Though stories vary greatly from one another, good stories have similar literary elements in common which make them a good story. This essay judges James Baldwin’s story Sonny’s Blues based on this criteria of characters, setting, and point of view and conflict.
Baldwin’s story features two protagonists, Sonny and his brother and his older, protective brother. Both are from an economically disadvantaged black neighborhood. Sonny is a musician, and as do many musicians, he used drugs. The reader is introduced to Sonny when he has just gotten out of jail and is no longer using drugs, but as an ex addict of heroin addict he runs the risk of becoming addicted again. He uses music to ease his suffering. The central question of the story is if Sonny will be able to beat down his demons or if he will return to his life of addiction. In this sense the antagonist in the story is not a person but a substance that he abuses. There is a conflict between the brothers, but it is clear that both care for each other. It seems that Sonny’s brother might blame music on his becoming an addict to begin with. This is because since so many other musicians are users of subastances, there is always the chance that Sonny will relapse into addiction. If music is what caused Sonny to become an addict, it also is his best shot at not becoming an addict again, since he uses music to ease the suffering of his past and present experiences.
“Sonny’s Blues” is told from the point of view of the brother of Sonny. A story is only as good as who is telling it. Since Sonny’s brother loves his brother and wants him to do well and kick his addiction, he is a good person to relate this tale. It is not a story of what happened to someone else, but he is very invested in the story and has a stake in Sonny.
No one will want to hear a story of characters that they do not care about. Baldwin does a good job of creating compelling characters whom the reader wants to succeed. Sonny and his brother were raised in a poor black part of town in Harlem New York City. There were few exists in such a neighborhood for a better life. Drugs and poverty were rife in the neighborhood that they grew up in.
There are some though, who were able to get out of “the hood” through Music, but as many like Sonny who did not. The setting is important, for it raising the stakes of the whole story. Sonny’s brother got out because he want to college and studied teaching, the profession he has in the story. Sonny’s escape is music, but this is a dangerous escape since there are the negative influences of drugs and no assurance that he will be able to make a living off of that career path. The difficulty of the setting, the harshness of it, is conveyed by the narrator as he looks at his own black students in the classroom. Plenty have ambitions of getting out, but each one of them would need to overcome the obstacles of their setting in order to be able to do that. He muses, “These boys, now, were living as we’d been living then, they were growing up with a rush and their heads bumped abruptly against the low ceiling of their actual possibilities” (Baldwin, 1). The boys father’s description of the neighborhood paints the full picture, “Safe, hell! Aint’ no place safe for kids, nor nobody.”
When Sonny gets out of jail, it seems that he has suddenly become at peace with the world of suffering around him. It might be said that he has come to accept it and does not feel that he needs to escape it through drugs. He says, “No, there's no way not to suffer. But you try all kinds of ways to keep from drowning in it, to keep on top of it, and to make it seem-well, like you. Like you did something, all right, and now you're suffering for it. You know?” (Baldwin, 21).
Sonny is at the lowest point of his life after prison. He may have kicked his heroin habit, but he fears he may not have the will power to stay clean. His suffering is what heroin has taken away from him—his whole life, as he knew it. He needs to pick up the pieces of his life, wants to go back into music, but is a afraid of where that might lead him. “It can come again,” Sonny filled with worry tells his brothers.
While Sonny and his brother live in the same building, they live in much different world. This difference in character helps make for an even more compelling story—the brothers are very different, but it is clear that they love and support each other very much. Sonny’s older brother wants to do something to assist his brother, but he is not sure how.
Sonny feels that he cannot let his suffering be in vain and that he must do something with it worthwhile. Music is what he believes he can turn his suffering into. That is the central theme of the plot—turning suffering into art. Sonny’s brother then Only at the end of the story does his brother realize that the only think he can do is try to understand Sonny through his music, and that if he comes to support him at his concert, this support might give Sonny the strength to go on with his music career without drugs. He tell his brother “While I was downstairs before, on my way here, listening to that woman sing, it struck me all of the sudden how much suffering she must have had to go through to sing like that.” (Baldwin). Then he says, “It’s repulsive to think you have to suffer that much.”
These elements all work together. First the stakes are raised which is an extension of the setting. In a place where heroin addiction is a risk a story like this can take place. Then Baldwin introduces compelling characters who are believable as being the products of their environment. He not only conveys the sense of who these characters are, but introduces the long-standing relationship between the two brothers. Because the story is told through the point of view of the older brother, the reader feels like he/she is experience the action as it unfolds before them. It makes for good storytelling and it makes sense why this is considered an important short story in the literary cannon.
"Sonny's Blues by James Baldwin." Scribd. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 Dec. 2013. <http://www.scribd.com/doc/7086554/Sonnys-Blues-by-James-Baldwin>.