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Sonny’s Blues by James Baldwin: Analysis and Critique

For my literary research paper, I am going to write about “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin. Analyzing this story, I will focus on the characters of two brothers: the narrator and Sonny, and their conflicts. Both brothers lived two completely different lifestyles and yet they both feel spiritually trapped. I will try to analyze the plot of the book, as well as its themes and their relation to our society. I will summarise and discuss the plot, the major themes of the book and how they are conveyed. Through my literary analysis, I hope to display that one can appear to have everything the narrator does but still want something different. Although their mom is dead her memories are still with them especially the promises that were made by the narrator. Although Sonny has some vices his music helps him feel free. Consulting the already existing works criticizing this piece, I will use papers by Tracey Sherard, Charles Duncan, Catherine Sustana, John M. Reilly and Eva Kowalska. In an attempt to better develop my analysis, I plan to consult the website, encyclopedia.com, for cross-referencing the main aspects of the plot and characters. While writing the essay, I anticipate that I will have trouble with finding the required number of outside sources because the source material is a short story that may have limited resources I can effectively use for my research.

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Starting off, a summary of the story and its major themes should be provided. Written in 1957 by an African-American author James Baldwin the piece tackles the subjects of family, identity, life fulfillment and racial relations. Set in New York city, the story focuses on the lives of an unnamed narrator and his younger brother, Sonny, who are both black. The narrator works as an algebra teacher at a high school, while his brother is a heroin-addicted musician. The point-of-view character for the audience is considered to be a respectable member of society, a proud father and husband. The man, however, still feels the gloomy atmosphere of the city, and cannot completely escape from his oppressed heritage. Both brothers experience hardships in life, stemming from their inherent prejudices and the racist society they are a part of. The main focus of the story is on Sonny, who uses drugs and music to escape from the pain of his day-to-day life and tries to help others through music (Duncan, 1994). He is seen as a downtrodden man, an outsider to the rest of society because of his life choices. Throughout the course of the book, his brother reconnects with him, comes to understand Sonny’s struggles and his way of thinking (Encyclopedia, 2020). Many themes are prominent in this piece, with motifs of identity and racism being two of the most apparent.

Further delving into the topic, I would like to discuss some of the themes in detail. The topic of bonds and family is emphasized throughout the whole story, with the brother’s relationship taking center stage. The two have been taught since their childhood to look out for each other because they will experience more problems in their lives due to their race. The narrator since has drifted apart from his brother and started a family of his own. A split between them was caused by the narrator’s disapproval of Sonny’s life choices, especially heroin abuse (Kowalska, 2015). A wife and a child help the main protagonist to feel a faint sense of purpose and belonging that he seems to lack. The stability of his life allows him not to seek out Sonny, even when he learns that the latter has been arrested for using drugs. The man’s balance is shaken when his daughter dies from polio, and he cannot help but want to mend the connection with his brother. At first, there is a significant distance between the two, with the older one disapproving of Sonny’s career and life choices due to his preconceptions. This rift between them is finally mended when the narrator hears Sonny perform in a jazz club. Through his passionate performance, Sonny is able to deliver a message he could never formulate with words.

On a similar note, the themes of darkness, danger and racism are thoroughly interlaced within the narrative as well, creating an interesting point for discussion. An analysis by Catherine Sustana talks about the darkness prevalent in the book, and the effects of racism on a black individual. Sustana notes that the darkness described by the narrator refers to the “threats that menace the African-American community”, a verbal metaphor used to symbolize danger (Sustana, 2019). The narrator talks about the “darkness” in the lives of his pupils, thinking about the struggles they face and the fictitious reality of the TV screen they use as an escape. He describes the darkness as an ever-present, enveloping force that every black person has to deal with, the force that accompanies their whole lives. The book also subtly displays how racism has affected both brothers by showing the audience their personal outlooks and their life paths. Sonny, for example, is noted to have been a lot more receptive to injustice than his brother or other people. His heightened sensitivity allows him to touch others through his art, at the expense of feeling miserable and seeking refuge in the form of drugs. His brother, on the other hand, has successfully integrated into society and suffers not from overt racism, but internalized one. One of the examples of this is seen in his reaction to Sonny’s musical career choice, where he shows clear distaste for jazz as a profession, thinking that the genre is “beneath” his brother.

Another important point to consider when talking about themes is the question of identity. As something that is shaped by a combination of one’s surroundings, personality and culture, this topic is often discussed in all kinds of literature. In James Baldwin’s book, it is best demonstrated by the character of Sonny. The man took a shaky path in his life, wanting to become a jazz musician. He is passionate about his art and dedicates his whole being to it, to the point of being considered strange by his relatives. Growing up, he took upon the prejudices passed from his father, and his family suffered at the hands of racist individuals. Unable to cope with the harsh reality of his life, Sonny started taking drugs with the incentive from his friend. The feelings of euphoria helped alleviate his daily struggles at the cost of his well-being. The addiction, along with his rather low status on the social ladder, has alienated him from most of the community and even from his older brother. Despite being presented to the reader as a stereotypical jazz musician, the story makes one see his sensitive side, understand his reasoning, feel the passion behind his craft. The bad habits and good intentions all come together to form a multi-layered and interesting character.

All in all, the book combines the themes of racism, family and identity to tell a compelling story of two brothers. The characters are written to be understood both as actual people and as allegories for the black community and its treatment in America. While one brother has successfully become a respected member of society and the other has not, the author makes a point of showing that they both still suffer from the remnants of their childhood. The narrative highlights the importance of familial bonds and acceptance in the life of a person and shows how the lack of support can affect an individual. Baldwin’s book also makes a point of stating the reasons many people in the black community suffer from drug abuse and frames it as a systematic problem partially caused by racism. This story accurately illustrates the state of America during the time of its writing and the power of music as a tool for liberation and self-expression (Reilly, 1970). Jazz music is used to critique and display the public’s relationship with the African-American culture and history (Sherard, 1998). Sonny’s Blues is an intriguing piece that manages to show its audience starkly different characters – representations of the black community, and unite them with a heartfelt message about the importance of bonds.

Works Cited

“Sonny’s Blues.” Encyclopedia.com, 2020, Web.

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Duncan, Charles. “Learning to Listen to ‘Sonny’s Blues.’” Obsidian II, vol. 9, no. 2, 1994, pp. 1–10. JSTOR, Web.

Kowalska, Eva. “Troubled Reading: ‘Sonny’s Blues’ and Empathy.” Literator, vol. 36, no. 1, 2015.

Reilly, John M. “‘Sonny’s Blues’: James Baldwin’s Image of Black Community.” Negro American Literature Forum, vol. 4, no. 2, 1970, pp. 56–60. JSTOR, Web.

Sherard, Tracey. “Sonny’s Bebop: Baldwin’s ‘Blues Text’ as Intracultural Critique.” African American Review, vol. 32, no. 4, 1998, pp. 691–705. JSTOR, Web.

Sustana, Catherine. Story and Meaning of James Baldwin’s Short Story “Sonny’s Blues”. 2019, Web.

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StudyCorgi. (2022, January 8). Sonny’s Blues by James Baldwin: Analysis and Critique. https://studycorgi.com/sonnys-blues-by-james-baldwin-analysis-and-critique/

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StudyCorgi. "Sonny’s Blues by James Baldwin: Analysis and Critique." January 8, 2022. https://studycorgi.com/sonnys-blues-by-james-baldwin-analysis-and-critique/.

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StudyCorgi. 2022. "Sonny’s Blues by James Baldwin: Analysis and Critique." January 8, 2022. https://studycorgi.com/sonnys-blues-by-james-baldwin-analysis-and-critique/.

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