49 pages 1 hour read

James Baldwin

Sonny's Blues

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1957

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “Sonny’s Blues”

“Sonny’s Blues” is a short story by author James Baldwin, which was published in the literary magazine Partisan Review in 1957. The story was later included in a 1965 collection of Baldwin’s stories, Going to Meet the Man. “Sonny’s Blues” describes the relationship between an unnamed narrator and his younger brother, Sonny. The story explores how the experience of growing up Black amid racism and poverty impacts a person’s psychology and relationships. This guide follows the version of “Sonny’s Blues” collected in The Jazz Fiction Anthology, published in 2009 by Indiana University Press.

The story opens with the adult narrator reading about how his brother Sonny was arrested by the police “for peddling and using heroin” (17). Though he is estranged from his younger brother, the narrator immediately becomes “scared for Sonny” who “became real to [him] again” (17). The narrator works as a teacher in Harlem, but he struggles to focus due to Sonny’s predicament. The narrator’s students are schoolboys who remind him of Sonny, who was not “much older” than them when he first had “horse,” or heroin (18). A sense of dread overcomes the narrator as he contemplates the “darkness of [the students’] lives,” a reference to poverty and racism (18).

Outside his home, the narrator finds a friend of Sonny’s who came to tell the narrator about Sonny’s arrest. The two talk about Sonny, and the friend describes feeling “sort of responsible” for Sonny’s arrest because he once told Sonny about how pleasurable it felt to get high (21). Though the narrator remarks that he will “maybe” write Sonny, he doesn’t do so “for a long time” (22). The narrator receives a letter from Sonny that describes how grateful Sonny was to finally hear from his brother, and how he would like to see the narrator once he is released from prison. The narrator and Sonny finally reunite in New York, where the narrator lives; the narrator is “flood[ed]” with emotion as he wonders “about Sonny, about the life that Sonny lived inside” (23).

The narrator takes Sonny back to his home to live. As they drive home, the narrator drives through Harlem, where they pass housing projects like the ones they grew up in. The narrator describes the neighborhood as a “trap” where individuals become “encircled by disaster” (24). He notes that both he and Sonny “escaped” the trap but suggests that they were wounded in the process (24). At home, the narrator’s wife Isabel has organized a dinner for Sonny. She puts Sonny at ease by being talkative and welcoming.

The story then goes back in time as the narrator reminisces about his family and his and Sonny’s childhoods. Their father, Daddy, was always tough on Sonny, which the narrator believes was because “[Daddy] loved Sonny so much and was frightened for him” (26). After Daddy’s death, the narrator’s mother, Mama, tells him that Daddy was forever traumatized by witnessing his brother get killed when a car full of White men drove over him. Mama then implores the narrator to watch over Sonny, telling him that he’s “got to let [Sonny] know you’s there” (30).

The narrator leaves for the military but returns for Mama’s funeral. He and Sonny talk about Sonny’s plans to become a jazz musician, which frightens the narrator, who that this is an irresponsible choice. As Sonny and the narrator quarrel, the narrator feels alienated from Sonny: “I suddenly had the feeling that I didn’t know him at all” (33). Though Sonny wants to leave Harlem to pursue his music career, the narrator insists that he move in with his wife Isabel’s family and finish school while the narrator returns to the army. The narrator finally convinces Sonny to live at Isabel’s by reminding him that Isabel’s family owns a piano Sonny can practice on.

At Isabel’s house, Sonny plays piano whenever he has free time. Though Isabel’s family at first appreciates Sonny’s piano playing, they soon tire of the constant noise, as Sonny’s obsession makes him seem less like a “person” than “some sort of god, or monster” (35). Isabel’s family soon discovers that Sonny has been skipping school to hang out with other musicians in Greenwich Village, causing a confrontation that ends with Sonny leaving the apartment and joining the navy. After World War II is over, the narrator occasionally sees Sonny in New York, but the two continue grow increasingly estranged. A fight finally breaks out when the narrator visits Sonny in his apartment and Sonny treats his other friends “as though they were his family [and the narrator wasn’t]” (36).

The narrator then discusses when Sonny was in prison. Though Sonny was arrested in the spring, the narrator doesn’t write him until months later. During the fall, the narrator’s daughter Isabel suddenly dies of polio after developing what the narrator and Isabel assumed “had just been a cold” (37). Grief-stricken, the narrator finally feels able to write to Sonny: “my trouble made his real” (37).

The narrative then returns to the present to depict the brothers’ relationship after Sonny leaves prison. Though Sonny and the narrator get along, the narrator feels compelled to search through Sonny’s room for drugs. As the narrator tries “to work up the courage,” he stares out the living room window and is transfixed by a group holding “an old-fashioned revival meeting” (37-38). The group stands on the sidewalk in front of a restaurant and sings a religious song with such intense emotion that the narrator becomes fascinated. He remarks that “the music seemed to soothe a poison out of [the listeners]” (39). The narrator soon notices that Sonny is also watching the women dance outside, and the two begin a conversation.

Sonny informs the narrator that he is planning to play piano at a jazz club in Greenwich Village; he invites the narrator to attend. The two then discuss the music they just heard, with Sonny commenting that the woman’s voice “reminded [him] for a minute of what heroin feels like sometimes” (40). For Sonny, this means feeling “in control,” which he often had to feel to play music (40). The narrator responds with a harsh and judgmental tone, arguing that most people simply endure their suffering rather than use drugs to deal with it. However, Sonny contends that every individual has their own way of dealing with suffering and implies that the narrator is being closed-minded. The narrator then realizes that he must listen and try to empathize with Sonny rather than passing judgment. Sonny then confides in his brother, talking about the depths of his drug addiction: “I’ve been something I didn’t recognize, didn’t know I could be” (42).

The story closes with the narrator attending Sonny’s performance at the jazz club. The narrator meets Sonny’s fellow musicians, who treat Sonny with respect and admiration. These include Creole, who tells the narrator, “You got a real musician in your family” (44). The narrator understands that he is “in Sonny’s world. Or, rather: his kingdom” (44). He sits at a table and watches the ensuing performance. As Sonny sits at a piano, the crowd erupts in applause. The group begins playing, and the narrator describes how Sonny and Creole playing music together sounds like they are “having a dialogue” (46). Sonny then performs a piano solo, which the narrator describes as Sonny “fill[ing] the air with life, his life” (47). Though the harsh world waits just outside, Sonny’s music allows the narrator to briefly forget it and feel free, and he begins to cry.