The Failure as a Brother of the Narrator in “Sonny’s Blues”

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Updated: Aug 18, 2023
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With an unexpected turn of events at the end of the short story “Sonny’s Blues,” Sonny overcomes the tension in his life and leaves readers to perceive him where he is happy and sound. This ending emphasizes music’s importance in clarifying and defining the struggle between Sonny and the narrator and, for both of them, life.

One particular thing I noticed is that the narrator is nameless. What is chiefly key in this is that the story is told from his perspective.

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Why would Baldwin leave the arguably most fundamental character nameless? In my quest to interpret the text, I deduced that most likely it was to emphasize that, despite his principles and life situation, he’s no better than his brother. It humbles him. This is affirmed in the final scene where Sonny commands the room, along with his fellow musicians, in a godlike manner. He does this when he plays music-an atmosphere where he belongs and the narrator clearly does not (he is seated in the corner of the dark bar, alone). It further stresses the importance of refraining from comparing lives.

We see this also when the narrator first learns about Sonny and runs into an old classmate. Here, the narrator battles his anger for the man who reminds him of his failed brother and contempt for someone who doesn’t concern his own or Sonny’s life situation. The narrator begins to observe his ignorance: “Look. Don’t tell me your sad story … Then I felt guilty … probably for never having supposed the poor bastard had a story of his own” (89). This inner conflict continues, and whenever the acquaintance, or rather the stranger, imparts a nugget of wisdom, bridging the gap between Sonny and himself with some understanding and sympathy, the narrator becomes distracted by the music (the “semi-whore” at the bar).

After Sonny gets out of jail and lives with the narrator for a short time, the narrator sees Sonny observing a church ensemble on the street below. Sonny says that the voice of the girl reminded him “of what heroin feels like sometimes” (113). This sparks a conversation that makes them both address Sonny’s struggle to remain sober. Here, the narrator pleads with Sonny not to resort to it again. He says to him, “But there’s no need … is there? In killing yourself?” (115). He gives himself and the readers the answer with the paragraph that follows: “I wanted to say more, but I couldn’t. I wanted to talk about will power and how life could be – well, beautiful. I wanted to say that it was all within; but was it? Or, rather wasn’t that precisely the trouble? And I wanted to promise that I would never fail him again. But it would all have sounded – empty words and lies” (115). The narrator has a groundbreaking epiphany that he is no better than Sonny. This is where the dynamics shift making it, ‘Sonny’s Brother’s Blues.’ Sonny finally explains why music means so much to him – that it’s a matter of life or death for him. The narrator begins to understand this and realizes he isn’t far from being as suffocated and at risk as Sonny.

Finally, the story ends with Sonny playing in the club. He becomes godlike in his ability to take his struggle and hypnotize the room with it: “Sonny’s fingers filled the air with life, his life… I understood at last that he could help us to be free if we would listen” (122). The narrator gives in to the power of music and makes the effort not to pity, but to understand his brother.

We are reminded of how hard Sonny plays for his life with the resonant and final image of the story: the Cup of Trembling. It is a biblical reference in which it is used as a symbol of fear. Here, because it is over Sonny’s head while he plays the piano, we see the balance music offers to Sonny. Yes, it is life or death, but Sonny takes his struggle, what he is and has been, and uses it to create a striking and true melody. The cup of trembling complements music as the image of power and hope that Sonny may surpass his struggles.

While this ending and interpretation may be cliché, I truly believe it is Baldwin’s intent. Readers are left with two black characters who are not defined by their struggle, but take the reins and make something of it. I didn’t even remember that they were black (aside from the fact that it is the description of our class), which further proves Baldwin’s seemingly effortless message that everyone struggles, regardless of skin color, and everyone has a chance to overcome that struggle.

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The Failure as a Brother of the Narrator in "Sonny's Blues". (2022, Dec 16). Retrieved from