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James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” is a tale of suffering. Placed in an environment that is “encircled by disaster” (Baldwin 1615), the narrator constantly attempts to escape from the suffering around him. He avoids all contact with those around him and becomes disconnected from who he truly is. However, it is through his brother, Sonny, that the narrator realizes that running from his troubles and those closest to him is not the answer. Sonny’s ability to channel his suffering through his music portrays Baldwin’s central message, that only by finding meaning in suffering can one can truly live.
Nearly every negative aspect of the narrator’s life seems to come from the environment around him – specifically the evils of racial segregation that plague Harlem. Although the narrator believes to have escaped from his upbringing by getting an education, he also acknowledges that he “left something… behind” (1615). The narrator’s loss can be seen in the monotony of his daily life. He does not believe that his job as a high school teacher makes any impact on the racially biased social system of the day, that his students are “growing up with a rush and their heads bumped abruptly against the low ceiling of their actual possibilities” (1610). Sonny has also lost a part of himself to his drug addiction, but Sonny’s letter to his brother reveals that he feels as though his experience with addiction has taught him something and given him purpose. It is here that the reader can see the irony of the brothers’ story. The narrator has worked hard to gain his education but has suffered without finding meaning in his life. It is Sonny, the drug addicted brother, who is able to find meaning and help to end the narrator’s suffering.
The narrator’s suffering is directly paralleled by that of his father. The narrator’s mother warns him, saying “don’t let [Sonny] fall, no matter what it looks like is happening to him and no matter how evil you gets with him” (1618). Although the narrator “caught [Sonny] just before he fell when he took the first steps he ever took in this world” (1614), he has failed to help his brother since the death of their parents. Likewise, the narrator’s father suffered after helplessly witnessing the death of his brother. The narrator seems just as helpless shortly after learning of Sonny’s heroin use; by fleeing from his suffering the narrator has disconnected with those who should be closest, including his brother. Additionally, the narrator has also recently lost a close family member, his daughter. These examples make it clear that the way to end the narrator’s suffering is through helping Sonny and reconnecting with those closest to him.
Sonny’s suffering revolves around his heroin addiction. However, this seems to be a direct result of the narrator’s lack of presence in Sonny’s life. The narrator himself seems to be aware of this, as he states: “I had a lot of things on my mind and I pretty well forgot my promise to Mama until I got shipped home on a special furlough for her funeral” (1618). However, Sonny continues to suffer while the narrator is away, dropping out of school and beginning his addiction to heroin while the narrator is overseas. Sonny is eventually able to channel is suffering through his music, but originally this is against the wishes of his brother. The narrator is reluctant to support Sonny’s decision at first, instead he believes that music is “beneath [Sonny], somehow” (1619). While the narrator attempts to help Sonny by encouraging him to conform to a life of education as the narrator has, he ignores what Sonny believes to be his life’s calling. Later in the story, music will serve as the vessel to free both Sonny and the narrator from their suffering.
The instances of music in “Sonny’s Blues” always seem to calm an otherwise turbulent situation. While the narrator is sitting in a classroom in the beginning of the story, he describes the whistling of a student as uplifting. The turning point of the story is accompanied by an occurrence of music. During a revival meeting, the narrator notices that “the music seemed to soothe a poison out of them; and time seemed, nearly, to fall away from the sullen, belligerent, battered faces, as though they were fleeing back to their first condition, while dreaming of their last” (1624). It is only after Sonny points out that the singer at the revival meeting had to suffer in order to give meaning to the listeners that the narrator realizes the futility of attempted to fully escape from suffering. At this point he “had held silence-for so long!-when [Sonny] had needed human speech to help him” (1626). The final occurrence of music takes place at the end of the story, and it makes the narrator realize that “while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness” (1629-1630). It is at this point that the narrator realizes that a person must have meaning in order to live.
James Baldwin uses “Sonny’s Blues” to describe an optimistic philosophy in what seems like a profoundly pessimistic story. The main purpose of the nameless narrator may be to suggest that his story does not have a name; stories like this one are repeated throughout the world. Throughout the story, characters struggle to escape from what they believe to be their meaningless suffering. However, it is through their attempts at escape that the real damage is done. By attempting to escape from the environment around him, the narrator escapes from those that are most important to them and nearly guarantees that he will find no meaning in his life. Only by witnessing his brother’s self-expression can the narrator find meaning and truly live.
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