Analyzing James Baldwin Novel, Sonny Blues

James Baldwins story ‘Sonnys Blues’ is a about the elements of strained and forgotten relationship between two brothers who have chosen to segregate alternative paths for a living. Among the two brothers, the older one claiming to be the intelligent brother, has chosen a path related to education, and sees his family as an important factor in his life, whereas the younger, less experienced brother has recently recovered from hardships related to criminal convictions and the attempt to supply drugs. The story of ‘Sonny’s Blues’ takes place in Harlem, a city deprived of education or welfare the ideal location for falling into the world of corruption. Knowing the troubles and misfortunes that people of such geographic and cultural settings, this plays a prime location for the setting of the story in terms of the importance of location and the two sides of African-American’s experience with much of racism. The narrator, Sonny’s brother, has tried to assimilate to the white society, but still feel the pain and the limits on his opportunity. On the other hand, Sonny has never tried to assimilate and has to find the way out for his pain through drugs. Analysing the plot of ‘Sonny’s Blues,’ we can understand what happened, why it happened, and why characters acted the way they do. Namely giving the reader a more defined real-life understanding of the situations and barriers standing between the characters and their objectives how they wish to achieve them in life. In the progression of the story, we see how these environmental settings influence the narrator’s decision regarding the approval of his younger brother’s dream to someday become a jazz musician.

The setting of the story starts off in the shoes of a commuter in the city of Harlem. The commuter, who is essentially the unnamed narrator of the story, after a long loss of contact with his younger brother, reads about him in the public media; within newspapers, on the subway, and on his way to work. He reads about his younger brother being convicted of a crime related to the convictions of drugs. When this takes place, the narrator is still left overwhelmed to actually believe that his brother would do such a thing. He repeatedly contradicts with his inner self in trying to logically convince himself that his little brother was a good boy, with bright brown eyes and that he was wild, not crazy. He later mentions, “He hadn’t ever turned evil or disrespectful, the way kids can, so quick, so quick, especially in Harlem. (Baldwin, p127)” The narrator is clearly viewing his brother as one of the better young boys in Harlem, but undoubtedly, he is also mentioning that the effects of societies peer pressure, possibly his friends and those around him, influencing his every decision towards doing what he did. He also compares his brother to the class that the narrator himself, is teaching, stating, “… and here I was, talking about algebra to a lot of boys who might, every one of them for all I knew, be popping off needles every time they went to the head. (Baldwin, p127)” Here, the narrator shows that any other boy in the town is just as likely to fall into the rank of becoming a drug offender and that the city has no limit to the number of drug users it can hold.

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The narrator is a high school teacher, and his wife is Isabel. Leaving the school, the narrator comes across an old friend of Sonny’s in the schoolyard. They talk about Sonny’s arrest and tell each other some their fears. The friend says that he “can’t much help old Sonny no more.” This angers the narrator because it reminds him that he himself had given up trying to help his brother and not even seen Sonny in a year. However, he keeps in touch with Sonny again after his daughter dies. It is also the moment the narrator begins to wonder about Sonny again. The scene ends the exposition, and opens the story’s rising action part. The story continues as the narrator meets Sonny after Sonny get out of prison. As Sonny’s request, they take a long cab ride and recall their memories that they had experienced in “vivid, killing streets” in their childhood. Next, we hear the conversation between the narrator and his mother about his father and the death of his father’s brother.

The mother’s story makes the narrator realize how important he and his brother are to each other and how he, as the older, needs to let Sonny know “he is there” for Sonny. The narrator experiences a feeling of guilt, as he has not done as his mother asked, but he also remembers that Sonny’s choice of being a jazz musician “seemed beneath him, somehow.” The conflict keeps rising as Sonny and the narrator argue about Sonny’s choice to be a jazz musician while Sonny has not finished his high schools degree yet. We can see that the narrator’s actions and decisions are influenced by his promise with his mother. On the other hand, Sonny’s actions are because that is his choice. There is a closed relationship between playing jazz and using drugs. This suggests that Sonny’s action of using drug is “the accident of fate.” He cannot control it; he uses drugs to “keep from drowning in” the suffering all humans have to go through.”… And then, when I ran away, that’s what I was running from … nothing changed, I hadn’t changed, and I was just older.” (Baldwin, p132) Sonny tries to escape from drugs, but he cannot. Sonny confesses that he uses drugs again when the narrator and Sonny have a conversation after they witnessed a woman in an old-fashioned revival meeting. “So it comes again, All right,” Sonny’s brother said. “I had to try to tell you,” Sonny replied. “Yes, I understand that … I understand that …” Sonny’s brother repeated. (Baldwin, p132)The story reaches its climax when Sonny and his brother come to understand each other. The falling action part of the story describes the scene when the narrator goes with Sonny to a jazz club. It is difficult for Sonny to re-join with his music band since he has not played for a while. However, he begins to play “Am I blue,” Sonny takes control of the music, and becomes “part of a family again.”

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The story gives its conclusion when the narrator realizes that music has helped Sonny to stay free. Furthermore, the narrator recognizes that the blues can help everyone be true to what and who they are. ‘Sonny’s Blues’ tell us that it is a good idea to follow your decision, or judgement on your future life. Prejudice is wrong. However, there is a different between prejudice and the elder’s advises. Those are valuable experiences that the elders have learned, or even paid from their lives. Listening to those advises can give people have a better choice for their career, or a way to live.

In a portion of the story, the narrator recalls a memory, the last memory that he had from his mother. She is describing to him that his father had a brother and that he was killed to emotional scar him from ever doing wrong deeds. In addition to that, she reminds him of more incidents of the past, mentioning that one day his father and uncle got back from a party and while they were enjoying themselves on a hill, the narrator’s uncle jumps on the road not being able to avoid a car filled with drunk white people runs over the uncle and kills him, all with the narrator’s father watching. The story was described to the narrator just after his mother had asked him to watch over his brother before she died. Later the narrator accepts his mother’s request and he commits himself to always look over his younger brother. This narration seems to tie into the story by being an example for the same incident that happens between the narrator and his younger brother, which the narrator was obviously unable to avoid, given either lack of responsibility or the overpowering of the city’s temptations over Sonny.

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In conclusion of James Baldwin’s story ‘Sonny’s Blues’ can begin with a brief plot overview stating the important events that took place in the story. James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” can also choose to begin with a biography of the author. James Baldwin was an American novelist, playwright, poet and essayist. He is known for literature that is concerned with racial and sexual issues. A look at the roles of the characters including the narrator, Sonny, Isabel, the mother of Sonny, and Grace should be provided in an analysis of James Baldwin’s ‘Sonny’s Blues’ as well. The major themes of the story should also be discussed in an analysis of James Baldwin’s ‘Sonny’s Blues’. Some of the themes to discuss include that of being your brother’s keeper and the presence of anger and rage. Lastly, an analysis of James Baldwin’s ‘Sonny’s Blues’ should examine the symbols used in the story, among which are the cup of trembling, which represents the complicated situation of Sonny, housing projects as representation of Harlem’s decline and fall, and light and darkness as representation of hope and despair.

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