The short story “Sonny’s Blues,” by James Baldwin, tells the story of two brothers who come to understand each other. More specifically, it shows, through its two main characters, Sonny and his older brother, the two sides of African-American’s experience with much of racism. The narrator, Sonny’s brother, has tried to assimilate to the white society, but still feel the pain and the limits on his opportunity. On the other hand, Sonny has never tried to assimilate and has to find the way out for his pain through drugs. Analyzing the plot of “Sonny’s Blues,” we can understand what happened, why it happened, and why characters acted the way they do.
The exposition of the “Sonny’s Blues” starts when the narrator introduces characters, scene, and situation of the story. The narrator learns from a newspaper that his younger brother, Sonny, has been arrested “for peddling and using heroin.” (Baldwin 83) The narrator is a high school teacher, and his wife is Isabel. Leaving the school, the narrator comes across an old friend of Sonny’s in the schoolyard. They talk about Sonny’s arrest and tell each other some their fears. The friend says that he “can’t much help old Sonny no more.” This angers the narrator because it reminds him that he himself had give up trying to help his brother and not even seen Sonny in a year.
However, he keeps in touch with Sonny again after his daughter dies. It is also the moment the narrator begins to wonder about Sonny again. The scene ends the exposition, and opens the story’s rising action part.
The story continues as the narrator meets Sonny after Sonny get out of prison. As Sonny’s request, they take a long cab ride and recall their memories that they had experienced in “vivid, killing streets” in their childhood. Next, we hear the conversation between the narrator and his mother about his father and the death of his father’s brother. The mother’s story makes the narrator realize how important he and his brother are to each other and how he, as the older, needs to let Sonny know “he is there” for Sonny. The narrator experiences a feeling of guilt, as he has not done as his mother asked, but he also remembers that Sonny’s choice of being a jazz musician “seemed beneath him, some how.” The conflict keeps rising as Sonny and the narrator argue about Sonny’s choice to be a jazz musician while Sonny has not finished his high schools degree yet.
We can see that the narrator’s actions and decisions are influenced by his promise with his mother. On the other hand, Sonny’s actions are because that is his choice. There is a closed relationship between playing jazz and using drugs. This suggests that Sonny’s action of using drug is “the accident of fate.” He can not control it; he uses drugs to “keep from drowning in” the suffering all humans have to go through.
“… And then, when I ran away, that’s what I was running from … nothing changed, I hadn’t changed, I was just older.” (Baldwin 102)
Sonny tries to escape from drugs, but he can not. Sonny confesses that he uses drugs again when the narrator and Sonny have a conversation after they witnessed a woman in an old-fashioned revival meeting.
“So it comes again, All right,” Sonny’s brother said.
“I had to try to tell you,” Sonny replied.
“Yes, I understand that … I understand that …” Sonny’s brother repeated.
The story reaches its climax when Sonny and his brother come to understand each other.
The falling action part of the story describes the scene when the narrator goes with Sonny to a jazz club. It is difficult for Sonny to rejoin with his music band since he has not played for a while. However, he begins to play “Am I blue,” Sonny takes control of the music, and becomes “part of a family again.”
The story gives its conclusion when the narrator realizes that music has helped Sonny to stay free. Further more, the narrator recognizes that the blues can help every one be true to what and who they are.
“Sonny’s Blues” tells us that it is a good idea to follow your decision, or judgement on your future life. Prejudice is wrong. However, there is a different between prejudice and the elder’s advises. Those are valuable experiences that the elders have learned, or even paid from their lives. Listening to those advises can give people have a better choice for their career, or a way to live.
Baldwin, James. “Sonny’s Blues.” The Story and Its Writers. Boston : Harold Ober
Association, Inc., 1999. 82-106