ENGL 155 Brookdale Community College Sonny Blues by James Baldwin Questions

Let’s review the plot of “Sonny’s Blues” and address some questions:

1. “Sonny’s Blues” is narrated in the first-person by an unnamed character, Sonny’s brother. An algebra teacher in a high school in Harlem, this narrator is a stable family man with a wife and two sons. He is seven years older than Sonny and has tried, at various times during their lives, to parent him and to protect him. The story opens as the narrator, who has been estranged from Sonny for over a year, is on the subway, reading about a drug raid in which Sonny has been arrested and jailed. As guilt and sorrow wash over him, the narrator is approached by one of Sonny’s childhood friends, an addict who blames himself for Sonny’s addiction and subsequent arrest. The narrator and the friend discuss what has happened to Sonny, and we see the narrator begin, with anger, to try to understand how and why Sonny has become an addict. Reread the exchange between the narrator and Sonny’s friend. How would you characterize the narrator’s behavior and feelings towards Sonny’s friend? Is the narrator kind, cruel, compassionate, abrupt, empathic, angry? Explain your view and the evidence supporting it.

2. The narrator doesn’t contact Sonny while he is in prison/rehab until his own daughter, Gracie, dies of polio (Links to an external site.). When the narrator does finally contact Sonny, Sonny responds immediately, asking for forgiveness, trying to explain how and why he developed his heroin (Links to an external site.) addiction, and expressing his uncertainty over what will happen to him when he is released from prison. When Sonny is released from prison, the narrator brings him back to live with his family in Harlem and begins trying to repair their relationship. In your own dictionary (preferable), or via this link, review the theological or religious meaning of the word “grace (Links to an external site.)” (It has to do with the mercy and protection of God that is granted true believers). Now consider why Baldwin named the narrator’s doomed child “Gracie.” What might Baldwin be saying about religion in the lives of his characters? Is Sonny religious? Is the narrator?

3. At this point in the story, the narrator flashes back to several scenes that occurred during their young adulthood. In one scene, their mother asks the narrator to take care of Sonny and to watch out for him when she dies. She tells him that his own father had had a brother who was very much like Sonny, but who was killed by drunken whites on a rural road in the South. In a second flashback, the narrator tells us that following his mother’s funeral, the narrator arranges for the teen aged Sonny to live with his fiancée Isabel’s family while he is at war. In a third flashback, Sonny clashes with Isabel’s middle-class family, who don’t understand his passion for music, his desire to “hang out” downtown with other musicians (both white and black) or his rejection of Isabel’s family’s values and lifestyle. He runs away and joins the Navy, goes to Greece and returns to live a Bohemian (Links to an external site.) lifestyle in New York’s Greenwich Village. Presumably, he struggles there as a musician and a heroin addict, maintaining a fragile and intermittent relationship with his brother until he is picked up the final time on drug charges. Following these flashback scenes, we see the brothers trying to repair their relationship, threatened still by Sonny’s addiction, which is under control but hovering in the wings, and by the narrator’s continuing mistrust and misunderstanding of Sonny’s commitment to his music. As the narrator slowly comes closer to understanding Sonny, Sonny invites him to a nightclub in Greenwich Village, where he is able to witness Sonny in his element, playing the music that helps him remain whole and stay sane. Here, at the end of the story, the narrator finally begins to understand Sonny’s struggle and how music helps him, and his audience, endure and perhaps triumph over it. Consider the ways that the narrator’s relationship with Sonny might be similar to that of their father with his murdered brother. In what ways is Sonny like his uncle? How is the narrator’s temperament like his father’s? Do they share any coping strategies?
4. The narrator describes Sonny as “wild,” but not “crazy.” He says Sonny had “always been a good boy, he hadn’t ever turned hard or evil or disrespectful, the way kids can, so quick, so quick, especially in Harlem”. He compares Sonny to his students: dreamy, disenchanted, and obedient, but struggling against the hopelessness their impoverished lives promise.

Sonny’s one hope is that he can become a musician. Discouraged from that goal by his practical minded brother, Sonny agrees to finish high school living with Isabel’s family, only because the family has a piano. But he cannot change who he is to satisfy their expectations. At some level, the narrator writes, all of the adults understood that “Sonny was at that piano playing for his life” What does this quotation mean to you? How is Sonny “playing for his life?”
5. When the narrator is in the final moments of the story, and he’s watching Sonny play, he states, “…what the blues were all about. They were not about anything very new. He and his boys up there were keeping it new, at the risk of ruin, destruction, madness, and death, in order to find new ways to make us listen. For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.” Do you agree? What tale of suffering is the narrator referring to , and must it always be heard?

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