James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” recounts the troubled history and unlikely reconciliation of two brothers: an unnamed narrator, and his younger brother, Sonny. The story begins when the narrator, a high school teacher, reads in the newspaper that Sonny has been arrested on drug charges. As the older brother, he feels guilty for not keeping Sonny safe, since he promised their mother he would. The brothers have had a rocky relationship for several years, due largely to the narrator’s disapproval of and inability to accept Sonny.
He feels that Sonny is incapable of making good decisions and needs guidance to keep him on the right path, but the narrator does not realize until later that Sonny had to make choices based on his own needs. As the story progresses, the narrator begins to understand and accept Sonny despite their different ways of coping with life and its hardships. The narrator, who is seven years older than Sonny, feels an almost paternal responsibility and guilt for the path his brother’s life has taken, largely because of a promise he made to his mother before her death.
The narrator recalls his mother telling him to look out for Sonny, but he misinterprets her request. He believes she wants him to keep Sonny safe, but all she asks is that he support him and “let him know you’s there. ” As the narrator reminisces about the way he dealt with Sonny in the past, he begins to recognize how he failed to honor his mother’s request that he be supportive of his brother. He has long been aware of his estranged brother’s troubles, but it is not until the death of his daughter that the narrator is able to understand and sympathize with Sonny’s plight, stating simply, “My trouble made his real. The narrator writes a letter to Sonny, and in Sonny’s response, he states that he needed to hear from his brother, again reminding the narrator of his promise to his mother. The narrator has begun to realize that Sonny’s addiction arose as a means of escaping the bleak hopelessness of the poor Harlem neighborhood where they grew up, and he worries that he is “simply bringing him back into the danger he had almost died trying to escape” by bringing him back to Harlem.
The narrator recalls a conversation he had with Sonny shortly after the death of their mother, in which he denied Sonny’s request to join the army in order to escape Harlem, saying that Sonny must first finish school. Sonny tries to explain the urgency of his need to leave Harlem, but the narrator is too convinced that he is right to listen to Sonny. Later in the story, Sonny tells his brother that he anted to leave Harlem to get away from the drugs, and looking back on the incident, the narrator regrets his inability to understand and support Sonny and views it as another example of his failure to be there for his brother as his mother had asked. The narrator’s disapproval of Sonny’s career choice and lifestyle choices, which has always created problems between the brothers, lessens over the course of the story as the narrator begins to understand that Sonny needs to be a musician to cope with the suffering he has endured.
When Sonny was a teenager, he expressed an interest in becoming a jazz musician, but the narrator did not view this as a legitimate career choice and, therefore, tried to dissuade him from following his dream. Years later, when visiting Sonny in Greenwich Village, where Sonny had begun a career as a musician, it was apparent that the narrator’s views on the subject had not changed, as he described the music Sonny played as “weird and disordered” and even went so far as to say that Sonny may as well be dead rather than continue to live that lifestyle.
Only after Sonny has been released from jail and is living with him is the narrator able to have an honest conversation with Sonny about his heroin addiction and the attraction of jazz music to a young man who has grown up in rough circumstances. By explaining the suffering at the root of his addiction and its connection to the jazz music he loves, Sonny is able to make the narrator understand that his brother is not a bad person; he simply has different coping mechanisms.
Sonny explains that music is a way for him to escape and to channel his suffering into something constructive. The connection between great music and suffering is made apparent when Sonny remarks upon a woman singing at a revival, “it struck me all of a sudden how much suffering she must have had to go through – to sing like that. ” This leads the narrator to question whether there is any way to escape suffering and to conclude that suffering should simply be accepted as a natural part of life.
Sonny replies that the narrator is incapable of understanding any way other than his own of coping with suffering, and this leads the narrator to a revelation about himself. He realizes that he wants to protect Sonny from suffering, even if it means sacrificing his own ideas about how best to do so. After discovering a new understanding of Sonny and his music, the narrator is able to see a depth and value in his brother’s music that his self-righteous opinions prevented him from comprehending in the past.
When he attends Sonny’s performance at the jazz club, the narrator is struck by the respect and admiration of both the musicians and the audience for his brother. Having viewed Sonny’s music as a worthless pursuit for so many years, the narrator is amazed at its influence on those at the club. He is now “in Sonny’s world; or, rather: his kingdom. Here it was not even a question that his veins bore royal blood. The narrator has opened his mind enough that he is finally able to hear the music as Sonny does; it speaks to him, and he realizes that the music tells the story of life’s joys and sorrows, and that it is “the only light we’ve got in all this darkness. ” As Sonny continues to play, the narrator sees that “Sonny’s fingers filled the air with life, his life. But that life contained so many others”, and he comprehends the power music has to bring people together to provide a release for their common suffering, as he remembers his parents and his daughter.
Sonny’s glass of whisky is likened to a “cup of trembling”, a biblical reference to God’s promise to the Israelites that they would no longer feel his wrath; in the context of the story, the reference seems to imply that, like the Israelites, Sonny would no longer be tormented by suffering. Through the story the narrator hears in his brother’s music, the narrator discovers a new respect and acceptance for Sonny. Over the course of “Sonny’s Blues”, the narrator gains a deeper understanding of and a new respect for Sonny, the brother he has always viewed as misguided and troubled.
After the death of his daughter, the narrator’s mind turns to Sonny, with whose suffering he can finally identify. Through a series of flashbacks, the narrator is able to see the ways in which his own faults and actions negatively affected his brother and their relationship. The narrator had promised his mother that he would be there for his brother, but he realizes that instead of supporting Sonny in his decisions, he has tried to control him, thereby destroying their relationship.
The narrator did not support Sonny’s desire to become a musician and to escape Harlem, but he begins to understand that Sonny’s drug addiction arose as a result of growing up in Harlem, where both suffering and drugs were a part of life. As the story nears its end, the narrator is able to accept Sonny on his own terms, recognizing that jazz music is a constructive way for Sonny to deal with the suffering he has endured and to share that pain with others to help ease their own suffering.