The story Sonny’s Blues by James Baldwin is the story of the tumultuous relationship between two brothers. The anonymous narrator, a well-off Harlem algebra teacher, is seven years the senior to his brother Sonny.
The narrator is a cold and judgmental man. Sonny is a jazz pianist whose passion for music is not comprehended by his older brother. The story is not in precise chronological order; however, Baldwin allows everything to come full circle in the end. As we follow the relationship of the narrator and Sonny, we see that suffering can be transformed into an art form such as blues music. The music helps to serve as a means for change.Through this change the narrator begins to understand not blues and Sonny, but also himself. The beginning of the story finds the narrator learning of his brother, Sonny’s, arrest via the morning newspaper.
Sonny was arrested for the use of heroin and the narrator is shocked and disturbed, and it is this shock that helps to initiate the healing of the brothers’ relationship. The narrator encounters one of Sonny’s old friends after work on the same day he heard the news. He is very guarded in the conversation. For no reason, he feels a sense of hatred towards the friend.
He states, “But now, abruptly, I hated him. The friend continues the conversation by telling the narrator that he was the first person to tell Sonny about the effects of heroin. It is at this point that the narrator begins to feel a little compassion as well as a little guilt. He still however, is slightly guarded. But he does show that he cares when he shyly asks “so what’s going to happen to him now. ” It is in this situation that we first see that the narrator truly does care about his brother.
Although secretly caring deeply for his brother, the narrator does not contact Sonny for a very long time. The death of his daughter, Grace, prompts him to write a letter to Sonny.Sonny’s reply shows his desperation to reach his brother. The brothers continue to have correspondence with one another until Sonny returns to New York. The narrator lets Sonny into his home. However, he feels very awkward about their reunion. He is however, concerned with his brother’s safety for he feels he may not be safe at all.
The narrator’s concern for Sonny’s safety prompts him to have flashbacks. The narrator’s first flashback introduces us to another pair of brothers, his father and uncle. The narrator learns from a conversation with his mother that his uncle was a musician like Sonny.His uncle was run over and subsequently killed by a group of drunken white men. The relationship of the narrator and Sonny is much like the relationship between his father and uncle. His mother makes this point clear to the narrator when she says, “I ain’t telling you all this to make you scared or bitter or to make you hate nobody.
I’m telling you this because you got a brother. And the world ain’t changed. ”At this point in the story, the narrator feels slightly guilty because he hadn’t heeded his mother’s word.
He feels as though he may be partly to blame for some of Sonny’s suffering.The narrator’s mother dies shortly after and the distance between he and Sonny became immense. The narrator marries a woman named Isabel shortly after his mother’s death. He suggests that Sonny go and live with his Isabel’s family as he is going off to war and he thinks it is in Sonny’s best interest. The narrator and Sonny have a huge breakdown in communication at this point when Sonny announces he wants to pursue a career playing jazz. The narrator is shocked and has no response. He then explains to Sonny that it is imperative that he stay in school and graduate. The narrator asks Sonny if he heard him.
Sonny’s reply shows the shambles of their relationship when he says, “I hear you. But you never hear anything I say. ” Sonny does however give-in when the narrator reminds him that there is a piano at Isabel’s parents’ home.
Sonny becomes obsessed with the piano. He doesn’t have any kind of communication with anyone. He uses the piano as a source of expression. Isabel explained to the narrator that, “it wasn’t like living with a person at all; it was like living with sound. ” The narrator is then able to see what it is that music does for Sonny.
He tells us that, “They dimly sensed as I sense, that Sonny was at the piano playing for his life. Isabel’s family then finds out that Sonny had not been attending school. Instead, he had been spending his time playing music at an apartment.
Isabel and her family were extremely upset and Sonny ended up leaving to go into service. The narrator and Sonny did not see each other until the war was over and they were both back in New York. The narrator never viewed Sonny as a man and they fought anytime they saw each other. The narrator had a problem with the way Sonny carried himself. He called it “loose and dreamlike.
” He also had a problem with his friends and found music to just be an excuse for him to live his life loosely.An awful fight led them to cease communication with each other for months. The narrator however, looks Sonny up and finds where he has been staying.
He goes to see him and Sonny treats him as though he is not family. The narrator tells him that he might as well be dead than to live the way he is living. Sonny says that as far as the narrator is concerned he is dead. Sonny kicks him out the apartment and the narrator whistles, “You going to need me, baby, one of these cold, rainy days” just to keep from crying. This was the end of the narrator’s flashbacks.
He then discusses his daughter’s tragic death due to polio which prompted him to contact Sonny after learning of his arrest. He was deeply troubled by her death and he immediately thought of Sonny. He states, “My trouble made his real. ” After Sonny’s arrest, he moves in with the narrator and his wife. At this point, the brothers begin to understand one another a little better. One day as the narrator is home alone; he stares out the window and witnessed a religious service being held on the corner. As the narrator watches, he realizes that although these people struggle day in and day out they can still sing with all their hearts and souls.
He comes to the realization that music was a savior to them. He says that the music “seemed to soothe a poison out of them. ” He then sees Sonny walking past the revival. Sonny drops some change to the ladies and heads home. The narrator’s newfound thought process prompts him to start a conversation with Sonny. Sonny begins to discuss his use of heroin. He explains how it made him feel “in control. ” He used drugs as a refuge as well as an escape.
However, after he was arrested he needed to find a new refuge and escape and music was all he had. They then begin to discuss the revival that they had just witnessed.Sonny says that he finds it repulsive that the woman on the street has to “suffer so much to sing that well. ” The narrator with his new outlook on things explains that all people will suffer because it is the human condition.
The two brothers are now closer than they have ever been and Sonny invites the narrator to a club where he will be playing the piano. The narrator gets to the club and finds that people have a great respect for Sonny and his art. The bandleader Creole, keeps pushing Sonny to come out of his shell during the performance and play “Sonny’s Blues”.
As the narrator sits in the back corner of the room he has an epiphany.He learns of the relationship between Sonny’s suffering and his music. He realizes that Sonny’s music fills a void for him. It helps to keep him from drowning in all his sorrows. The tumultuous relationship of the narrator and Sonny comes full circle when the narrator realizes the theme of the story.
The narrator comes to the realization that music helped Sonny feel as though he had an identity and was worth something, regardless of any suffering he went through. The narrator’s realization expresses the theme that through suffering, a beautiful art form, such as blues music, can emerge.