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In the tale “Sonny’s Blues,” created by James Baldwin, the protagonist grapples with intense emotions towards his brother, Sonny, who has been imprisoned for drug abuse. Initially, the central narrative may seem unclear, but it ultimately guides the reader through Sonny’s life, enabling them to understand why he resorted to drugs. Central to this narrative are two settings: the city where the brothers grew up and the club where Sonny performs late into the story. These environments contrast Sonny’s pain and his manner of expressing it, with Baldwin’s employment of time and space helping the reader connect with the themes of self-expression and comprehension.
The city where the main characters spent their childhood sets a tone of pessimism, prevalent throughout most of the story. As Sonny and the narrator make their way to the latter’s home, the narrator reflects on their old neighborhood. He describes the streets as though they were alive and exceedingly hazardous (76). In paragraph 79, he talks about their childhood home, characterizing it as “run-down” and “inhabitably new” with windows that “aren’t large enough to make room out of no room.” His portrayal of the city establishes a mood of desolation that resurfaces during a flashback sequence. Later in this sequence, Sonny tells his brother that school doesn’t teach him what he desires to learn as he aspires to become a musician.
How it works
The narrator disapproves of this ambition and persuades his brother to stay with his wife’s family until he graduates college. During his stay there, Sonny spent much of his time playing the piano, his medium of communication. This makes the reader feel that Sonny is misunderstood: he doesn’t want to attend school and his family is displeased with his endless piano practice (172). Upon realizing that he is a burden on his family, he enlists in the navy. This desolate mood is reinforced when Sonny converses with his brother. He asserts that pain is inevitable but people need not simply accept it; instead, they should seek an escape (210, 213). The conversation alone conveys a somber tone. However, the mention of dilapidated streets, uninhabitable apartments, and family misunderstanding reflects the city as a place offering little, if any, opportunities for escape or a better life. This further intensifies the mood of despair.
The bar presented near the end of the tale offers a sensation of hope and progression, contrasting with the helpless and trapped mood present in the narrator’s childhood. After the author reminisces about the past, he fast-forwards to about three weeks after driving Sonny home from prison. This is when Sonny persuades the narrator to visit the only club in the intimidating streets. Upon initial entry, the lights are so dim they can barely see (229). This mirrors the overall mood of the city. However, their time at the club sees the ambiance gradually brighten as the narrator meets all the people that Sonny used to know there. It soon becomes clear to both the narrator and reader that the club is “Sonny’s world”, and he uses it as an escape from his reality (233).
The previous air of despair dissipates once Sonny and the others begin to play. In the club, people relish in listening to Sonny play, providing him an outlet through which he can vent his frustrations and hurt through his music. This becomes particularly clear when they play the track, ‘Am I Blue’. During his solo, Sonny channels his struggles, pouring all of his emotions into the piano and escaping into his own world. His emotional performance resonates with the audience, notably impacting the narrator. The narrator begins to reflect on his deceased daughter, tears welling in his eyes (242). By the song’s end, he is sweating and radiant, finally achieving peace. After all this time, he had the chance to express his pain and found an audience willing to listen. The supportive applause that fills the room affirms the value of what he communicated through his music, imbuing the entire space with an optimistic mood. The way Baldwin uses this setting effectively transitions the initial mood of despair into one of hope, as Sonny vents his frustration through his music.
Baldwin’s effective use of time and place contrasts Sonny’s troubles with his methods of coping. The reader experiences the hopelessness of the dark, menacing city, juxtaposed with the hopeful atmosphere of the club. Overall, readers may harbor mixed feelings towards Sonny, but they will unquestionably sympathize with him as they uncover Sonny’s blues.
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