Short Story Analysis
The story “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin is a vivid tale of the internal conflict between Sonny and the narrator. Its underlying message is one of understanding and listening to one another; depicted through the generational tension passed down from the narrator’s father and the flashbacks to the root of the problem. Not only does this internal conflict eventually tear them apart, but it also brought them together once they realized that it was something more complex than the simple routines that were their own lives. This same, simple yet complex relationship is a mirror image of the musical jazz form. James Baldwin constructed what seems to be a literary translation of the jazz art form; encapsulating the historical, structural, and cultural elements that make up the genre called “jazz”, while at the same time, highlighting the social tension unconsciously inherited from the familial and environmental influences of someone’s adolescence. In short, “Sonny’s Blues” is a story of social tension, heavily influenced by the musical forms of jazz, blues, and soul.
Firstly, “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin is displaying the generational tension between two family members with opposing views. As they both grew increasingly stubborn and reluctant to listen and understand each other, their relationship began to diminish. I’m referring, of course, to the narrator and his brother Sonny. Similarly, I call it a generational tension because the narrator inherited a bad perspective of what it meant to be a musician, and a horrible tragedy that scarcely related to it, caused him to be overprotective and sometimes untouched by Sonny’s opinions and beliefs. The filtered relationship that they had eventually ended in a break, and did not mend until the narrator put himself in Sonny’s shoes and actually experienced what it meant to be a musician. During this moment, the narrator could finally feel what Sonny was feeling.
It’s important to note James Baldwin’s musical influence. Although he did not know the intricacies of the jazz music theory, he did sneak in a couple of literary analogies between the story and the music that he grew up with. Naughton wrote, “Yet his was not a formal understanding of the music: it was engrained not in the music’s structures and construction but in its far-reaching transformative artistic potential.” In other words, he could not translate what he heard into sheet music, but like any human being, could feel the music and its impact; nonchalantly incorporating it into the impactful events of his story, much like the scene where the narrator’s daughter fell and Isabel heard a thump. This thump is a single chord, most likely diminished and played in a minor scale, followed by fear, anxiety, and eventually curiosity, only to resonate as a terrifying memory, grasped by the tonal abnormalities of darkness. This is the “blues.” The act of projecting pain on to a musical instrument. To put simply, this single thump explains everything, but at the same time explains nothing and forever lives as someone’s pain.
The message of this short story has to do with social tension, understanding, and pain. The narrator and Sonny share a spotlight, live in the same world, but a see a different reality. The way that they handle this pain is different and throughout the story, they struggle to see eye to eye. Sherard wrote: “Referring to her husband’s brother’s death, the narrator’s mother says his father never talked about it because she would not let him. Her informing him about the tragic manner in which his father’s brother, whom he didn’t even know existed, was murdered, is significant because it ultimately allows the narrator to hear and understand Sonny’s personal story and also the larger narrative of “darkness” traditionally related through the blues, which Baldwin suggests are inadequate to communicate the “sad stories” of urban Harlem.” This quote
refers to the “darkness” that Sonny had within him, which, unfortunately, his older brother, the narrator of the story could not understand. The narrator chose to ignore the “darkness,” this referring to multiple things, and Sonny chose to numb his own pain and express it to others through his music. This “darkness” represents everything that the two brothers had gone through: the death of their mother and father, the tragic reality of their environment, and the impending isolation from one another. More specifically, in the case of the narrator, he also held the tribulation of his daughter’s death and the fear that he might lose his brother to the environment they were in. This disconnect drove the brothers further apart until they were able to experience each other’s realities. The narrator eventually put his ego aside to enter Sonny’s world for a few moments, and it wasn’t until then that the narrator began to understand Sonny’s pain.
Sonny’s Blues contains a connection between the literary elements and the musical form of jazz. Lee said, “The story thus embodies the symbiotic relationship between music and narrative, between musical form and social theory, between intramusical tensions read and social tensions felt.” Basically, the author compared the tension created from the musical notes to the tension created within relationships. This is, of course, coming from their past, environment, and way of thinking. This social tension mirrors the musical tension within jazz music. Lee mentions a specific quote in her article: “One boy was whistling a tune, at once very complicated and very simple, it seemed to be pouring out of him as though he were a bird, and it sounded very cool and moving through all that harsh, bright air, only just holding its own through all those other sounds.” This line out of “Sonny’s Blues” is important because Baldwin claimed that the tune was both complicated and simple, which is an oxymoron and quite frankly unfathomable. Being
simple and complicated at the same time represents tension; the same thing being created with a diminished or augmented seventh chord where the notes are both closely held together and sparingly apart, and the same thing being created within a relationship ravaged by differences with a solution so simple but yet so complex.
In Conclusion, the short story “Sonny’s Blues” can be said to be an analogy or a story with multiple meanings interwoven into one single text. It is a story filled with social tension and pain; often the same things being depicted in jazz, blues, and soul music. A word that pops up frequently is “darkness.” This word represents the social, cultural, and structural tension that plagued post-Korean War Harlem and more importantly, can be translated as the pain that both the narrator and Sonny either inherited or faced in their respective realities. The way that they handled this pain, throughout most of the story, drove them apart. Another important point is the way that James Baldwin created a mirror image between the literary form he was writing in and the structure of jazz music. Although James Baldwin was not familiar with jazz music theory, he was able to capture the feeling of with his words. In short, the message of the story is specifically geared towards understanding one another with regards to their pain, their history, and their manner of coping with the negativities in their life.
Naughton, Gerald D. “”the Whole Root is Somewhere in the Music”: Jazz, Soul, and Literary Influence in James Baldwin and Caryl Phillips.” Ariel, vol. 44, no. 2-3, 2013, pp. 113-139. ProQuest, http://proxygsu-gamc.galileo.usg.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/1668005983?accountid=11033, doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1353/ari.2013.0020.
Sherard, Tracey. “Sonny’s Bebop: Baldwin’s ‘Blues Text’ as Intracultural Critique.” African American Review, vol. 32, no. 4, 1998, pp. 691–705. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2901246.
Lee, Susanna. “The Jazz Harmonies of Connection and Disconnection in ‘Sonny’s Blues.’.” Short Story Criticism, edited by Jelena O. Krstovic, vol. 98, Gale, 2007. Literature Resource Center,