The Obligation toward Brotherly Love
The narrator’s mother, by charging him with watching over Sonny, is asking him to serve as his brother’s keeper. The dynamic between the two brothers echoes, in part, the relationship between the brothers Cain and Abel in the Bible. In that narrative, Cain, after murdering Abel, asks whether he is supposed to be his brother’s keeper. The narrator, following his mother’s death, is presented with a similar dilemma. Since their mother’s death, Sonny’s life has been marred by prison and drug abuse. The tension between the two brothers is so great that after one particular fight, Sonny tells his brother to consider him dead from that point on, a statement that, again, deliberately echoes the biblical narrative of Cain and Abel. Like Cain, the narrator turns his back on his brother and fails, at first, to respond to Sonny when he is prison. He has failed to live up to his mother’s commandment that he watch over his brother—but the failure is only temporary. By the end of the story, the narrator has taken Sonny back into his home. He finally takes on the role of his brother’s keeper, constantly watching and worrying over Sonny as he emerges from the darkness of prison and drug abuse.
The idea of brotherly love extends beyond the relationship between the narrator and Sonny into the community as a whole. Harlem is plagued by drugs, poverty, and frustration, but members of the community come together to watch over and protect one another. The adults spend their Saturday afternoons sharing stories, providing a sense of warmth and protection to the children around them. The narrator, although initially angered by one of Sonny’s old drug-addicted friends, in the end recognizes his connection to the man and offers him money. Even Sonny, for all his problems, helps the people around him endure and survive by channeling their frustrated desires into his music.
The Prevalence of Rage and Fury
Throughout the story, the narrator repeatedly remarks on the barely concealed rage in the people around him as a way of showing both the internal and external conflicts that haunt the characters. Fury and rage are products not only of the limited opportunities that came with being African American at that time but of life in Harlem as well. Early in the story, the narrator notes that his students are “filled with rage.” They are aware of the limited opportunities available to them, and that knowledge breeds an internal, destructive rage that threatens to destroy their lives. With nowhere left to go, they inevitably turn their anger onto themselves, leading them into a life of darkness.
An equally strong rage is present in the streets of Harlem. While looking out the window, Sonny notes with amazement the simple fact that Harlem has not yet exploded. The narrator observes a “furious” man as he drops change into a church bucket. The fury that underlies daily life in Harlem is evident everywhere, even in the religious revivals held on the streets. It’s a fury fueled by desperation and desire, and it finds its truest form of expression in the music Sonny plays at the end of the story. As painful and difficult as that fury is, it also makes the type of jazz Sonny plays possible. It gives life to the religious revival Sonny passes on the street, and although it inevitably exacts an enormous toll on all of the people who bear its weight, it also offers something in return.
More main ideas from Sonny’s Blues
In James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues," the theme of family relationships runs throughout the story. Thematically, we also see reference to the artist and his art. While the family relationship between the brothers is a strong thematic element that impacts Sonny as a musician and a person, what draws me more is the concept of the struggle between the artist and his art. While there is a great deal of controversy between the brothers (which cannot be ignored), the struggle is at the core of understanding Sonny, the artist.
Sonny has certainly taken a dark and difficult road in his life. Substance abuse seems to have dogged his every step. And while his brother has been able to dodge the same fate by getting an education and moving out of the old neighborhood, his desire to leave his past behind has robbed him of the ability to see how the past has affected and haunted Sonny. It is completely understandable in that Sonny's brother wants what is best for his sibling, the brother he promised their mother he would watch out for.
Sonny represents those members of society that struggle to find their place when that place is not a part of the mainstream. Music is Sonny's life. The "blues" are not just what he plays, but also what he experiences based on his life choices and his struggle to pursue music with those choices.
The question of what Sonny wants, what he lives for, comes up in a letter he writes to his brother from prison. Sonny is ashamed; he feels as if he has disappointed everyone. He cannot even verbalize how he has ended up at such a terrible place in life. However, he shows how much music means to him by assuring his brother that it is not the reason for his current situation:
I don't want you to think it had anything to do with me being a musician.
The brothers keep in touch. When Sonny gets out of prison, he asks his brother to drive him past the old neighborhood. This demonstrates how closely tied Sonny is to the past—a past of suffering that still affects him.
His brother notes, as the taxi goes by the old neighborhood, that they pass the "killing streets of our childhood."
Sonny's brother can only see the world he is in and wish that world for Sonny. However, Sonny has not left the old neighborhood—not as his brother has—and he does not know how to survive in his brother's world. The primary reason may be because his brother's life has no room for Sonny, his music and what drives that music. Music is at the core of Sonny's existence.
Sonny tells his brother:
—well, yes, sure, I can make a living at it. But what I don't seem to be able to make you understand is that it's the only thing I want to do...I think people ought to do what they want to do, what else are they alive for?
Sonny tells his brother that in the pursuit of music—with trueart—one must suffer. This is not an experience his brother understands. Sonny is aggravated because he believes his brother wants Sonny to suffer in a wayhis brother understands, but it is not Sonny's way. Sonny thinks the drugs may have helped him to survive his suffering, with the [illusion] of control over his life.
Ultimately, it is only after Sonny's brother hears Sonny play that it all seems to make sense. In Sonny's music there is sorrow born of suffering, but there is also a freedom—freedom born out of Sonny's music for all those who have suffered.
If I were to write about "Sonny's Blues" about the theme of the relationship between a man (or woman) and his art, I would concentrate on the contradiction art creates in the artist. With Sonny, suffering is necessary in order for him to play; but at the same time, it is only through his music that he experiences any freedom (however temporary) from his suffering. And that for those not living in his world, they cannot understand it, nor should they try to change it. It is futile because these elements are an integral part of Sonny's music and his life.
My thesis statement would be:
In James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues," suffering is a part of the human condition. Sonny suffers from addiction, incarceration and his brother's lack of understanding; but the very things that cause Sonny to suffer are the same things that allow him to create music in order to transcend that suffering.