Familial Connections in Sonnys Blues

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Updated: Aug 17, 2023
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Familial links belong to what makes us human. They can also be what makes us effective in life. In the short story “Sonny’s Blues,” James Baldwin reveals the true significance of family through the lives of Sonny and his brother. Baldwin uses their father and his brother as a mirror for their own relationship, and shows Sonny’s struggle to find family when he can no longer find it in his brother. The narrator initially perceives his role in Sonny’s life as the parent, before starting to mend his damaged relationship with his brother.

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The result is the core lesson Baldwin wishes to convey: that familial relationships can significantly impact a person’s life.

Baldwin creates a parallel between Sonny and the narrator’s relationship when he reveals the story about their father and his brother. Sonny is similar to his father’s brother in that they were “possibly a little full of the devil, but didn’t mean anyone any harm”, and “like all young people, (they) just liked to cut loose on Saturday nights”(Baldwin, 132). The narrator mirrors his father, the older, wiser brother. His mother recounts the story of the night her brother-in-law was killed, not to make her son “scared or bitter or to hate anyone”, but to prompt him, “you have a brother, and the world hasn’t changed … you have to hold on to your brother, and don’t let him fall” (133). It’s clear she worries for her youngest son’s life. This creates a parallel that doesn’t let go until the final scene of the story.

With his last promise to his mother in his mind, the narrator gets married and heads off to war. He admits, “I had forgot my promise to Mama, until I was shipped home on a special furlough for her funeral” (133). Now, the narrator sees himself as the only family left for Sonny, and thus his new parental figure. This misunderstanding of his role in Sonny’s life ultimately leads to a serious fallout between the brothers. “‘What kind of artist do you want to be?’ He smiled. ‘How many types do you think there are?’ ‘Be serious,’ I said. He laughed, throwing his head back, and then looked at me, ‘I am serious.’ ‘Well. then, for Christ’s sake, stop joking around and answer a serious question. I mean, do you want to play classical music as a concert pianist, or–or what?’ Long before I finished, he was laughing again. ‘For Christ’s sake, Sonny!’ He sobered, but with difficulty, ‘I’m sorry. But you seem so– scared!’ And he was off again. ‘It may seem funny now, baby, but it won’t be as funny when you have to make a living out of it, let me tell you that.” (134).

The storyteller treats Sonny like a boy, as opposed to a brother, and his efforts to dictate Sonny’s life cause stress between them. This tension culminates in a split when Sonny leaves New York and “went as far away as the navy would take him”. “He finally sent me a postcard from somewhere in Greece, which was the first I knew Sonny was still alive” (138), the narrator states. Despite promising their mother not to let anything happen to Sonny, the narrator goes months without speaking to him. This lack of communication is not reflective of a supportive brother, and it results in Sonny finding it difficult to stay on the right path.

After falling out with his brother, Sonny turns elsewhere for the comforting sense of family he no longer has. Those who were once mere acquaintances he met on the streets become his family. Upon visiting Sonny after months of separation, the narrator finds that “he treated these other people as though they were his family and I wasn’t” (139). Sonny also finds a family in music and the people he creates music with. Following his mother’s death, Sonny plays the piano every spare moment of every day. This not only becomes a coping mechanism but also a way of life for him. When the narrator observes Sonny’s interaction with Creole, it becomes evident what kind of support Sonny has always needed. On stage, Creole “with his eyes half closed, was listening to everything but was focusing on Sonny. He was having a conversation with Sonny. He wanted Sonny to venture into the deep water. He was Sonny’s witness that deep water and drowning were not the same thing—he had been there, he knew” (146). Creole supports Sonny in a way the narrator couldn’t: he listens and offers genuine understanding.

The turning point that delivers Baldwin’s message comes in the story’s final scene. Upon entering the bar with Sonny, the narrator admits, “It was clear that, for them, I was only Sonny’s brother. Here, I was in Sonny’s world. Or, rather: his kingdom” (145). As the narrator steps into Sonny’s “kingdom”, he begins to understand his younger brother better. This newfound understanding leads him to the realization that Sonny needed someone to listen and be supportive, not someone to dictate his future. The narrator’s transition from viewing himself as Sonny’s paternal figure to recognizing himself as his brother is crucial in forming their newfound, healthier relationship. With the newfound support from his brother, Sonny can now confidently pursue what he wants most: to be a musician.

The rollercoaster of a relationship between Sonny and his brother in James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” reveals the importance of family in one’s life. Sonny struggles with growing up after his parents die and later battles with drugs. Throughout this struggle, he lacks the support he needs from his brother. Their mother had implored her oldest son to look after Sonny before she died, because she understood that Sonny would need to feel loved to succeed. It isn’t until the end of the story that the brothers gain an understanding of each other’s lives and are then able to forge a healthy relationship.

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Familial Connections in Sonnys Blues. (2022, Dec 16). Retrieved from https://papersowl.com/examples/familial-connections-in-sonnys-blues/