An Effective Use of Flashbacks in Sonnys Blues
In the narrative “Sonny’s Blues,” the author, James Baldwin, utilizes flashbacks to assist in better understanding of what is taking place in the present. Sonny is an African-American man, currently in jail for using and selling heroin. The narrator of the story is Sonny’s brother, whose name we never learn. They grew up in Harlem, New York, a city with a high population and a high volume of drug use.
The first time the author uses a flashback is to portray what Sonny was like when he was the same age as the students of the narrator. “His face had been bright and open, with a touch of copper in it; he had incredibly bright brown eyes, and exceptional characteristics of meekness and privacy. I wondered what he looked like now (pg. 74)” This helps the reader understand that Sonny hasn’t always been a subdued spirit; he used to be very gentle and shy. This leads the reader to question what led to Sonny’s transformation, questions which can be answered within a flashback.
How it works
Sonny’s brother then begins to talk about their relatives who have passed away, including their mother, father, and the narrator’s daughter (Sonny’s niece). This discussion leads to the development of flashbacks about their parents. “You got to hold on to your brother,” she said, “and do not let him fall, no matter what is happening to him, and no matter how angry you get with him (pg. 84).” Sonny’s brother, however, ends up neglecting their mother’s advice. The brothers lost contact and Sonny was overcome by addiction. Their father’s brother had been killed by a group of drunken white men. Sonny’s mother advises the narrator to keep Sonny close to him to prevent the same fate that befell their uncle. This flashback, in my opinion, plays a critical role in the story. Sonny and his brother lacked a strong connection due to the age gap, but the brother’s near-loss of Sonny was a wake-up call.
Sonny elaborates that music did not turn him into a drug addict. Instead, there was something shared between music and heroin that attracted him to drug use. There’s a flashback where Sonny expresses to his brother his aspiration to become a jazz musician, an idea his brother disapproves of. Music was something Sonny was passionate about, but his brother’s dismissal was discouraging. As a result, Sonny left his brother’s house, joined the navy, and moved as far away as possible. The narrator becomes aware of his ignorance in not appreciating his brother’s passion. This understanding leads readers to empathize with the reasons behind Sonny’s addiction. “It makes you feel- in control. Sometimes, you’ve got to have that feeling.” The two brothers now share a bond they never had before. They realize their need for each other.
The flashbacks in “Sonny’s Blues” help provide the reader with historical context to comprehend why Sonny behaves the way he does. We now understand how heroin entered his life and why it became dominant. The flashbacks were effective for both the reader and the author. The author didn’t need to explicitly explain why Sonny became addicted to drugs; the reader can use context clues from their setting and the flashbacks to infer what happened to Sonny.