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Suffering in Sonny’s Blues

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    In Sonny’s Blues by James Baldwin, two brothers grow up in the ghetto of Harlem, a poverty-stricken place where heroin use is common and crime is high. Sonny, the younger of the two, is portrayed as a troubled young adult who desperately tries to get out of the negative environment that threatens to destroy his dream of becoming a musician. His brother, in contrast, leads a more stable life, has a family, and is a schoolteacher.

    Throughout the story there is a common theme of suffering that ultimately brings the two main characters together and through their suffering, they are able to have a better understanding of one another and themselves. Sonny’s addiction to heroin is his way of expressing his suffering. The short story begins with Sonny being sent to jail for his narcotic use; however, we learn that this addiction actually started at a young age, growing up in troubled Harlem. Growing in an impoverished neighborhood was not easy for Sonny, as he often felt misunderstood.

    To deal with his pain and suffering, Sonny turned to drugs. He describes his drug use in a way that “It makes you feel—in control, sometimes you’ve got to have that feeling” (Baldwin 64). For Sonny, having any control in his life was important to him. Because he felt so helpless, Sonny found solace in drug use, as this was something he could control. It is clear that Sonny was suffering, as he desperately wanted to leave Harlem, but was unable to. Drugs were an easy way for him to deal with his emotions.

    He hid behind the glamor of drugs with the idea that it made him a better musician, “I felt that I was in it, that I was with it, and that I could play or didn’t really have to play, it just came out of me, it was there” (Baldwin 68). Sonny felt as though it made him a better musician almost like he was a better person and when he played, the music just flowed through him. Through his addiction to heroin, he begins to realize that it has brought him down a path of destruction. Sonny states, “I’ve been something that I didn’t recognize, didn’t know I could be, didn’t know anyone could be” (Baldwin 67). This ignificant statement was said after Sonny was in jail. Here, he was able to reflect on dealings of his past, and was horrified at the person he became. It was the experience of hitting rock bottom of being sent to jail after being caught with heroin. In jail he knew he had to change, he realized the destruction that his drug use had caused for him and everyone around him. The realization of being in jail caused him to want to better himself and to help fix his relationship with his brother. In jail he made the first step to reach out to his brother by writing him a letter to help start the path of patching things up with his brother.

    Hitting rock bottom ultimately lead Sonny to understand and overcome his suffering. Heroin did not make his problems go away but only prolonged his suffering. With this ordeal, he was able to have a better understanding of himself, and by not doing drugs it made him a better musician. It was here that Sonny makes the realization that drugs have added to the negativity of his life, and to his struggles. Suffering is also shown through the troubled relationship between the narrator who is his brother and Sonny. In the story, the Narrator makes a promise to his mother before she dies that he will take care of Sonny and look out for him.

    She tells him, “You got to hold on to your brother, and don’t let him fall no matter what it looks like is happening to him” (Baldwin 57). This makes the narrator feel obligated that he needs to be Sonny’s keeper and do whatever it takes to keep him out of trouble. The narrator, who is much older than Sonny, cannot seem to support his dream of becoming a jazz musician, which causes them to have a conflicted relationship. The Narrator states, “The seven years difference in our ages lay between us like a chasm” (Baldwin 51). The two brothers were into very different things especially when it came to music.

    When Sonny tells his brother who his favorite musician is, the narrator has never heard of him. The two characters are very different, Sonny loves playing music and wants to become a musician while his brother is more conservative and has his life together. Sonny wanted to leave Harlem and pursue his dream of becoming a musician but his brother wanted him to stay and finish school. This causes Sonny to start to resent his brother and rebel against whatever he tells him to do. Sonny tells the Narrator, “I think people ought to do what they want to do, what else are they alive for” (Baldwin 59). The Narrator wanted to ush Sonny into doing something in his life that would give him a stable career because he knew that trying to become a musician was not guaranteed. Sonny wants to pursue music because it makes him feel fulfilled, but his brother prefers him to take a safer career path, which only adds fire to their tense relationship. This makes their relationship suffer because it causes Sonny to stop talking to his brother. Sonny expresses his suffering from his heroin addiction and his strained relationship with his brother through the music he plays which in the end helps bring him and the narrator closer together.

    Suffering can be an advantage because it helps him play passionate, great music for others to hear. At a young age, Sonny dedicated most of his time playing music. The narrator’s wife who Sonny lived with tells the narrator, “Sonny was so serious about his music, as soon as he came in from school, and he went straight to that piano and played there until suppertime” (Baldwin 61). It was his way of expressing his thoughts and feelings. “It was though he were all wrapped up in some cloud, some fire, some vision all his own; and there wasn’t anyway to reach him” (Baldwin 61).

    To him jazz music is a way to let out his feelings and actually being heard by his brother and everyone else. Music was an escape to him, an alternative to doing heroin. When he played music it made him feel just as good as how heroin would make him feel. The narrator becomes aware of Sonny’s suffering and troubles he went through when he hears him play at the nightclub. “Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did, I heard what he had gone through and would continue to go through until he came to rest in earth” (Baldwin 71).

    As the narrator watches Sonny play his music he begins to get a deeper understanding of Sonny for the first time. He begins to understand that just because Sonny did drugs and went down the wrong path in his life, he is still his little brother and he is a great musician. He sees all the suffering that Sonny has had with his addiction to heroin to get through in order to get to this point of his life and begins to see Sonny for who he really is, a great musician. Sonny’s Blues is a story about two brothers who come to understand and accept each other over time. Their relationship in the beginning of the story began with the brothers not being n contact with one another and ends with music being a catalyst for change in their relationship. In the end, Sonny learns to express the suffering he has been through into his music by using his past experiences with his addiction in a positive way. Through Sonny’s music the narrator begins to understand the suffering his brother has went through and allows them to become closer. Suffering is very prominent throughout the story and both characters go through experiences which helps them, in the end, give them a better understanding of each other and themselves.

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