"Sonny's Blues"

By Dana Gioia (2001)

The narrative structure of "Sonny's Blues" is more complex and interesting than it may seem at first glance. The story reads so smoothly that it is easy to overlook the fact that it begins in medias res. "Sonny's Blues" opens with the title character's arrest for the sale and possession of heroin; it ends in a jazz club with the older brother's ultimate understanding and acceptance of Sonny. This linear narrative is interrupted, however, by a long flashback that describes the uneasy earlier relation between the brothers. Since their parents are dead when the story opens, we meet the father and mother only in the flashback. The mother is the central moral figure of the story. Her last conversation with the narrator ultimately becomes a crucial part of his impetus to reconcile with Sonny. (The other, more immediately compelling motivation is the death of the narrator's small daughter from polio: "My trouble," the narrator confesses, "made his real.") When the narrator promises to take care of his kid brother, his mother warns him it will be hard. She has seen enough of the world's trouble to be fatalistic. "You may not be able to stop nothing from happening," she tells him, before adding, "But you got to let him know you's there." In one sense, "Sonny's Blues" is essentially the story of the narrator's slow, difficult process of living up to the promise he gave his mother.

The basic conflict of the story, which is—it is essential to remember—the older brother's story, is the narrator's inability to understand and respect the life of the younger brother he so clearly loves. Baldwin carefully establishes the brothers as opposites. The narrator is a cautious, respectable family man. He teaches math and is proud of his professional standing. Living in a Harlem housing project, he consciously protects himself from the dangers that surround him. Notice how intensely he appears to dislike Sonny's friend, the drug addict, when he encounters him in the school courtyard at the beginning of the story. However, the narrator is also compassionate, and it is important to see, in the same episode, how quickly he recognizes and responds to the addict's battered humanity. That gesture prefigures his reconciliation with his brother. Sonny, by contrast, is a romantic artist who is not afraid of taking risks to pursue the things he desires. His passion for music makes him impatient with everything else. He drops out of school. In his brother's view he is "wild" but not "hard or evil or disrespectful."

The outer story of "Sonny's Blues" is the title character's rehabilitation from drug addiction, reconciliation with his estranged brother, and recognition as a jazz pianist. The inner story is the narrator's spiritual and emotional growth into a person who can understand his younger brother's unorthodox, but nonetheless valuable, life. There should be no doubt that Baldwin, the former boy preacher saw the narrator's inner growth as in some sense religious. The final scene in the nightclub ends with a religious vision of the blues. Listening to the group leader, Creole, play, the narrator says:

He hit something in all of them, he hit something in me, myself, and the music tightened and deepened, apprehension began to beat the air. Creole began to tell us what the blues were about. They were not about anything very new. He and his boys up there were keeping it new, at the risk of ruin, destruction, madness, and death, in order to find new ways to make us listen. For, 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, and it's the only light we've got in all this darkness.

That passage not only offers as good an explanation of the blues and jazz as one is likely to find anywhere; it speaks cogently on the purpose of all art. It is worth having students pause over it. The final scene of "Sonny's Blues" is set in a dark, smoky nightclub, and its lyric quality marks a noticeable shift in tone from the realistic narrative style that preceded it. As the closing episode gains force along with the music it describes, it becomes a kind of vision for the narrator. In intellectual terms (for, after all, the narrator is a reflective math teacher), the vision brings him to a deep understanding of the human importance of art and the terrible cost of its creation. In emotional terms, his comprehension of jazz is inseparable from his sudden and profound understanding of Sonny's identity and motivations as an artist.

Unless the reader can accept the narrator's capacity for this transforming insight, the story is flawed by the sudden change of tone. Several critics have expressed their problem with the conclusion. They feel that Baldwin's authorial voice has replaced the narrator's. As Joseph Featherstone said in an initial review of Going to Meet the Man, the volume in which "Sonny's Blues" first appeared:

The terms seem wrong; clearly this is not the voice of Sonny or his brother, it is the intrusive voice of Baldwin the boy preacher who has turned his back on the store front tabernacles but cannot forget the sound of angels' wings beating around his head. (New Republic, Nov. 27, 1965) [reprinted in Kenneth Kinnamon's "Twentieth Century Views" collection]

On one level, Featherstone's criticism makes sense. The tone of the final scene is elevated and religious. It is quite unlike the narrator's opening voice. However, a reader, wrapped up in the power of the final scene, is entitled to respond that the entire story up until then exists to justify this passage. "Sonny's Blues" is not merely the story of the narrator's experiences; it is the tale of his inner transformation. The final scene is the demonstration of the older brother's spiritual growth which his earlier experiences of death and loss have motivated. In understanding and accepting Sonny, he has enlarged his soul enough to understand Sonny's music, too.