Critical Introduction

James Baldwin taken in Hyde Park London. Rolliflex twin reflex. 2 1/4 kodak 400 black & white negative film

“Sonny’s Blues” written by James Baldwin, is a short story that was published in 1957. It follows the life of an African American algebra teacher in 1950s Harlem, who shares the experiences he has had with his brother, Sonny, an aspiring jazz musician who has seen his fair share of struggles. Conveyed with a soulful style, the themes of alienation, racism, and the search for identity, resonate today thanks to the attentive humanity of Baldwin.

The feelings of striving for independence and understanding in “Sonny’s Blues”, were heavily inspired by the setting and time that Baldwin lived in when composing the story. The story’s milieu of post-World War Two New York, which in the 1950s saw artists congregate ranging from the painter Jackson Pollack, writer jack Kerouac, and musician Charlie Parker, help conjure to the reader the fictional Sonny desiring to be one of these creative minds.

It cannot be forgotten that “Sonny’s Blues” takes on the sorrowful task of depicting the bleak realities of people of color in inner cities. The struggles Sonny faces in the story reflected the disillusionment of many African Americans during that time, and unfortunately, even today. Although, it should be noted that aside from the confrontations with darkness in the story, there lies undertones of hope. Not only does the conclusion see this ray of light, but it is a story that seeks to ask each one of us what our identities are. And most importantly, why should we give up with this one life we have?

New Criticism By Netanya Hitchcock

In “Saving Sonny’s Brother”, I analyze “Sonny’s Blues” as a story of intergenerational trauma, exploring the way in which the tension between the brothers over jazz reveals the narrator’s fear of suffering and subsequent isolation from the Black community. Parallels emerge between the narrator and his father, as well as between his attempt to protect Sonny and the loss of his daughter. These similarities reverse the brothers’ roles and render Sonny more capable of being a protector than the narrator because of the former’s strong ties to the Black community. Conversely, the narrator’s disapproval of jazz and his fear that Sonny will be ruined becomes blatantly ironic, for his fear functions as a self-fulfilling prophecy that only Sonny can cure. Whilst a surface reading of the story suggests that Sonny needs rescuing, his enthusiasm for jazz and his commitment to the community enables him to strengthen his older brother.

Historical Criticism By Aubrey Howell

James Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues” puts a microscope on the social and racial climate of Harlem during the 1940s. Specifically, Baldwin addresses the hardships and struggles within the African American culture post World War II. Baldwin starts the story with a nameless narrator that tells the story of his younger brother Sonny who is struggling to find himself and express himself during this revolutionary time. Sonny, a musician, is able to tap into the importance that jazz not only had on him and his family, but for thousands of other African Americans who sought music as a beacon of light in the darkness of a tumultuous society.

Feminist/Queer Theory By Chelsea Yates

“Hear Them Roar” is my analyzation and exploration into the depth of “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin to try to find and explain the Feminist and if present, Queer qualities of the story. With limited queer insights in this story, there are numerous women in the narrator and Sonny’s life that led them down a path that not only helped them in life, but also helped them find the good in each other in impossible ways. Their mother, the narrator’s wife and even Gracie, the daughter of the narrator, who isn’t mentioned more than a couple of times are strong forces in their immediate circle. Throughout the story they do powerful acts to help impact Sonny and the narrators’ lives. Having such a strong familial bond from women who take the lead by being strong pillars in their family, can only strengthen bonds and provide excellent feminine role models for the characters’ children, and even Sonny and the narrator himself.

Deconstruction By Majel Coxe

I used deconstructive criticism to explore James Baldwin’s short story, “Sonny’s Blues.” The aim is to show the text’s inability to present two opposing characters learning to gradually empathize and connect with each other. Beginning with an examination of the first-person perspective, I show how the narrative structure is ineffective for the indented purpose because it portrays unreliable details. I identify the narrator’s inability to acknowledge suffering as a source of significant tension and aggression between the two characters. The aim is to show that the intended interpretation favors the perspective of the narrator, which encourages a sympathetic response towards Sonny instead. Consequently, the reader is positioned against the narrator and is unable to effectively empathize with him. I conclude by claiming that the text encourages the reader to validate one character’s perspective instead of learning to understand the extent of both character’s suffering.

Reader Response By Dillon O’Donnell

In my essay, I analyze the theme in “Sonny’s Blues” of searching for identity and redefine this often-used phrase to include the quest of understanding others as well as ourselves. Starting with the search for personal understanding, there is much emphasis in the story on the plight of Sonny and how coming to know yourself is an arduous task. After I discuss this portion of the story, I move on to how the character of Sonny’s brother acts as a symbol for the theme of external understanding of others. In closing, I tie the two searches of identity together and explain how these themes in “Sonny’s Blues” exist on a continuum and are not wholly separate.

Psychological By lauren bilby

This essay takes a look at James Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues” by analyzing how both Sonny and the narrator process their grief surrounding Sonny’s addiction to heroin. As they both process their grief, they go through Bill Flatt’s theory of “Some Stages of Grief,” which this essay delves further into. These stages are: shock and panic, lamentations, withdrawal, depression, detachment, adaptation, reinvesting, and growth. Every single one of these stages is reflected by Sonny and his brother at one point or another in the story.




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Critical Introduction Copyright © 2021 by Liza Long is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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