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Sonny Blues

‘‘Sonny Blues’’ written by James Baldwin narrates the story of two brothers who are searching for understanding. The two brothers in the story have differing viewpoints regarding how to deal with the world around them. Baldwin uses light and darkness to contrast them. The storyteller constantly links light to the wish to express or offer form to needs and passions emerging from inner darkness.

The story is about the relationship between the brothers at different points in their lives. The happenings in the story concentrate on establishment of understanding between Sonny and his older brother who is the storyteller. Although it concentrates on Sonny’s life, his brother’s response to Sonny’s actions widen the scope of the narrative to cover the brother’s life too. The author has employed double-focus to establish his key theme which is establishment of understanding between alienated brothers.


Sonny Blues occurrences take place in the 1950s before the civil rights movement. The two brothers grew up in a poor black community in Harlem. They were raised in a proletariat class family in the racism fraught northern urban community.

According to the story, Sonny’s father had resigned on shifting the family to a better neighborhood. Each time their mother proposed moving to a safer neighborhood for the sake of the children-Sonny and his brother-their father would object saying that he believed there was no safe place for kids or anyone for that matter. This is not to imply that he did not care about his children and family but it indicates his frustration with his surroundings and society. As the storyteller explains, the father was continually seeking for something better for his children and family but, unfortunately, he died without achieving his dreams. The father had also witnessed his brother been killed by white men. As a result, he always felt insecure and would never feel secure even if he migrated to another city. While the brothers were growing up, the situation was almost the same. Despite the fact that the storyteller and his family were living in the same surroundings, they enjoyed the privileges of a middle class lifestyle.

Character Analysis

The two brothers led dissimilar lifestyles. The storyteller is a pragmatic, wise family man who also happens to be an algebra instructor. Conversely, Sonny is a jazz musician. They have differing viewpoints according to their social environment. According to Essentials to Sociology: A Down to Earth Approach our social class affects our behavior, ideas, and outlook. We are affected by both our social environment and social class.

When the story starts, the storyteller says, “I read about it in the paper, on the subway, on the way to work. I read it, and I couldn’t believe it, and I read it again. Then perhaps I just stared at it, at the news print spelling out his name, spelling out the story” (Baldwin 53). The storyteller is surprised by what he read and could not imagine that it had happened to Sonny. He then goes to a friend of Sonny who asks him what he would do about Sonny. He responds by saying, “I’m not sure that I am going to do anything.’’ This indicates that he is either upset by Sonny’s actions or does not care about him.

The storyteller is portrayed as a moral and submissive son to his parents as well as a responsible husband and father to his wife and children. Out of his diligence, he is able to attain a middle class status. Before Sonny becomes imprisoned, the storyteller wills himself not to think about things that disturb him. His parents avoided talking about his uncle’s murder. This could account for why he developed that trait. The brother suffered the impact of their father’s sorrow. It is suggested that his father turned to drinking to ease his grief. This may explain why Sonny turned to drugs in order to escape from his personal woes.

Our understanding of Sonny’s character comes from what the narrator says about him. Sonny believes that if his parents were still living, they would not be glad about how his life ended up. He also understands that he did not only disappoint his brother but all those who believed in him. He attempts to articulate himself through music. He later tells his brother that he went out of Harlem seeking to stop using drugs. Sonny uses music as a tool to articulate his dreams and troubles.

Reaching Understanding

The storyteller and Sonny attend a jazz club to listen to Sonny performing. Sonny discloses his addiction with drugs to his brother. At that point, the storyteller’s feelings towards Sonny’s addiction changes particularly in comparison with the conversation with his mother before she died. The mother wanted the storyteller to guide Sonny and not to leave him to destruction. We are also told that in the past, the storyteller and Sonny had hostility as he viewed music as Sonny’s scapegoat for his way of living.

"At the end of "Sonny's Blues," the narrator is listening to Sonny play the piano when he realizes he's listening to "Sonny's Blues." What the narrator basically means by this statement is that by listening to Sonny playing the piano, he realized that music was Sonny’s passion and calling. Earlier on, the narrator thought that Sonny was using music as an excuse for leading a wayward life. The different perspectives of the two brothers were the source of conflict between them.


Sonny Blues is a story of two brothers with different character traits and ways of life who are seeking to understand each other. Though the brothers initially fought because of their differing viewpoints, they come to appreciate their different perspectives later. The brothers’ viewpoints are determined by their social surroundings and social class. 

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