"Sonny's Blues" James Baldwin
The following entry presents criticism on Baldwin's short story "Sonny's Blues" (1957). See also James Baldwin Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 15, 17, 127.
The short story "Sonny's Blues" is Baldwin's most highly acclaimed treatment of his signature themes: the nature of identity, race relations in the United States, human suffering, and the function of art. Set in the early 1950s in New York City, the story is narrated by an unnamed man who relates his attempts to come to terms with his long estranged brother, Sonny, a jazz musician. John M. Reilly, noting that an "outstanding quality of the Black literary tradition in America is its attention to the interdependence of personal and social experience," has concluded that "Sonny's Blues" both depicts and manifests the belief that the "artful expression of personal yet typical experience is one way to freedom."
Plot and Major Characters
After reading in a newspaper of Sonny's arrest for the possession and sale of heroin, the narrator—a high school algebra teacher aspiring to middle-class values, tastes, and security—recoils from the idea of getting involved in his brother's life. As he ponders the meaning of Sonny's situation and of his own fraternal obligations, the narrator recalls scenes and impressions from his childhood. He remembers in particular the story his mother told him about the murder of his uncle, a blues musician, the effect this had on his father, and his mother's subsequent entreaty to the narrator to always look after Sonny. After his relatively brief time in jail, Sonny comes to live with the narrator and his wife. The awkward, tentative conversations that ensue result in Sonny inviting his brother to hear him play at a Greenwich Village bar. Accepting the offer as an attempt at reconciliation, the narrator experiences—through the nuances of the music and the subtle interplay of the musicians—a sublime understanding of his brother and of the importance of music as a release from existential suffering.
Major ThemesLike much of Baldwin's writing, fiction as well as nonfiction, "Sonny's Blues" addresses specific racial issues and themes regarding the human condition. Displaying the influence of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, whose works were largely responsible for articulating the philosophy of Existentialism, Baldwin depicts a world in which suffering characterizes man's basic state. The story's principal characters, however, not only struggle through an absurd world devoid of inherent meaning, but must also persevere in a society that tolerates racism. Baldwin thus sees black Americans suffering doubly: from the existential angst of the human condition, and from the humiliation, poverty, and violence imposed on them by a prejudiced society. In "Sonny's Blues" Baldwin addresses these issues by employing metaphors of darkness and anxiety, incorporating images of confinement, and offering portraits of life in contemporary Harlem and, through the narrator's recollection of his childhood and family, the American South. Another of the story's major themes concerns music, specifically jazz and blues. Baldwin uses these forms, which are African American in origin, for various purposes. Music is associated with particular eras and places-blues with the South's past and jazz, specifically bebop, with the modern urban setting. Also, Baldwin characterizes the narrator, in part, by his lack of musical knowledge; critics note that the emotional distance between the brothers is symbolized by the narrator's unfamiliarity with bebop and his ignorance of the great saxophone player Charlie "Bird" Parker. Moreover, commentators note that the narrator's epiphanic experience at the end of the story, when he hears Sonny's playing, instantiates the theme of the redemptive powers of music and signals the rebirth of the brothers' relationship.
"Sonny's Blues" is generally considered one of Baldwin's finest works. Many commentators have discussed the story in relation to the author's role as a civil-rights leader. John M. Reilly has noted that "Sonny's Blues" "states dramatically the motive for Baldwin's famous polemics in the cause of Black freedom." A minority of critics have commented negatively that the social and political messages in "Sonny's Blues" are presented in a heavy-handed manner. Joseph Featherstone, for example, remarked that at various points in the story one hears "not the voice of Sonny or his brother, [but] the intrusive voice of Baldwin the boy preacher." Most critics, however, agree with John Rees Moore, who stated that "Sonny's Blues" is "unequivocally successful."
As the story opens, an unnamed narrator reads in a newspaper about the arrest of his brother Sonny for using and selling heroin. This unnerving revelation causes him to think back to their childhood, when Sonny was "wild, but he wasn't crazy" (4).
The narrator is sort of shell-shocked the whole day as he tries to teach his classes. (He's a high school math teacher and he can't help but compare Sonny to the guys in his class.) He somehow makes it through the day and as he's getting ready to leave he runs into one of Sonny's old friends, who seems like he wants to get something off his chest. It turns out that he feels a little responsible for what's happened to Sonny, since he is a heroin user himself. He was honest about how good it feels to get high when Sonny asked him about it. He also tries to explain to the narrator what it's like to be on drugs and why Sonny may have gotten hooked, but the narrator just ends up more frustrated and angry.
It's some time after this that the narrator finally tries to contact Sonny. He only does so because his (the narrator's) young daughter, Grace, has died. Sonny replies right away and tells the narrator that he really, really needed to hear from him but he never got in touch because he figured he had caused too much pain. Sonny returns to Harlem (where the two men grew up) and moves in with the narrator and his family once he gets out of jail.
Things are a little tense and awkward at first, but the narrator's wife, Isabel, is able to break the ice with Sonny. Things are still a bit off, though. After a few weeks, the narrator is home alone and considers searching Sonny's room for signs that he's still doing drugs. But before he gets around to it, he notices a street-side religious revival taking place outside his apartment. He watches two women and a man sing and pray, and then he notices that Sonny has been standing on the street watching. Once the revival finishes, Sonny heads up to the apartment and he and the narrator get into what's probably an inevitable argument.
Sonny starts to talk about suffering and about trying to escape it by using drugs. He talks about playing the piano and how sometimes he just has to play. He tries to explain to his brother why he turned to drugs in the first place, but the narrator doesn't want to hear it at first. He blames the music (and other musicians) for leading Sonny to heroin, and he tells Sonny how angry he is that Sonny seems determined to end his life by being an addict. Sonny gets just as angry – for his brother never reaching out to him after his arrest, for not accepting that people have different ways of dealing with things, and for not understanding that being a musician isn't what turned Sonny into a drug addict. The two eventually cool off and the narrator realizes that he's just worried about his little brother, so he promises himself that he'll always look out for Sonny from here on out. At the end of this conversation, Sonny invites the narrator to come hear him play at a club that night.
When they get to the club, an old musician named Creole greets Sonny and tells him that he's been waiting for his return. Lots of people in the club know Sonny and have come to hear him play after his long absence. The narrator suddenly realizes that he's in Sonny's world now. Creole is the bandleader at the club. He gets the other musicians ready and then leads Sonny onto the stage. This is a big moment for Sonny, and he's nervous. His piano playing is shaky and unsure, but after he gets through the first set he suddenly becomes his old self again, and his playing mesmerizes the narrator. As the narrator sits at a table by himself, he finally gets what Sonny's been trying to tell him all along – about music, about being a musician, about trying to deal with suffering. He sends Sonny a drink (Scotch and milk – gross!) and as the waitress puts it on the piano above Sonny's head, the narrator doesn't think he sees it. But then Sonny takes a drink, nods to the narrator, and goes back to playing.