The Importance of Understanding Both Sides

Majel Coxe

Broken Mirror

James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” is a short story that follows two brothers through their journey of contending with their own hardships while learning to acknowledge each other’s struggles as valid causes for suffering. Sonny’s older brother makes persistent efforts to guide his younger brother’s life after learning about his drug addiction and incarceration, in hopes to save Sonny from what he considers to be a life of unnecessary suffering. However, Sonny opposes his brother’s opinion of a “respectable” life, one that he sees as being driven by fear, and resists his attempts to help. Instead, Sonny is determined to pursue his passion as a jazz pianist, despite his brother’s objections. The tension that is caused by their contrasting perspectives becomes a focal point of the story, temporarily leaving both characters to resent the other and feel misunderstood. The ending then aims to show that their connection to each other, and to those family and community members of theirs who have suffered in similar ways, is essential to overcoming the feeling of isolation that results from suffering alone. The text’s aim, therefore, is to depict two people, whose understandings of the world are binary opposites, gradually learning to empathize and connect with each other to encourage readers to recognize their connection to others in the real world. However, the first-person narrative structure favors a specific interpretation of the story that instead encourages a sympathetic response towards Sonny. The structure then positions the reader against the narrator, making it impossible to truly empathize with and understand both characters.

“Sonny’s Blues” is structured through the perspective of Sonny’s older brother because the source of tension from his character arises in his initial inability to acknowledge the reality of suffering altogether. Curiously, though the narrator is well established in the story, he remains unnamed. By positioning the reader in this character’s mind, it is possible that the hope was for “Sonny’s Blues” to inspire readers to consider their own willingness to acknowledge the suffering that is being ignored in their lives. Koritha Mitchell’s examination of Baldwin’s work supports this theory, revealing his intention to use writing as a platform to encourage Americans specifically to recognize each other as equal, given the nation’s unjust past (1). Perhaps the intention behind withholding the narrator’s name contributes to this theory, aiming to present his character as a more generic representation of someone living in denial to try and further his relatability.

However, by positioning the reader there, their initial understanding of the circumstances within the story are subject to his perception of the world. While the reader comes to understand that the older brother has good intentions to ease Sonny’s suffering, the narrator’s inner thoughts, which the reader is subject to, reveals how judgmental he can actually be. The consequences of his mentality are shown throughout the story but is most crucial to the reader’s first impression of Sonny, which becomes the backdrop of how the readers are actually meant to perceive these characters and the story overall.

Consider how the story begins: the narrator has just discovered that his younger brother has been incarcerated for drug use. He read about it in the newspaper on his way to work and is unable to ignore the thought. “It is not to be believed,” he keeps telling himself, “and at the same time I couldn’t doubt it. I was scared, scared for Sonny. He became real to me again” (Baldwin 122). The thought continues to haunt him throughout his workday and eventually materializes itself into, what he metaphorically refers to as, a block of ice that seeps into his veins. The ice, he says, will expand to the point where he is about to choke or scream when he recalls his memories of Sonny; specially memories that portray him as a gentle, opportunistic, bright-eyed child. But these visions are immediately contrasted by the narrator’s imagination of “what he will look like now” after having been incarcerated and addicted to heroin. He tries to reason with himself, admitting that Sonny may have been wild but not crazy, that he had always been a good boy, never hard, evil, or disrespectful. His final defeat is realizing that Sonny may have “come to nothing” (Baldwin 123), that the light may have gone from his face, and that he may have become like every other hopeless addict he knows. These thoughts permeate the reader’s mind into the rest of the first scene, when the narrator runs into Sonny’s childhood friend- a character that embodies all his worst fears of what Sonny may have become. The structure of this scene reveals a lot about the narrator’s concerns for his younger brother and ultimately about how the reader is meant to initially perceive Sonny.

The initial portrayal of Sonny is centered around his brother’s memories of him as a child. By impressing these images of innocence and potential in the forefront of the reader’s mind, the contrasting details that follow are seemingly exaggerated. This structure aims to gradually alter the way Sonny is perceived as the details regarding his addiction are revealed. The endearing image of the young boy is then replaced by an expectation of him that is formed solely off his implied shortcomings. His brother becomes overwhelmed by the thought of his condition and consequently begins associating the negative traits he sees in those around him to Sonny. He hears Sonny in the “mocking and insular” (Baldwin 123) laughing from his students, he sees Sonny in the face of his childhood friend who is always “high and raggy” (124). Even the perceived attempts to redeem his character have backhanded insinuations. By describing Sonny’s levelheadedness through a series of oppositions, the narrator is also revealing his fears of what Sonny may be becoming, and therefore reinforcing the privileged perspective of his questionable reputation.

However, by considering the reader’s relation to the text, it becomes clear that the aim of this structure is to encourage an initial aversion to Sonny in hopes that his actions will challenge the reader’s assumptions of him, then as the story advances, learn to sympathize with a character that they initially disdained. The image that succeeds the initial is one of seemingly genuine remorse from Sonny in the letter he sends to his brother while incarcerated. He goes as far as to admit that he is glad that their parents are dead so that they “can’t see what’s happened to their son” (Baldwin 127), then further confesses his guilt for not understanding how he was hurting those around him. The organization of events here is important to the idea of readers gradually learning to build compassion for Sonny. The letter introduces him through his own words for the first time, allowing the reader to interpret his character for themselves, as opposed to viewing him through the altered perception given by the narrator. It exposes a particularly vulnerable side to Sonny right off the bat, as he acknowledges the harm that he has caused others because of his addiction. Perhaps the intention behind his willingness to admit his mistakes upfront is to show that he is also insightful and compassionate, making it difficult for readers to consider him to be totally helpless.

Sonny’s charismatic demeanor continues to penetrate through the initial impression of him in various ways. His furthered relatability all culminates towards the final scene where the reader and narrator both experience Sonny’s captivating potential for the first time. The image initially created of him is ultimately undermined by the insightful, authentic, and simply misunderstood character that he becomes understood as. As his true personality is revealed, the reader begins to see how this first-person narrative structure alters their opinions and it becomes clear that the details proved by the narrator are unreliable. The initial regard for each character then flips and the privileged interpretation now favors Sonny over his older brother, as a character the readers have grown to understand and admire.

Undermining the narrator’s credibility emphasizes the other adverse aspects of his character that give the reader the impression that his perspective is unreliable. Throughout the story, the narrator’s denial to acknowledge the suffering in his life causes him to be controlled by the fear of even potential hardships. The restrictions he imposes on himself to try and preserve that false comfort ultimately alienates him from Sonny and from his community. Author Richard Albert’s article, “The Jazz-Blues Motif in James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” explores certain allusions in “Sonny’s Blues” that emphasize the themes of individualism and alienation. The article offers a unique perspective that considers possible interpretations of the significance behind the brother’s contrasting opinions on famous jazz musicians. This scene, in which Sonny reveals his desires to become a jazz pianist to his brother, includes the pinnacle argument that damages their relationship. The day of their mother’s funeral, the narrator approaches his younger brother to find out what he plans to do in life. “I am going to be a musician.” (Baldwin 133) Sonny claims, “I think I can play piano” (134). His older brother frowns at his response, thinking that a career as a musician might be “alright for some people but not for my brother Sonny” (134). The narrator’s impartiality towards his pursuit in music is not explicated explained beyond saying that it somehow seems “below” him. Though according to Albert, the allusions made in this scene to the famous jazz musicians Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker may reveal differences in both character’s comfortability in themselves as African Americas. After feeling let down by Sonny’s response, the older brother suggests, “helpfully,” that perhaps Sonny aimed to be like Louis Armstrong. “No. I’m not talking about none of that old-time, down home crap” (Baldwin 134) Sonny replies; then instead, expresses his admiration for Charlie Parker. In his article, Albert compares the history of the two musicians, ultimately aiming to present Louis Armstrong as an outdated jazz icon who appealed to a predominately white audience. When considering the narrator’s fear of suffering at any cost, this interpretation draws attention to his dissociation from the African American community. Albert’s examination suggests the narrator has adopted a fear-based personality that is aimed to reject his identity; “He was careful not to do those things that he felt whites expected blacks to do” (Albert 4).

In conclusion, the text’s aim to encourage readers to learn to empathize and connect with two characters that represent binary opposites, in hopes to inspire a change in American behavior, is impossible. The intended interpretation suggests the reader is inclined to support the narrator, and consequently, show an aversion to Sonny. However, the first-person narrative structure reveals the avoidant tendencies and judgmental nature of the older brother, therefore encouraging a sympathetic response towards Sonny instead. The tension that is created between the narrator’s inner thoughts and the reality of the situation positions the reader against the narrator, ultimately using his character as an example of “what not to become.” By minimizing the significance of the narrator’s suffering, the reader is denied the opportunity to understand him entirely. Rather, the reader is encouraged to validate one character’s perspective over the others.

Works Cited

Albert, Richard N. The Jazz-Blues Motif in James Baldwin’s ‘Sonny’s Blues.’” College Literature, vol. 11, no. 2, 1984, pp. 178–185. JSTOR, Accessed 29 Apr. 2021.

Baldwin, James. Another Country, “Sonny’s Blues”. Camberwell, Vic. Penguin. 2011

Mitchell, Koritha. “James Baldwin, Performance Theorist, Sings the ‘Blues for Mister  Charlie.’” American Quarterly, vol. 64, no. 1, 2012, pp. 33–60., Accessed 29 Apr. 2021.


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