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Reality’s Darkness

A critical analysis of James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s

Emily Hert
25 February 2015
Eng 102

In Sonny’s Blues by James Baldwin, he contrasts the lives of two brothers from New York
City. Sonny’s brother is the narrator of the story, but remains unnamed. The story begins in
medias res as the narrator reads an article in the newspaper about Sonny getting caught after a
drug raid for selling and using heroin. Sonny’s brother, on the other hand, grows up to be a
school teacher. Throughout the story this intangible light and darkness in life that people suffer is
suggested. Although the two are raised by the same people, and grow up in the same city, they
find two very different ways to deal with this darkness, a darkness which everyone deals with in
their own way.
The “darkness” is first brought up by the narrator after he reads about Sonny’s trouble.
He compares the circumstances of their childhood to his students' situation. He recorded, “They
were growing up with a rush and their heads bumped abruptly against the low ceiling of their
actual possibilities. They were filled with rage. All they really knew were two darkness. The
darkness of their lives, which was now closing in on them, and the darkness of the movies, which
had blinded them to that other darkness, and in which they now, vindictively, dreamed, at once
more together than they were at any other time, and more alone” (Baldwin 75). In his critique,
“James Baldwin’s ‘Sonny’s Blues’: Complicated and Simple” Donald Murray also relates the use
of a movie theater to give the reader an image of light, like the one projected from a movie
screen, contradicting the narrator’s use of darkness in the movies to actually being blinding light.
He claims, “Light can represent the harsh glare of reality, the bitter conditions of ghettos
existence which harden and brutalize the young” (Murray 354). Murray’s connection between
the light of life is different than most, comparing it to a harsh glare rather than a saving grace.
The narrator suggests this horrifying truth about the ones he is supposed to, as a teacher, inspire
and motivate the dream of living a better life come true. Instead he has this presence of just

living with it, dealing with it; no better side, a better side is just a fantasy formed by high
expectations from believing a person from the bottom can hope to live like the ones shown in
movie that seem to be close to perfect. One’s growing up in poverty many think their reality is as
expected of the narrators for his students, which is either declining or staying at a standstill in
life, not growing because of their conditions, influencing many of them to believe it.
Though there are the ones, ones that expect something from themselves; even if it
contradicts what others may expect; who do not believe that the dream cannot come true. Sonny
becomes one of those people. At first it does not seem he expects much at all from himself,
through the narrator's eyes. The darkness of reality seems tot hit Sonny at a young age, causing
him to feel lost, resulting in an internal battle for answers. With the 7 year distance in years, age
not the only distance between these two. Sonny’s brother doesn’t seem to care for him as much
as an older sibling is usually known to at critical years of Sonny’s life, leaving him neglected as a
sibling. The only time it’s hinted he does is when Sonny would be too young to possibly
remember, recalling the first events in Sonny’s life such as walking, talking and memorably his
first breath. There is no bonding between the brothers that is ever really emphasized in their
childhood. This really resonates with readers when the boys' mother is near death. She informs
the narrator of how his father’s brother died, and how important a brother should be in a person’s
life. Baldwin foreshadows through this, by their mother making it known that Sonny needs
looking after, and won’t have anybody to do it after she’s gone. She believes he strongly needs
support and guidance too, even though they know he is a good hearted boy. She explains, “It
isn’t only the bad ones, nor yet the dumb ones that get sucked under” (Baldwin 83). His mother
tells Sonny’s brother that no matter what he should not forget their conversation, and no matter
how many times they may lose touch to not give up. The narrator promises, “I won’t forget... I

won’t let anything happen to Sonny” (Baldwin 85). His mother warns, “You may not be able to
stop nothing from happening. But you got to let him know you’s there.” Than the narrator
reflects on the hypocritical action to that promise; "Two days later I was married and that I was
gone... I pretty well forgot my promise to Mama until I got shipped home on a special furlough
for her funeral” (Baldwin 85). After this the narrator tries to spark some kind of connection with
Sonny, remembering the promise he last made. Expectantly, Sonny is a bit stand offish, but
honest. Sonny explains he longs to be a musician; the narrator does not seem pleased by this
answer, and assumes this is just a silly dream and waste of time. He does not say this though it is
clear that Sonny can tell, through facial expressions and what comes across as negative
questioning. Sonny is one of those people who take relationships and connections seriously. He
is hurt if the one he loves underestimates something he finds so much passion in. What is meant
to be a reach for connection through this conversation turns out to be a realization of more
differences in which they feel discomfort. The narrator reflects, “I’d never played the role of the
oldest brother quite so seriously before, had scarcely ever, in fact, asked Sonny a damn thing. I
sensed myself in the presence of something I didn’t really know how to handle, didn’t
understand. So I made my frown a little deeper as I asked: “What kind of musician do you want
to be?” (Baldwin 85) Sonny replies to this with a grin and attempts to play with the narrator,
which only irritates him. The narrator continues to set a tone of irritation towards Sonny through
the entire story; caused by lack of seriousness expected from his younger brother. But that is not
Sonny. Sonny has a playful side that sticks with him from childhood.
Secondly the darkness is mentioned in the story, dating all the way back to their
childhood. Something that starts out as a connecting thought in between the adults in the room,
the presence of peace, while the children mindlessly play. “Everyone is looking at something a

child can’t see… The silence, the darkness coming” (Baldwin 82). Though the children cannot
pinpoint it, they still have a slight sense of the darkness as well. “And when the light fills the
room, the child is filled with darkness” (82). The light being turned on is a symbol of
disappointment, play time being over, a child’s equivalent disappointment to an adult's
disappointment of having to go back to a reality that they are not satisfied with. Sonny takes his
music seriously just as a child at playtime. When his brother tries to turn the light on in Sonny’s
life, trying to flash some sense of reality in him by suggesting pursuing the career of a musician
is not a stable one, he only pushes him away more. Thus, leaving him feeling even more
misunderstood by his brother.
With Sonny feeling like he has no one to turn to, he instead turns to something.
Something so powerful it will ease the mind from any disappointing reality his body is stuck in.
Heroin, one of the most addictive drugs there is. One of the most powerful drugs there is. This is
one of the most life altering drugs there can be. Addiction is obviously not a goal in any first time
users. Unfortunately, with the effects as great as they’ll be, it is hard not to crave for more. Sonny
feels this craving because he feels as though it gives him an answer, some light. Another
meaning of life. His meaning. Many fall in this downward spiral the deeper they get into their
addiction. This is Sonny’s darkness. Sonny tries describing his addiction to his brother in a deep
conversation that arises, “all by myself at the bottom of something, stinking and sweating and
crying and shaking, and I smelled it, my stink” (Baldwin 96). This emphasizes a deep, dark
feeling given to the reader when reading Sonny’s feelings. But this darkness he was able to beat
which is shown also in dialect with his brother, “it was good to smell your own stink… but who
could stand it?” (Baldwin 96) meaning he smells, he learns; he couldn’t stand it, he overcomes.
The narrator suggests that Sonny first starts using at a young age, where his students are now.

His mother hints that she feels Sonny is caught up in this way of life, or will be as many of the
kids his age in their area are.
In James Tackach critique, he brings to light the purpose of Baldwin’s naming the
daughter Gracie in a biblical approach, “The narrator's daughter's name is, of course, highly
symbolic. When the narrator loses his daughter Grace, he simultaneously identifies with the pain
and darkness in Sonny's life and realizes his own loss of grace, resulting from the broken
promise that he made to his mother the last time he saw her” (113). Gracie, being the saving
grace that sparked them to reconnect. Reaching out to his brother after his child's death for some
kind of reconcile, Sonny responds, “You don’t know how much I needed to hear from you. I
wanted to write you many a time but I dug how much I must have hurt you and so I didn’t write”
(Baldwin 78). After this they reconnect, realizing that they had both end up abandoning each
other, Sonny feels abandoned as a child from his brother and others, and his brother feels
abandoned by Sonny when Heroin seemed to probably consume him. Though it is never clear if
Sonny’s brother just does not bother with his brother’s addiction, or if he is disgusted by it at the
time of the activeness. Though one thing that’s for sure the reader can see through the narrator's
protectiveness, is that he never wants Sonny to depend on it again.
Sonny never outwardly expects anything from his brother, as his brother does for him.
Sonny just wants to do what makes him happy and for others to be satisfied that he’s fulfilling
such a hopeful, true feeling. They see things two different ways. Critic, Keith Byerman, focuses
on how the story centers around misreading’s in his “Words and Music” analysis on Baldwin’s
story, he explains: “Whenever the message is delivered, he evades it through language… distorts
the sense of the message by changing it to fit his preconceived ideas” (367). This is how he
claims the narrator reacts, while Sonny tries to be open and understanding. This is shown through

dialect they exchange have after listening to the women on the corner make magic through their
singing voices. They are talking about how much suffering the women must have been to
communicate the feeling through their voices. They agree that suffering is a part of life. Sonny
says, “But you try all kinds of ways to keep from drowning in it, to keep on top of it” and his
brother returns with “there’s no way not to suffer. Isn’t it better, then, just to – take it?” (94).
Sonny replies with “But nobody just takes it, that’s what I’m telling you! Everybody tries not to.
Your just hung up on the way some people try – it not your way!” (94).This epiphany arises in
the narrator as he sees how Sonny tried not to suffer, “I realized, with this mocking look that
there stood between us, forever, beyond the power of time or forgiveness, the fact that I had held
silence – so long! – when he had needed human speech to help him” (94). The conversation
between them leaves the narrator with a realization that he could have been Sonny's light, by just
being there for him; instead of heroin being his light that overcomes and controlls his life.
Luckily this seems to ignite a spark in the narrator to pursue the relationship he's been
Baldwin symbolizes light at the end of the story as well, when the two brothers become
true, “they were being most careful not to step into that circle of light too suddenly; that if they
moved into the light too suddenly, without thinking, they would parish in flame” (97). Looking at
the light as success, people are cautious not to rush into their goal, afraid of failing, ‘perishing in
flame’. Once the band starts though the light is glorious and wholesome to the band. One could
also look at light and darkness as symbols for sonny and the narrator. At first the narrator would
be the light featuring success in his career and family, and Sonny being the dark that is lost in a
lonely place. The roles reverse towards the end though when Sonny is in the stage light,
enthusing his talent to his fans, and brother seeing that the stage is where he belongs. And the

narrator witnessing a second epiphany, thoughts of his loved ones flash his mind, and he realizes
that’s the true meaning of life, is love. He realizes that’s all Sonny was searching for and what he
failed to give him, instead he overlooked love as something that is just there whether talked
about or not, but that does no establishing at all. Perhaps this epiphany has the narrator realize he
has been in the dark the whole time, staying there like he expects of his students, but Sonny is
the one who found the light. This is also shown through the scotch and milk Sonny is given,
shimmering on top of his piano. Critic, James Tackach, focuses on the Cain and Abel story from
the Book of Genesis and the parable of the Prodigal Son from Luke's gospel. Tackach also
provides religious background information on Baldwin saying he was born in the church, and
knew the bible (109). The description of Sonny being on stage sets a celestial mood from the
start, and ending with the cup of trembling representing scotch & milk Sonny is given. “Sonny
has suffered God's fury, but is now free from affliction…The drink becomes a symbol of the
special protection that the narrator will now extend to Sonny as Sonny struggles to confront the
darkness surrounding him” (Tackach 117). Here Tackach relates the significance this scene as to
Sonny and the Narrators life through final wholeness between the two. In his critic “To the Deep
Water”, critic Robert McParland also suggest the use of the cup of trembling, “Sonny is that cup
and its contents, mother's milk and song of life, the heat, sting, and swirl of hard liquor. These
are Sonny's Blues” (38), using the cup as a symbol of Sonny’s life, and struggles finally coming
Sonny finally opens himself up to his brother, after this epiphany had happened to the
narrator internally. Sonny says, “It’s terrible sometimes inside… there’s not really a living ass to
talk to, and there’s nothing shaking, and there’s no way of getting out – that storm inside. You
can’t talk it and you can make love with it, and when you finally try to get with it and play it, you

realize nobody’s listening. So you’ve got to listen. You got to find a way to listen” (95). The idea
of a storm flashes images of bright light across the dark night sky into a readers mind. Baldwin
does this for a reason, a storm being a battle in the skies like the battle happening in Sonny. But
the darkness and lightness ultimately work together in Sonny, for the sake that the storm inside
settles, he expects something from himself. Even though no one close to him understood his
passion, he did. And he perused it, finding others along the way that shared that same passion for
almost the same thing, shining the light he found on others. This story relates to a memorable
line in Bob Marley’s song "Redemption:" “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but
ourselves can free our minds” which means not to rely on others to find one's own true happiness
and self. It does not matter where an individual comes from, or what is doubtfully expected from
them because of where they come from, or even what may be positively expected. What matters
are what one wants, and desires in life. In order for one to get what they want, they must expect
it, and work towards it to make the dream a reality. This is exactly what Sonny has proven.

Works Cited
Baldwin, James. "Sonny's Blues." The Norton Introduction to Literature. By Kelly Mays. 11th
ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2014. 73-100. Print.
Byerman, Keith. "Words and Music: Narrative Ambiguity in 'Sonny's Blues.'" Studies in Short
Fiction 19.4: 367. Print.
McParland, Robert P. "To the Deep Water: James Baldwin's 'Sonny's Blues.'" Interdisciplinary
Humanities. 23.2 (2006): 131-40. Literary Reference Center. Web. 5 Mar. 2015.
Murray, Donald C. "James Baldwins 'Sonny's Blues': Complicated and Simple." Studies in Short
Fiction 14.4: 353. Print.
Tackach, James. "The Biblical Foundation of James Baldwin's 'Sonny's Blues.'" Renascence 59.2
(2007): 109-18. Print.

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