The Theme of Escapism in Sonnys Blues

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Updated: Aug 18, 2023
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James Baldwin was an essayist, poet, playwright, and writer. He is considered a highly intellectual and informative writer, as well as a legendary novelist in the post-war twentieth century. Baldwin spent his early years in a predominantly black, ghetto community called Harlem in New York City. This community is equally infamous for its drug problems as it is renowned for the talented writers, poets, artists, and musicians it produced. After Baldwin lost his father, he moved to Paris. This marked a turning point in his writing career.

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He told The New York Times, “Once I found myself on the other side of the ocean, I saw where I came from very clearly… I am the grandson of a slave, and I am a writer. I must deal with both.” This statement tells us a lot about Baldwin, especially how his upbringing shaped his stories and poems. The concept of escaping from this challenging environment is a reoccurring theme in his work, as seen in his exploration of drug addiction, career choices, and music in “Sonny’s Blues.”

Escapism is a common theme that many people have experienced at one time or another. It is defined as a psychological diversion, used as a form of entertainment or relaxation, as an “escape” from the perceived mundane or painful aspects of daily life. As suggested by the TV Tropes editors, escapism serves as a defense mechanism that our brain uses to cope with reality. It offers refuge in situations where individuals struggle to manage. In this particular work, Baldwin uses his fictional characters to explore this theme.

One of the subtle yet relevant examples of escapism in Baldwin’s work is the characters’ use of their jobs to escape the hardships of the Harlem ghetto. For the narrator, referred to as Sonny’s brother, the initial method of escape was the army. After his mother requested that he watch over and support his brother, he was promptly married and dispatched to join the military. The narrator states, “And I pretty well forgot my promise to Mama until I received special furlough for her funeral.” This is a prime example of the pressing desire to escape the harsh realities of Harlem. The reminder of his promise and the realities of his home came crashing down on him only when he was forced to return. Using the military to escape his life in Harlem was a significant decision. Further explorations of job-related escapism feature later in the timeline of this work.

The storyteller uses his education as one more path of escape by becoming a college teacher. He moves into a housing project near the institution, which he refers to as “uninhabitably new, currently of course, it’s already overused”, “a parody of the great, clean, faceless life”, “beaten-looking yard lying about isn’t enough to make their lives green”, and “the bushes will never hold up the streets.” Even though he uses his profession to flee, reality soon sinks in and Sonny’s brother realizes that despite their sheltered lives within the housing project, the pressing in of the Harlem streets is inevitable. He cannot escape from his surroundings; it is inescapable that he must face his reality. By including profession as a form of escape, Baldwin offers the storyteller a seemingly easy way to escape the Harlem ghetto.

The second significant incorporation of escapism is in the use of heroin. Because of the environment these characters have been placed in, drugs are a common thing. The narrator describes his brother’s drug addiction as “going down, coming to nothing, all the light in his face gone out.” He speaks of witnessing this multiple times. He talks about the students he teaches stating, “I was talking about algebra to a group of boys who might, each one of them for all I knew, be poking needles into their arms every time they went to the bathroom. Maybe it did more for them than algebra could.” This use of escapism is not only significant and subtle but also a key point in identifying the drug issues in Harlem. By suggesting that heroin might offer more assistance to these kids than algebra can, Baldwin provides an excellent example of escapism, and how the characters use drugs to escape their reality. Another example of this comes near the end of the story, from a scene in which Sonny explains why he uses drugs to his brother. Sonny says, “Well, I needed a fix, I needed to find a place to lean, I needed to clear a space to listen.” Sonny’s need to escape from Harlem – and ultimately himself – led him to use heroin to escape from reality. By introducing heroin as a form of escape, Baldwin provides Sonny a way to escape the Harlem ghetto. Granted, this path is potentially one of the worst choices one could make, but nevertheless, Sonny uses heroin as a form of escape.

The most prominent use of evasion in this work is embedded in the way music is woven into this short story. When Sonny overcomes his heroin addiction, he turns to music as a means to escape the harsh realities of Harlem. In a scene in which Sonny is listening to four singers, he says, “her voice reminded me for a moment of what heroin feels like sometimes – when it is in your veins”, “warm and cold at the same time”, “distant, yet certain”, “it makes you feel in control”, and “sometimes you’ve got to have that feeling.” The way Sonny equates music to heroin is one of the reasons he turns to music to satisfy his longing and need to escape Harlem, and himself.

Another example of this is the scene in which Sonny brings his sibling to pay attention to him play. The narrator specifies, “Yet it was clear that for them, I was only Sonny’s sibling. Here I was in Sonny’s world. Or rather, his kingdom. Here, it was not even a question that his veins bore royal blood.” This is such a key example of how in this project, music plays a vital role in escaping Harlem. When playing or listening to music, the characters are able to escape into this world. By incorporating music as a form of escape, Baldwin provides Sonny and his brother the ability to escape from their reality and exist fully in the world of music.

In conclusion, James Baldwin uses drug addiction, career choice, and music to incorporate escapism into Sonny’s Blues. There is a large amount of evidence within the text supporting these points, including but not limited to the scenes mentioned above. By doing so, Baldwin gives his characters a means of escape from the Harlem ghetto.

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The Theme of Escapism in Sonnys Blues. (2022, Dec 16). Retrieved from