James Baldwin is famous for writing “Sonny’s Blues” a dramatic short story that uses a first-person solo narrative. In this particular tale, Baldwin intends to delve into emotive issues such as race and discrimination in the United States by elaborating on a failing relationship between two brothers. It begins with the narrator finding out about his brother’s arrest through a newspaper. Sonny, his younger brother, had been incarcerated after being caught with heroin during a bust. He is apparently not surprised by this news and admits that he had suspicions about his brothers but could not bring himself to believing them. It is at this point that the story now begins with the narrator expressing his disappointment with his brother’s choice. A vast chasm exists between these two individuals, and it is clear that the narrator feels culpable for this predicament that his brother is in as it was his job to take care of him. Through a series of memories, the narrator tries to search for answers to the many questions that are flooding his mind. His guilt stems from the fact that their mother had put Sonny under his care. It is a tasking responsibility and even wonders whether he will be able to keep Sonny on a tight leash. The emotional hurt brought by their parent’s death plunges Sonny further into the abyss, and he soon seeks solace in drugs. It is this conflict brought about by his addiction and life choices that set the tone for the story describing the realities that they now have to contend. In this essay, I will provide a literary analysis of the story by focusing on the characters, plot development, and symbolism together with how they support the themes issues discussed.
The author uses a first-person solo narrative to develop the significant characters that feature in the story. The narrator is the protagonist brother who tries to break the cycle of drugs and gang activity around his neighborhood by leading a better life. He is a representation of “two sides of the African-American experience” (Baldwin 16). Unlike the typical African American male sucked into the societal matrix, he is an algebra teacher who pays particular attention to his family while trying his level best to integrate into a majority white society. The narrator’s character and his wife Isabel develops the theme of the family through his dedication at home and at trying to help his brother get out of a rut. He produces an emotional epiphany during Sonny’s moving performance and is even able to perceive his African American heritage and family. Sonny is the narrator’s brother and presents a titular character representing the flip side of the African American ordeal in the United States. He lives in an environment flooded with drugs, illegal weapons, poverty, and hopelessness. It is these factors that drive him deep into depression. The issue is further exacerbated by the death of his parents which leads to his drug addiction. The author uses him to mirror the theme of suffering in the story. As an African American during living during that period, he belongs to a marginalized community cut off from mainstream American society. The author also introduces a friend, a drug addict widely known around the area. He is always prowling the street borrowing money to fund his expensive drug habits. Moreover, he builds the theme of drugs and alcohol addiction while also admitting that he feels guilty for introducing Sonny to heroin when they were young school boys.
The plot develops around the two brothers, Sonny, and his brother. He finds out about his brother’s arrest through the newspaper and is genuinely concerned about his life choices. Although it is a serious matter that requires his utmost attention, he continues nonchalantly with his day teaching in Harlem. It is clear that he is a man keen on his kin as he spends the rest of his day thinking about Sonny. Through him, we understand the drug menace and concerned with the boys in his class whose futures will be ruined by drugs. He soon meets Sonny’s friend, who expounds more about the predicament that they were faced with after the incarceration. It is here that we learn of the cycle of release and arrest, typical of all drug addicts that would now dog Sonny for the rest of his life. From the narration, it is clear that the relationship between these two brothers is troubled because his brother never writes to him. It is Sonny who makes contact and is soon released, with the narrator choosing to house him. It is at the dinner tablet that the narrator uses flashbacks to provide additional information about their parents that is vital to the plot. It is soon apparent that their alcoholic father had died when he was only fifteen. Their failed relationship haunts him, and he soon becomes withdrawn. Their mother’s death and the narrator’s deployment to Korea further worsen their relationship which drives Sonny deep into drugs. It is however after his return from his military tour that he gets to understand the full extent of Sonny’s drug problem and life choices (Gale 45). A silver lining then comes in the form of jazz music which acts a bridge between the two brothers. It is at a club in Greenwich that the narrator finally gets a chance to witness his brother’s musical abilities and shares a brief connection with him.
Symbols permeate “Sonny’s Blues” literary landscape and are integral in presenting various issues of concern that the two brothers are facing. For instance, the author describes his experience after the show “as the very cup of trembling.”(Baldwin 28). Here, he borrows a symbol from the Bible to describe the difficult position that his brother was now in after his stint in jail for drug-related offenses. According to the Biblical symbol, those who suffer will find relief through a chalice. Drinking from this cup, therefore, represents the suffering that he had gone through and was finally getting a chance to redeem himself and experience peace of mind. He transforms his suffering into the music that he channels to his audience. Harlem’s housing projects, on the other hand, are a symbol of its steady decline. The narrator describes them as “rocks in the middle of a boiling sea” (Baldwin 9). He uses this bleak description to paint a grim picture of the sorry conditions that the projects are in at that moment. They offer a false image of what one might expect as they have transformed into dilapidated drug-infested buildings. It is this state that pushes the residents of this locality towards drug and alcohol addiction that mostly stem from their suffering. Furthermore, light and darkness represent the hope and despair that is evident in the character’s lives. The author uses light to serve Sonny’s visage as a young man sitting in the living room after church to symbolize hope. Darkness describes the personal and social problems that the characters are facing. Addiction is a representation of this darkness as Sonny lands in prison due to heroin and remains a slave to this condition.
In conclusion, “Sonny’s Blue’s” is a poignant narration that seeks to deal with the position of a minority in a society and how this relegation affects them. The narrator and his brother are both products of a deeply divided nation with some of the individuals living in dire conditions. Through an in-depth literary analysis, we are now able to understand charter and plot development together with the manner in which they support the themes in the tale.
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