in the sense that some characters create their own family separate from the one they're born into. The narrator creates a family with his wife and children (this is the more traditional family), and Sonny creates a family with his fellow musicians. Although the narrator doesn't get this, Sonny is able to surround himself with people who love the same things he loves. But these same people, this same family, are also a negative influence, since some of them fuel Sonny's drug problem.

    Questions About Family

    1. How would the story be different if it were told from the perspective of Sonny's musician family?
    2. If you had to define "family" in "Sonny's Blues," how would you do it?
    3. Is Sonny in some ways Creole's little brother, or is he more of an equal?

    Chew on This

    No matter how frustrating family can be, it's family that gets Sonny back on track.

    Sonny's family is partly why he turns to drugs and is, therefore, an unintentionally negative force in his life.

  • The Home

    The home is a physical place in "Sonny's Blues," but it's also an idea. It's a place to escape from, a place to return to, a place with both horrible and wonderful memories. Home is comfort, conflict, grief, suffering, and caring all rolled into one. It's an apartment and it's a nightclub. Its residents are actual family and created family. Home is literal but it's also symbolic, since in many ways home is simply the feeling that one belongs.

    Questions About The Home

    1. Do you think Sonny ever really feels at home anywhere? If so, where?
    2. Is "home" a happy place for the narrator?
    3. Can Sonny ever really come back home once he's been a drug addict and been to jail?

    Chew on This

    Home is a tough place for these characters. Living in Harlem traps them.

    Home is more an idea in "Sonny's Blues" than an actual place. Home is where you can always come back to, no matter how badly you've screwed up.