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“Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin Review

We all have different ways to react on our life difficulties. Some people just seem to be better conditioned to deal with a life of oppression and difficulties than others. This phenomenon can be well observed through the life stories of the characters in James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues.” The two main characters, Sonny and the narrator, are brothers, and they face such similar experiences in their lives as two different people can possibly face. The main point of the story is to show how the suffering that initially drove the brothers apart eventually ends up bringing them back together.

Through the whole story it is evident that the brothers’ attitude toward each other changes dramatically; eventually, after a long pursuit for peace they find a way to reconciliation. Their life begins in a dangerous neighborhood of Harlem where every young man has to face the temptation of getting involved with drugs, crime and violence (Baldwin, p. 3). The narrator manages to avoid these problems, and creates a relatively successful life for himself. The attitude that the narrator initially takes is that if he manages to be successful and avoid big troubles in life, then there will be no reason for his younger brother to fail to accomplish the same thing.

In the beginning of the story we learn that Sonny appeared in the very troublesome situation: he had been detained for huckster and using heroin (Baldwin, p. 5). The narrator insists on the idea that it was only because of vulnerability in Sonny’s personal qualities that the two men ended up being in such different situations in their lives. For the narrator, his brother’s arrest was both unbelievable and at the same time inevitable. In the very beginning of the story it is already evident that Sonny and his brother have already had a breakup in their relationship. The narrator is not able to show his sympathy for Sonny. When he talks to someone who knows Sonny, he simply reacts by saying that Sonny must be trying to kill himself (Baldwin, p. 6). He knows that his own choices have enabled him to escape the sad fate of Sonny. Now all it is evident that the suffering and oppression in the narrator’s and Sonny’s lives have simply divided them; there are no common points on which the two of them can stand. Various flashbacks allow us to have a more complete picture of the sorts of things that both of these men end up going through (Kennedy, p. 577). For instance, we see a flashback in which Sonny and his father constantly fight on the reason of being far too similar in character traits. The father could obviously see that the narrator could hold himself together, that he could manage on his own and wouldn’t have a difficult time dealing with the generalized oppression experienced in life, but he recognized in Sonny something of his own disposition, something that would cause Sonny to have more struggles in life than his brother, and perhaps he felt that he needed to try harder to get Sonny to realize these things by himself.

The event that changes the brothers’ character arcs, the one that brings them back together is the death of the narrator’s daughter (Baldwin, p. 65). What the narrator was never able to understand was how they could grow up as brothers, but end up in such extremely different situations, but what he seems to realize at this point is that some people just have a naturally higher tolerance towards pain and suffering that people deal with in life. He had simply never had an event that had forced him to consider whether or not he was incapable of dealing with any single event that came his way. The death of his daughter changes this in the narrator. It makes the narrator to feel the need to reach back out to Sonny, who was still in jail. When he finally writes to his brother, Sonny writes him back a letter that makes him feel guilty as he treated his own brother in such a bad way. Sonny, out of respect for the amount of pain that he had caused in his brother’s life, had not contacted him in order not to cause him further pain. He was doing this to his own detriment, as the pain and suffering that Sonny was dealing with was obviously more than he could handle. The narrator understands what it is like to not be able to handle one’s own life, and how lonely and sad it would be to not have someone to help you through the situation. Here the narrator is turning to Sonny, seeking solace after the death of his daughter, and Sonny had been avoiding him the whole time because he did not want to burden his brother any further. This made him feel that maybe Sonny had been the strong one in the situation, taking into consideration how he had been the cause of suffering in his brother’s life, and dealing with the oppression in his own life on his own, even though he had been incapable of handling it on his own. This made the narrator the weak one, the one who could not look past his own life and issues and opinions when obviously it had been his own brother this entire time who had been in need of support.

When the narrator went to see Sonny in the club, he recognized strength in his brother that he had never seen before. When he was in his element, Sonny was a completely different person. And that served for their reconciliation. They had both recognized a need in each other; Sonny was no longer a responsibility for which his brother was burdened, and the narrator no longer viewed Sonny as someone who could not make it without supervision. Sonny also recognized his brother as a person who could falter, who needed help when he became overwhelmed with life. The narrator recognizes this as well, and in a symbolic gesture, orders drinks for his brother and his band. The story ends with the narrator being enthralled in his brother’s music, which had never been something the narrator had recognized as being something of value as opposed to a weakness.

Concluding on all the above mentioned information, it should be stated that the story shows the way people feel when they face difficulties, and how life’s hardships affect them personally and their relations with others. Suffering teaches the narrator of the story to really understand and value his brother. Eventually, they are able to find mutual understanding and receive such precious gift of reconciliation.

Works Cited

  1. Baldwin, James. Sonny’s Blues. Germany: Klett, 1994. Print.
  2. Kennedy, Joseph and Dana Gioia. An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing. Harlow: Pearson Longman, 2010. Print.