Reader Response

Searching For Identity In “Sonny’s Blues”

By Dillon O’Donnell

Divine Jazz Emotions
A typical painting by Vincent Messelier. He gives all his works their own name.

It is not an anomaly, that anyone has felt feelings of alienation and perpetual longing. However, there is something to be said about the pain found in artists, and how the scope of their isolation is measured by a world that is often orderly and logical. “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin, is one such story on this unique struggle (Baldwin, James. “Sonny’s Blues”). It is a tale about an aspiring jazz musician, Sonny, who is struggling to find his place in the world. We are related the events through the perspective of Sonny’s brother, who narrates his experiences and memories of our protagonist, who we view with a constant detachment. Although as I read along, I soon found that Baldwin’s story was not focused exclusively on the pangs of a tortured artist. The story grows out from the spotlight on Sonny, to show how we all struggle in our own ways on the quest of articulating our identities.

The different interpretations that will be discussed in this work show the conclusions I’ve drawn from my reading. As the title and most of the story show, Sonny is indeed the engine that keeps the plot going. However, there are subtle gears in the form of Sonny’s brother-the narrator-that illustrate how identity is a struggle for all. Starting with Donald Murray’s “James Baldwin’s ‘Sonny’s Blues’: Complicated and Simple”, the focus on Sonny’s personal pains of trying to find a place in society can be analyzed. Nevertheless, even in the passages that are about Sonny, the writing of Baldwin is so exquisite that the themes can still be applied to anyone.

Murray frames his analysis of “Sonny’s Blues”, by pointing out the use of both complicated and simple imagery in the story. The use of light and darkness is one such instance. He writes, “Images of light and darkness are used by Baldwin to illustrate his theme of man’s painful quest for an identity. Light can represent the harsh glare of reality, the bitter conditions of ghetto existence which harden and brutalize the young” (Murray). When thinking about Sonny in relation to this theme of light and darkness, it is fitting. For we learn throughout the story that Sonny has been living in the light of a harsh reality his whole life.

His character is introduced to us for the first time, with his brother reading about his having been arrested for the possession and use of heroin. His home life is no better, for he has been a source of friction among his family; with fights with his father, tensions over skipping school with his sister-in-law, and a brief estrangement with his brother. While this registering of Sonny’s struggles with the themes of light and darkness made sense, I wanted to figure out what was causing him to end up in less-than-ideal situations. Murray highlights a more complicated passage that offers a view into Sonny’s psyche. The scene is where Sonny shares his personal demons with his brother, and says, “I wake and feel the fell of darkness.’ Sonny goes on to describe his own dark night of the soul. ‘I was all by myself at the bottom of something, stinking and sweating and crying and shaking, and I smelled it, you know? My stink, and I thought I’d die” (Murray).

Here Murray interprets that Sonny views himself as a sacrifice almost to his craft of being a jazz musician, and that this arrival at his talent seems to scare him. I think it is right that Murray draws this conclusion, for considering the evidence of escapism with Sonny’s use of heroin and the irritability that he has with his family about his future, it all aligns. I also could not help but feel a personal conviction upon re-reading this passage from the story. As someone who has struggled with trying to find out what path to take in life, I can relate immensely on the paradoxical trouble of wanting to discover one’s destiny, while also being fearful of the answer. The choice of words by Sonny, especially that of “stink”, speak of a self-critical mode of thinking with artists, and it is one I am familiar with.

Aside from the study of Sonny’s artistic struggles, how do the shared general themes of pursuing identity manifest themselves in other parts of the story? Keith Byerman’s article, “Words and Music: Narrative Ambiguity In ‘Sonny’s Blues’”, makes an interesting point on how the oscillating narrative style of Sonny’s brother between the metaphorical and the simple, represents his inner struggle for realization of those around him.

Byerman states his main premise as such, “The story, in part, is about his misreading’s; more importantly, it is about his inability to read properly. The source of this inability is his reliance on a language that is at once rationalistic and metaphoric” (Byerman). Now, while this sums up the personal growth of Sonny’s brother, I also read this point by Byerman as a synopsis of Sonny’s search for identity. I mentioned before how Sonny describes his own love of jazz as a sort of “stink”, and it would be natural to wonder why someone would describe what they love to do as such. But I believe it is the rational part of anyone searching for identity, that they will be uncomfortable with the harshness of reality. It can become difficult to come to grips with the truth, and here I saw that just as Sonny is apprehensive about truly embracing his calling of jazz, his brother struggles with reading others in his environment.

This point of view by Byerman is emotionally poignant, for it paints Sonny’s brother as an individual who is just as lost as Sonny (albeit with less arguments and tribulations). Byerman discusses how Sonny’s brother struggles more with the understanding of others, versus the journey of Sonny who embarks on discovering who he is. An example Byerman uses is when he encounters a drug addict who had been an acquaintance of Sonny. He places emphasis again on how the language used shows the inner turmoil of understanding others. “Again, there is distancing through figurative language: ‘But now, abruptly, I hated him. I couldn’t stand the way he looked at me, partly like a dog, partly like a cunning child’. Such language prepares us for, while guaranteeing, the failed communication of this episode” (Byerman). This passage selected by Byerman is important for a couple of reasons: one, as he stated, the brother sees in this drug addict the visage of Sonny. He recognizes his condition and can to a degree, understand. But, as for reason two, he still demonstrates a wall of ignorance and misunderstanding about this drug addict and the corollary one of Sonny.

This article by Byerman challenged the way I viewed the concept of identities. Perhaps the search for identity is not immediately what we believe to be, that of an internal strife. Maybe, it can also be extended to the search for understanding others and attempting to empathize. It is with this thought here, that brings me to a final source that I think blends these two searches of identity that exist on a continuum.

James Tackach’s article, “The Biblical Foundation of James Baldwin’s ‘Sonny’s Blues’”, makes the case for the biblical influences of Christianity in “Sonny’s Blues”. He extracts a couple examples from the story that mimic some of the concepts and story arcs from the biblical fables. The first, is the similarity in response by Sonny’s brother to the character of Cain (the murderer of his brother Abel) when he is asked what he will do about Sonny being in prison. Sonny’s brother responds, “Look. I haven’t seen Sonny for over a year. I’m not sure I’m going to do anything. Anyway, what the hell can I do?” (Tackach). This response mirrors the one in the bible, where Cain retorts to God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Bible, New International Version).

Considering the frustration of Sonny’s brother on this topic, paired with his struggles to totally understand those around him, it is easy to understand why this would be his reply. I thought of how this response was more than just a flight of rage, and how this answer represents the years of trouble Sonny has been one with, and how helpless his brother feels. However, Tackach goes on to show that later in the story Sonny’s brother decides to fully acknowledge his role as his brother’s keeper, and here the shared theme of Cain and Abel ends. During a scene when the two brothers are observing a street performer and sharing personal thoughts, Sonny’s brother narrates his change of heart about Sonny, and concludes his search for the identity in others.

He says, “And I wanted to promise that I would never fail him again. But it would all have sounded—-empty words and lies. So, I made the promise to myself and prayed that I would keep it” (Baldwin, pg. 21). I found that the striking message here is that Sonny’s brother is not trying to fully understand everything there is about his brother, or like he said, make a parade of promises. Instead, he realizes that his brother is not just blood, but a part of his life that he must maintain.

The second example of a biblical influence, and where Sonny finally finds and solidifies his identity, is at the jazz club at the end of the story. After Sonny’s band takes a break from their performance, a drink is placed on Sonny’s piano, which according to Tackach holds a certain significance. Sonny’s brother narrates, “he (Sonny) sipped from it and looked toward me and nodded. Then he put it back on top of the piano. For me, then, as they began to play again, it glowed and shook above my brother’s head like the very cup of trembling” (Baldwin, pg. 25).

Tackach explains that the phrase of “cup of trembling” originates from the book of Isaiah, where God declares that despite the people of Jerusalem’s sins, even “the dregs of the cup of trembling”, they are forgiven (Bible, New International Version). So, for the cup of trembling to glow, is to Tackach a sign of surpassing the past of mistakes, and that the cup acts as a sort of halo for Sonny (Tackach). This biblical connection to the ending moved me for two reasons: the first, is that we see Sonny is symbolically redeemed and has grown beyond his younger troubled self that sought refuge in drugs and mischief. And two, he is an individual who is one at last with his identity, and finally has a relationship with his brother who also is committed to knowing his brother more.

“Sonny’s Blues” is a story that is painfully human, and wonderfully crafted. For these reasons, it focuses intently on the personal search for identity that every individual must take. I learned from the different sources I found, and the multiple readings I undertook, that the quest for identity is one that is both internal and external in how we learn more about those around us. I think that only traits of goodness can be harvested, the longer we apply ourselves to this internal and external duty. And regardless if we face setbacks, we can always rest assured knowing our cup of trembling can glow one day if we try.

Works Cited

Baldwin, James. “Sonny’s Blues” The Oxford Book of American Short Stories edited by Joyce Carol Oates, Oxford University Press, 2013 pp. Mar 2, 2020

Byerman, Keith A. “Words and Music: Narrative Ambiguity In ‘Sonny’s Blues’”. Studies in Short Fiction, vol. 19, no. 4, 1982, pp. 367-372. EBSCOhost, Accessed 29 Apr 2021.

Murray, Donald C. “James Baldwin’s ‘Sonny’s Blues’: Complicated and Simple”. Studies in Short Fiction, vol. 14, no. 4, 1977, pp. 353-357. EBSCOhost, Accessed 29 Apr. 2021.

New International Version. Biblica, Accessed 22 March 2020.

Tackach, James. “The Biblical Foundation of James Baldwin’s ‘Sonny’s Blues’”. Renascence, vol. 59, no. 2, 2007, pp. 109-118. EBSCOhost, Accessed 29. Apr. 2021.




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