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The Struggles of James Baldwin’s Sonny

Suffering initially divides the brothers

People have different ways of reacting to the same thing. Some people just simply seem better conditioned to deal with a life of oppression and difficulty than other people. This can be seen in the characters in James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues.” The two main characters, Sonny and the narrator are brothers, and they have as similar experiences as two different people can have. However, considering the differences in how they end up dealing with the oppression in their lives, two different paths through life could hardly be imagined. The main point of the story, though, is to show how the suffering that initially drove the brothers apart eventually ends up bringing them back together.

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This is not just a matter of caring for and watching out for your family members; both characters’ attitudes change towards each other, something that must take place for the brothers to have any chance of reconciliation. Being brothers, they both had the same parents and they both had to deal with the same living conditions in Harlem and all of the difficulty that that brings for anyone. They both had to deal with the temptation of getting involved with drugs, and the narrator managed to avoid this problem and create a relatively successful life for himself. The attitude that the narrator initially takes is that if he could manage to do this for himself, then there was no reason for his younger brother to fail to manage to accomplish the same thing.

At the beginning of the story, we learn that Sonny appeared in a very troublesome situation: he had been detained for huckster and using heroin. There are hardly any analogies in the lives of school teachers and drug addicts, and the narrator initially insists on the idea that it was only because of vulnerability in Sonny’s personal qualities that the two men ended up being in such different situations in their lives. For the narrator, his brother’s arrest was both unbelievable and at the same time inevitable.

At the point in the story that we begin, Sonny and his brother had already had a breakup. The narrator is not able to show his sympathy for Sonny. When he talks to someone who knows Sonny, he simply reacts by saying that Sonny must be trying to kill himself. He knows that his own choices have enabled him to escape the fate of so many other people who ended up in the same way as Sonny did. Now, all we can see is how the suffering and oppression in the narrator’s and Sonny’s lives have simply divided them. There are no common points on which the two of them can stand.

Various flashbacks allow us to have a more complete picture of the sorts of things that both of these men end up going through. For instance, we see a flashback in which Sonny and his father constantly fight. The reason for these two to fight constantly is in their being far too similar in the general natures and characters. The father could obviously see that the narrator could hold himself together, that he could manage on his own and wouldn’t have a difficult time dealing with the generalized oppression experienced in life, but he recognized in Sonny something of his disposition, something that would cause Sonny to have more struggles in life than his brother, and perhaps he felt that he needed to try harder to get Sonny to realize these things by himself. Sonny’s father had the specific event that led him to struggle intensely with the conditions of his own life, and they affected the way he reacted and interacted with the world in general.

Before the narrator leaves for the army, his mother explains the event to him that had so grievously affected his father; he had witnessed his brother run down by a car full of white men who never even slowed down to see if someone was hurt. “His brother got killed,” she said, “when he was just a little younger than you are now. I knew him. He was a fine boy. He was maybe a little full of the devil, but he didn’t mean nobody no harm.” (Scribd, “Sonny’s Blues by James Baldwin”).

Suffering ultimately unites the brothers

The event that changes their character arcs, the one that brings them back together, is the death of the narrator’s daughter. What the narrator was never able to understand was how they could grow up as brothers but end up in such extremely different situations, but what he seems to realize at this point is that some people just have a naturally higher tolerance than other people towards the pain and suffering that people deal with in life. He had simply never had an event that had forced him to consider whether or not he was incapable of dealing with any single event that came his way. The death of his daughter changes this in the narrator. It forces him to consider how it can be possible to have something happen to you that you are simply incapable of handling on your own. It makes the narrator feel the need to reach back out to Sonny, who was still in jail. When he finally writes to Sonny, Sonny writes him back a letter that makes him feel guilty as he treated his brother in such a bad way. Sonny, out of respect for the amount of pain that he had caused in his brother’s life, had not contacted him to not cause him further pain. He was doing this to his detriment, as the pain and suffering that Sonny was dealing with were more than he could handle. It is through this realization that the narrator knows that he has been doing his brother an injustice. He understands what it is like to not be able to handle one’s own life, and how lonely and sad it would be to not have someone to help you through the situation. Here the narrator is turning to Sonny, seeking solace after the death of his daughter, and Sonny had been avoiding him the whole time because he did not want to burden his brother any further. This made him feel that maybe Sonny had been the strong one in the situation, taking into consideration how he had been the cause of suffering in his brother’s life, and dealing with the oppression in his own life on his own, even though he had been incapable of handling it on his own. This made the narrator the weak one, the one who could not look past his own life and issues and opinions when it had been his brother this entire time who had needed support, the brother who had been supporting him by not furthering the stress in the narrator’s life. When the narrator finally needs someone, he turns to Sonny, who is at his lowest in life and jail. This causes guilt and remorse for the way he’d been treating Sonny.

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When the narrator went to see Sonny in a club, he recognized a strength in his brother that he had never seen before. When he was in his element, Sonny was completely different. And that served for their reconciliation. They had both recognized a need in each other that they could mutually help each other through. Sonny was no longer a responsibility for which his brother was burdened, and the narrator no longer viewed Sonny as someone who could not make it without supervision. Sonny also recognized his brother as a person who could falter, who needed help when he became overwhelmed with life. The narrator recognizes this as well, and in a symbolic gesture, orders drinks for his brother and his band. The story ends with the narrator being enthralled in his brother’s music, which had never been something the narrator had recognized as being something of value as opposed to a weakness.

The story shows the way people feel when they face difficulties and how all the hardships in life affect them personally and their relations with others. Suffering teaches the narrator to understand and value his brother. Initially, he realizes his brother and receives such precious gift of reconciliation.

Works Cited

“Sonny’s Blues by James Baldwin.” n.p. n.d.  2011.

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StudyCorgi. (2021, December 26). The Struggles of James Baldwin’s Sonny.

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"The Struggles of James Baldwin’s Sonny." StudyCorgi, 26 Dec. 2021,

1. StudyCorgi. "The Struggles of James Baldwin’s Sonny." December 26, 2021.


StudyCorgi. "The Struggles of James Baldwin’s Sonny." December 26, 2021.


StudyCorgi. 2021. "The Struggles of James Baldwin’s Sonny." December 26, 2021.


StudyCorgi. (2021) 'The Struggles of James Baldwin’s Sonny'. 26 December.

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