Araby Sonnys Blues

“Araby” and “Sonny’s Blues”:  Pictures of Youthful Anxieties

            Adolescence is one of the most difficult periods of a person’s life.  The young person is not often understood or taken seriously - Araby Sonnys Blues introduction. However, an adolescent has real feelings that must be considered, especially when growing up becomes complicated.  In James Joyce’s “Araby” and James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”, the young man’s growing up is full of confusion and disappointments.  “Araby” and ‘Sonny’s Blues” portray darkness in the life of a young person striving to find himself but while the boy in “Araby” tries to find the light through the promise of young love, Sonny’s chance to be brought back to the light is through jazz music.

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            The mood and setting of “Araby” evokes a feeling of hopelessness and drab isolation.  The place where the boy lives contains “musty” “useless” and “yellow” things.  A priest has even recently died there, adding to the bleakness (Joyce 404).  Gerhard Friedrich of the journal “Modern Language Notes” calls them “the proof of the recurrence of symptomatic images: the uninhabited house at the blind end, detached from it… the double isolation of remaining in a bare railway carriage” (Friedrich 423).  The combined repetitive depressing images become the short story’s pervading mood from beginning to end.  The boy is at an important turning point of his life, but the dreary environment and the isolation makes his growing up more conflicted, causing what is popularly known as teenage angst.  What provides light in his life is his infatuation with Mangan’s sister, whom he regards as divine.  He even confuses lofty and religious feelings with his lust for her:  “It was a dark rainy evening and there was no sound in the house…Some distant lamp or lighted window gleamed below me.  I was thankful that I could see so little.  All my senses seemed to desire to veil themselves and, feeling that I was about to slip from them, I pressed the palms of my hands together until they trembled, murmuring: “O love! O love!” many times” (Joyce 405).  Even during the moments when he thinks that he is racing towards the light, darkness has somehow caught up with him, but he tries to deny it.  Though he fills his object of affection with saintly imagery, like “her soft rope of hair (Joyce 404)” that can only belong to some people’s perception of what a saint looks like, he himself is being attacked by temptation.  Others may regard this as normal; he is in fact, an adolescent with raging hormones.  He however, has a higher esteem of his own feelings.  He must have an over-all lofty view of growing up as a whole so that discovering things that make it less than perfect disappoints him badly: “Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anger and anguish” (Joyce 408).  He is not even able to keep his promise to bring Mangan’s sister something from the bazaar.  He is disappointed in himself.  In a teenager’s life, he will go through moments in which he thinks that he knows the answers to everything.  He may be someone who values his own feelings too much, that everyone else seems out to get him.  However, in the case of “Araby”, the conflict lies in the boy’s isolation which does not give him peers to share his feelings with in order to distinguish the normal to the odd, the good from the bad, for a teenage boy like him.

            “Sonny’s Blues” presents a darker type of teenage angst.  It does not just deal with teenage angst, but it goes further into hardened experience with drugs and a jail sentence.  Narrated by the older brother, “Sonny’s Blues” relates the struggles of a confused but talented jazz musician who his brother cannot believe to actually get involved with drugs:

“I couldn’t believe it: but what I mean by that is that I couldn’t find any room for it anywhere inside me.      I had kept it outside me for a long time.  I hadn’t wanted to know.  I had had suspicions, but I didn’t name them, I kept putting them away.  I told myself that Sonny was wild, but he wasn’t crazy” (Baldwin 37).

Sometimes when a teenager displays some of his anxieties, adults think of it as “acting out” or that “it’s just a phase”.  Sadly though, what will become the source of Sonny’s redemption is regarded by his brother as “a stage that kids go through” (Ognibene 37).  There is also that feeling of disbelief that someone from the family can actually do something so seriously wrong.  Elaine R. Ognibene, a former member of the English Department in St. John’s School, Rochester, New York, believes that “Sonny’s Blues” “is particularly relevant, not only because it concerns itself with problems facing many in this era of disintegrating family bonds and uncertain norms, but also because it affords an opportunity to elicit [a] type of “affective” response…” (Ognibene 36).  She goes on further to say that Sonny’s older brother may have been shocked and upset for himself because it is unthinkable that he can ever have a drug addict for a brother.  There is also the feeling of being responsible for his brother.  After all, his mother has made him promised to take care of Sonny because their father has already gone through grief and guilt about not being able to take care of his own brother.  Meanwhile, Sonny redeems himself by going back to his love for jazz music.  It is the light that affords him a new life:

“There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness… Then they all gathered around Sonny and Sonny played. Every now and again one of them seemed to say, amen. Sonny’s fingers filled the air with life, his life. But that life contained so many others. And Sonny went all the way back, he really began with the spare, flat statement of the opening phrase of the song. Then he began to make it his.” (Baldwin 59).

There are many programs nowadays that provide after-school diversions for teenagers.  These hobbies are their light that they need to hold on to.  Having something worthwhile to do prevents them from wallowing in depression and taking up a vice, such as drugs, alcohol and even promiscuous sex.

            The world is frightening, and even with company in the form of friends or even a successful courtship for the boy in “Araby” and jazz music for Sonny of “Sonny’s Blues”, “the world outside is still threatening” (Ognibene 37). Even with moments of “light”, the teenager’s family must remain vigilant.  In a way, both boys have been isolated from the family: Sonny’s brother is surprised by his little brother’s addiction and arrest and the boy from “Araby’ is still ashamed of his sexuality, denying it and crowning it with something more “holy”.  Someone’s teenage years must be enjoyed, but must also be guided and given support.

            In “Araby” the boy lives in an idealized world of his own making.  He must have come from a very religious Catholic family; their former tenant is the priest who has recently died.  The priest’s death can be considered symbolic in that after his death, the boy finally grows up.  There is a death and a new life.  The boy has also come to terms in the end about what the world is really like, and realizes that what he is experiencing is sexual frustration and not holy ecstasy.  His deified object of affection has also gradually shown herself to him as part of the drab neighborhood and not an object of pure light when he describes her as a “brown figure” (Joyce 404).  She blends with “the other houses of the street, conscious of decent lives within them, gazed at one another with brown imperturbable faces” (Joyce 404).   The people living in the neighborhood are said to be “decent” people, people expected to behave according to society’s norms.  During adolescence, some question authority and believe that there is another truth out there, not just the peaceful and strict conformity as suggested by the rows of brown-colored houses.  Sonny’s brother also thinks of his brother as a decent boy.  After all, the two of them come from the same family.  On the other hand, he may also be compared to the biblical older brother of the prodigal son.  He cannot accept that someone of his own blood can do something so terrible when he follows the rules to the letter.  Even though adolescence is a difficult, emotional period, there are many who are able to cope with the challenges thrown on them:  Sonny’s older brother is one such person and he has become so confident that Sonny will be the same that he has not been as vigilant as promised to their mother.

            “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin and “Araby” by James Joyce are two short stories from different cultural backgrounds, the former is African American and the latter Irish, but they are both treatments of how adolescents undergo difficulties or “darkness” in their lives.  The stories also provide the light that may make their growing up easier.  There is also that feeling that the world is not less threatening, but ultimately there is hope that can provide cushion to a young man’s fall.

Works Cited

Baldwin, James. “Sonny’s Blues.” The Story and Its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction. Boston,

            Massachusetts: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999. 37-60.

Friedrich, Gerhard. “The Gnomonic Clue to James Joyce’s Dubliners.” Modern Language Notes, Vol.       72, No. 6 (June 1957): 421-424.

Joyce, James. “Araby.” The Story and Its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction. Boston,

Massachussetss: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999. 404-408.

Ognibene, Elaine R. “Black Literature Revisited: “Sonny’s Blues”.” The English Journal, Vol. 60, No.

            1 (January 1971): 36-37.


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