James Baldwin’s short story ‘’Sonny’s Blues’’ Essay

James Baldwin’s short story ‘’Sonny’s Blues’’ Essay

This research paper seeks to analyze James Baldwin’s short story ‘’Sonny’s Blues’’. To achieve a comprehensive analysis, the paper has narrowed down to particular elements which offer thrilling insights and relevant application of the text. For instance, it covers the author’s bibliography giving special emphasis to his literature career and immense contributions and achievements in the field. The paper explains James’ writing and its relevance to his life and how the analysis relates to real life situations. The researcher has given special attention to his short story ‘’Sonny’s Blues’’ by analyzing the book from a diverse spectrum of view.This approach gives the paper an in-depth overview of the author’s writing techniques and style which augment his literature work. Major aspects of writing which have been addressed include and not limited to themes, characterization and writing style. To achieve this manifold and categorical view the author utilized selective and relevant scholarly and internet sources.

James Baldwin

James Baldwin was born on 2nd August, 1924 to Emma Berdis Jones, a single woman in Harlem. Emma got married when her son James was three years old to David Baldwin, a preacher who, adopted James and fathered his eight other siblings. James grew up as an intelligent and obedient boy to the elderly people and even his age mates. He emerged to be very successful at school making many people to become fond of him. Despite all these successes and ability to cope with everybody around, little James was never appreciated by the preacher man, David Baldwin. His father’s negative attitude towards him greatly affected him making him feel like an outcast in the society. He compared his undermined family state that was characterized by hatred and pain to that of Ishmael, a biblical Character in Genesis chapter twenty (John, 60). James uses Ishmael’s story symbolically for his personal experience and to widely cover experiences of black people in racist U.S. He is concerned with the alienation and dispossession that accompanies many blacks in a predominantly white society. James recalls his childhood under an austere religious home that was led by his stepfather, David Baldwin. These feelings of dispossession and alienation are highly expressed in his novel; Go Tell It On the Mountain.

James Baldwin was an exceptional student with unique ambitions and abilities compared to his colleagues in high school where he began writing under guidance of Countee Cullen, who was a renowned poet and a key advisor to the school’s literary club. He published numerous stories for the school newspaper where he later became its co-editor together with Richard Avedon, who later successfully ended up becoming a photographer. James Baldwin graduated from high school in 1942 with many challenges that laid a head of him. He took a railroad construction job in New Jersey to support himself. He later moved to Greenwich Village in 1944 where many artists, writers and musicians lived and started working on his first novel. His writing work turned out to be eye-catching and tasty for many older editors and writers almost immediately earning him several fellowship invitations from important writers of all times (Tackach, James). He began by concentrating on fiction but later considered other aspects of writing and ventured in book reviews and opinion pieces, which marked the starting point of his writing career.

After considering the social atmosphere of the United States, James felt that he could not bear with racism that engulfed the whole nation and decided to move to France in 1948. In spite of his shift of residential country, James Baldwin continued to visit his native land for participation in Civil Rights Movement, teaching, lecturing and continuation of the racial drama that continued to be witnessed in the United States for a very long period of time. Although James had an opportunity of experiencing dual citizenship, he did learn a lot concerning European countries. He concluded that no European country lacked racism, despite the fact that France relieved him from pernicious American atmosphere that undermined many people’s rights as well as limiting their potentials and abilities especially for those who appeared ‘browner’.

Baldwin had numerous literature achievements. He emerged outstanding in essays, novels and plays which revolved around the struggles of Americans in the United States with special emphasis and consideration to racism and discrimination of black people in ‘white’ America. His novels included Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), Giovanni room (1956), Another Country (1962), Tell Me How Long The Train’s Been Gone (1968), among others. James frequently lectured in American Universities his last years. He died in 1987 as a result of cancer.

Sonny’s Blues plot

The story is considered as Baldwin’s intensive coverage of his major themes in literature which included nature of identity, race in United States, function of art and human suffering. The story is set in early 1550s in New York, U.S where and is narrated by unnamed person who tries to cope with Sonny, a Jazz musician and a bother. The narrator is a high school teacher with a family and two sons. He is seven years older than Sonny, and tries to parent and parent Sonny during their childhood. As the story opens it is pretty clear that Sonny and the narrator have been separated for almost a year and he and reads a bout drug aid in which Sonny has been arrested and jailed (John, 60). The narrator is approached by Sonny’s childhood friends who blame himself for Sonny’s life which is defined by addiction and frequent arrests. The two, narrator and the friend engage in a conversation which narrows at Sonny’s life. They try to figure out why Sonny has become so much addicted to retreat and go back to his normal life. The narrator keeps distance from Sonny while he is in prison until the time when his daughter passed away. It is quiet amazing that when Sonny is contacted, he is sorrowful and apologetic. He asks forgiveness and expresses uncertainty over his life with regard to heroin addiction. He tries to explain reasons behind his addiction but is not sure of how his life would be after being released from prison. Immediately Sonny is out of prison, the narrator takes first step to take him back to his family in Harlem and engages in repair of their tattered relationship.

The narrator recalls numerous scenes which took place in their young adulthood. In one of the scenes their mother asked the narrator to look after Sonny and ensure his safety especially after she died. She revealed that Sonny’s father had a brother whom Sonny took after but he was murdered in cold blood by drunken white people in the southern region. In the second flashback, the narrator remembers events that took place after his mother’s death. He notes that he had Sonny live with his fiancée Isabel’s family while he participated in war. Additionally, the narrator portrays how Sonny clashed with Isabel’s family during his stay with them. It is believed that Isabel’s family did not understand Sonny’s passion and love for music, hanging out with other black and white musicians or his rejection of family values and style. As a result of the lifestyle and unbearable conditions as perceived by the narrator he leaves Isabel’s family and joins the Navy. This makes him find himself in Greece where he stays but returns later to live a bohemian type of life in Greenwich Village (Mosher 59). While in the village, the narrator struggles as a musician and heroin addict maintaining a broken and complicated relationship with his brother until he was picked up and jailed on drug charges. Through the scenes, the reader is able to see the brothers trying hard to mend their broken relationship. The relationship is mainly threatened by Sonny’s addiction to heroin and the narrators mistrust over Sonny’s dedication to music. Sonny invites the narrator to a nightclub where he performs music. He believes that music has kept him normal satisfying his audience through entertainment.

The actions of the story “Sonny’s Blues” are likely to have taken place before Civil Rights Movement when segregation and separate but similar accommodation in public institutions controlled many parts of the world based on minor factors like race. Notably, the narrator and Sonny grow up in poverty. They have been brought up by a working-class father who is left with responsibilities and duties to perform especially after the death of his brother who was murdered by white drunkard people. Poverty does not depart the family even after the brothers grow up and start establishing themselves. Although the narrator does live an impoverished life, his neighborhood is filled with nothing but poor people who have been segregated by white families. We note that the narrator was a teacher at a boy’s school with the same potential which Sonny and his brother had but were limited with di0scrilmination and segregation. Many blacks were limited by darkness which blinded the way making it impossible to achieve their dreams and exploit their potential. The narrator fails to approve Sonny but begins to comprehend how addiction to drugs can immensely ruin the life of a child.

It is important to note that the brothers’ military service played a significant role in the social-economic setting of the story. The narrator considers being in war as having a leave to be a way from home (Mosher 59). The narrator recalls how his father died suddenly when he was only fifteen years while he was in war. But how does the narrator perceive warfare and being at home? According to him, he would rather be in war than at home. That is why he sees himself as being relieved when he is not at home. Sonny yearns to join the military for a reason he feels would change his life and open a door for hope and optimism. He wants to be a way from ‘killing streets’ and believes that he would end up getting college education (Sonny’s Blues Summary). This preference to war Sonny is a clear irony of the experience the family had with regard to urban life. On the other hand, the narrator has also struggled despite him serving in the military; the main challenge being provision of safety at home. He fought in war and returned home to ensure that his family is provided for, although in the hard way as a result of racism in America. Although African Americans played a major role in warfare and in protecting America, their efforts were never rewarded. Many people were dissatisfied with the alienation and discrimination which predominantly defined the lives of African-Americans.


Like most stories, ‘Sonny Blues’ the dramatic flow mainly depends on the way different characters change and get transformed from one level to another. This keeps the plot of the story and helps the author to achieve his target. The plot of the story mainly features a battle against heroin addiction and recovery. The author focuses some of the effects of drugs from different points of view. Although it is hard to explain Sonny’s cause of heroin addiction, the effects of the addiction are widely seen. He has a broken family with complicated association levels and finds it hard coping with others at different levels (Mosher 59). We learn a lot about Sonny the artist through the narrator who acts as the guardian of Sonny after his mother passed away. The narrator acts as a father-figure and goes a head to describe Sonny as wild but not crazy. He says that Sonny was always respectful and compares him to his students who were dreamy and obedient but struggling with poverty. Sonny is hopeful that he will one day become a musician although many people fail to understand this dream.

The author uses diverse approach to express his feelings and dissatisfaction towards challenges and discrimination which greatly affected the lives of many people. He uses many styles to augment his themes throughout the story. He however places special emphasis on imagery. In his story Baldwin relies on the opposition which usually occurs between darkness and light. This imagery is first noted in the first scene when the narrator contemplates on Sonny’s ultimate fate in the dark subway. He is able to read Sonny’s arrest from the swinging lights of the car as darkness roared outside. These images play a major role in developing the plot of the story and explanation of various themes as portrayed by the author.

The narrator has to find ways of coping with Sonny who has become an addict and does not give concern to family broken relationships. The narrator notices Sonny and other musicians standing behind a light stand. The narrator believed that these musicians together with Sonny were keen not to step in the circle of light lest they would perish in flame. This implied that Sonny and other musicians had to be extra keen approaching the truth in life (Campbell 9). Their closeness to the circle of light implied that although their lives were full of discrimination and racial segregation, equality was not far from being realized. However, the main challenge was that it was costly and fatal. Darkness and light could also be viewed from the historical setting of the story. The narrator refereed to his own students and dark ness of their lives.

Suffering has been widely covered by the author in his story. Many black people lived in poverty beyond imagination. We meet Sonny who prefers being at war than being exposed to poverty at home. Although the author uses it as a cruel irony, it emphasizes the fact that discrimination and segregation defined African-American lives. Additionally, the spirit of brotherhood has been greatly been emphasized by the author. This is mainlyy seen through the narrator who is concerned about Sonny’s life especially as a drug addict. When Sonny is released from prison, the narrator helps in mending a broken family relationship. The book is quite relevant to our day to day lives. It covers issues which are experienced in the society today. For instance, the issue of drug abuse is all over the world including blacks and whites. The writer had a focused mind in addressing real life problems and daily challenges in a global generation.

Works cited

Campbell, James. Talking at the Gates: A Life of James Baldwin. New York: Viking, 1991.

John, Reilly. Negro American Literature Forum, Vol. 4, No. 2 (Jul., 1970), pp. 56-60

Mosher, Marlene. “Baldwin’s ‘Sonny’s Blues.'” Explicator 40.4 (1982): 59. Reid, Robert. “The Powers of Darkness in ‘Sonny’s Blues.'” CLA Journal 43 (2000): 443-53.

Sonny’s Blues Summary | Detailed Summary. From: http://litsum.com/sonnys-blues/

Sonny’s Blues, James Baldwin – Introduction.” Short Story Criticism. Ed. Anna Sheets Nesbitt. Vol. 33. Gale Cengage, 1999. eNotes.com. 2006. 22 May, 2009 http://www.enotes.com/short-story-criticism/sonny-s-blues-james-baldwin

Sonny’s Blues: James Baldwin’s Image of Black Community

Tackach, James. Biblical foundation of James Baldwin’s “sonny’s blues”,http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3777/is_200701/ai_n19197653/

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