Fiction often has the ability to depict significant spiritual changes in its characters; these people are shown to be significantly unmoored in their lives, needing an external factor or another person to help them find a measure of peace. In the case of James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” the character of Sonny is a drug-addicted derelict who must find a sense of spiritual release through the support and solidarity of his brother, the narrator. With Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral,” an ordinary, blasé, cynical man is given a new insight into his life thanks to the perspective of a blind man whom his wife brings over for dinner. Both of these characters find some redemption from their various ills (addiction, cynicism) through the intervention of other people who have reached a more fulfilling sense of spirituality.
“Sonny’s Blues” is, essentially, a tale of the plight of African-Americans living in Harlem, conflating more intimate issues of brotherly love, familial conflict and drug addiction with broader issues of racism and discrimination. The perspective of the story is Sonny’s brother, the unnamed narrator, who has some problems of his own, including the death of his daughter, the horrors of surviving military service in war, and more. Compared to Sonny, the narrator is relatively put together, but must still face the issues that are very present during Jim Crow-era America, complete with racism, segregation, and a certain lack of respect and job prospects that make the brother do much better than Sonny. Sonny, meanwhile, is deeply entrenched in the best and worst parts of the Jazz Age, finding a measure of solace in his music but becoming addicted to drugs in the process. Both characters are haunted by wartime service, as well – the details are never fully fleshed out, but the events do take a toll on their psychological well-being.
Sonny, as a character, is trapped by many things in his life. First of all, his presence in jail is a physical imprisonment, representative of the limited options he has for freedom and equality as a black man in Harlem. When the narrator meets Sonny after being released from prison, that trapped feeling is evident: “when he smiled, when we shook hands, the baby brother I’d never known looked out from the depths of his private life, like an animal waiting to be coaxed into the light” (Baldwin). Secondly, his addiction to drugs is a spiritual imprisonment, keeping him from being able to feel like himself and have control over his own wants and needs. The narrator is no better, despite not being addicted to drugs – he is not in jail, but Harlem itself becomes a prison of discrimination and prejudice. It is only after the death of his daughter that he chooses to help Sonny, reaching out to what is left of his family in a desperate attempt to find somewhere to belong.
In “Cathedral,” the stakes of the story are not as high as in “Sonny’s Blues,” but the spiritual transformation is just as significant and redemptive. Carver’s story, an intimate tale of an everyday guy and his encounter with a blind man one night over dinner with the wife, shows spiritual redemption in the form of sight and perception. At the beginning of the story, the narrator is wary of his wife’s friend Robert coming over for dinner; he thinks that maybe he has an interest in his wife. Once he discovers that Robert is blind, he lets his guard down, but finds something else in Robert’s subtle understanding of the world. Robert is much more understanding to the narrator’s wife, listening to her and ostensibly knowing her better than the often bland, provincial narrator claims to. Noticing this, the narrator starts to understand that though he is sighted, Robert can see the real nature of the world, and the true souls of people, like his wife. There is not as much focus on backstory as in “Sonny’s Blues,” as it is not the main character’s past that haunts him, but his inability to engage with the present. We are given little backstory for the narrator, but his actions and behavior toward Robert tell the reader everything they need to know about his shortcomings.
The narrator in both stories is helped along by the fraternal nature of man and friendship – both the narrator and Sonny help each other in “Sonny’s Blues,” while the blind man helps the narrator achieve a greater sense of peace in “Cathedral.” In “Sonny’s Blues,” both characters are trapped and must work together to reconcile their own differences and find salvation in each other. By writing to Sonny, the narrator is able to make up for past mistakes (like ignoring his brother), and reach out to family. If anything, the clearest redemptive force in the story is music; it is only through Sonny’s playing of jazz, and the narrator listening to Sonny’s performance, that both of them find the tranquility they have been searching for their whole lives. Music becomes the common factor that binds them and allows them to relate to each other. The narrator finds a spiritual significance in the music, it being able to tell their story of misery, abuse and oppression better than any words can: “while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness” (Baldwin). Hearing Sonny’s music allows their tale to finally be told, which is all they really wanted – to be heard. This gives them the spiritual catharsis they need, if only for a moment.
In “Cathedral,” meanwhile, the narrator’s experiences with Robert give him a new understanding of the world and the things he can see in it. When he first speaks with Robert, he begrudgingly admits that “I guess I’m agnostic or something,” indicating his own lack of spirituality (Carver). The two characters then bond over the image of a cathedral that is being displayed on the television; the narrator draws it, which is easy for him as he is sighted, but Robert describes his cathedral with a detail and beauty that cannot be found in the physical illustration the narrator makes. This shows the narrator that there is more to experiencing a thing than its sight, and that Robert has achieved truer perception of the world around him through fewer senses than the narrator possesses. The narrator’s cynicism is then leavened by Robert’s spiritual perception – they end up joining hands to make the cathedral, forming a very close partnership as spiritual brothers and gaining a greater understanding of each other.
In conclusion, both “Sonny’s Blues” and “Cathedral” offer redemption for troubled characters who are facing addiction, discrimination, and malaise. Sonny and his brother fight through the devils of addiction, racism and war through the unifying power of family and music. Robert helps the narrator of “Cathedral” find new appreciation for the sight that he has, and learns to let go of his own prejudices towards other people in order to uplift himself in the process. Sonny and his brother use their understanding of music to come closer together, while Robert and the narrator of “Cathedral” use spirituality and visual/spoken art to make their own close connections to each other. While none of the characters may make permanent changes to their lifestyles (Sonny may go back to drugs, and the narrator may forget about this moment the next day and go back to being a cynical, ordinary man), these unique moments bring a clarity of spirit that the characters desperately need. This treatment of the issues of addiction and cynicism makes both stories wonderfully spiritual tales of redemption and salvation, turning everyone involved into better people, at least for now.
Baldwin, James. “Sonny’s Blues.” In Going to Meet the Man. Dial Press, 1965. Print.
Carver, Raymond. "Cathedral."