James Baldwin is one of the great novelists of all time. His literary genius was, and continues to be, a powerful inspiration in the fight against racism and homophobia, highlighting the impact that great art can have on society.
‘Sonny’s Blues’ is a key part of Baldwin’s canon, written at the height of his literary prowess, just one year before his masterpiece Giovanni’s Room. The story demonstrates many of the writing skills that Baldwin is known for, notably his ability to weave complex issues into beautifully simple stories that, at their heart, dive straight to the core of the human condition.
Click here to read the short story, before diving into this edition of Fetish.
Set in 1950s Harlem, ‘Sonny’s Blues’ is the story of the titular character – an enigmatic young jazz pianist recently released from prison for dealing and using heroin. The story is told through first-person, past-tense narrative, by his older, unnamed brother – a high-school algebra teacher.
The story begins with our narrator finding out about Sonny’s arrest in the newspaper, before quickly shifting to Sonny’s release, with the narrator taking him from prison to his family home. As a reader, we are given threads of memories – gossamers of the past that give us an idea as to the brothers’ upbringing, their relationship with one another – before we’re brought back to present day for the ending, a beautiful conclusion with the narrator watching his brother play jazz for the first time.
Given the genius of Baldwin’s writing, there are plenty of ways to approach this story from a literary device point of view. It’s that rich. We could, for instance, unpick the chronological order of the storytelling and how it reflects the majestic disorder of one of the story’s key themes, jazz. Or we could explore how Baldwin masterfully uses place and setting to support the powerful themes of racism and escape in the story.
Each of these would have been a fine approach – and we’ll surely cover similar devices in future articles – but for this installment, we’re going to focus on Baldwin’s use of character.
It seems like a strange question, but it’s worth asking ourselves, who is the main character of this story? Is it the first-person narrator, through whose eyes we see the world as Baldwin wants us to? Or is it Sonny, the central figure after whom the story is named?
From a literary point of view, it doesn’t really matter who we name as main and secondary characters. But it is an interesting choice made by Baldwin.
Despite the fact that we are introduced to Sonny and his story in the first line, it’s not until several pages in that we actually ‘meet’ him, so to speak. Before then, all accounts of the titular character are at least two times removed. For instance, we find out about his heroin involvement and subsequent incarceration from the narrator reading an article in the newspaper. Baldwin delivers some backstory into how Sonny first became involved in drugs as an adolescent via an encounter between the narrator and one of Sonny’s shady friends. And then finally we have a letter written by Sonny to his brother from prison.
Many writers wouldn’t leave the reader so far removed from, arguably, the story’s most important character. Indeed, a more conventional approach would be to have the story told from Sonny’s point of view from the off, either in first or third person.
So, why does Baldwin make the unconventional choice here? And what does it achieve compared to more traditional storytelling techniques?
Baldwin’s approach leaves plenty of room for imagination on the side of the reader. There’s time for us to build an idea as to what Sonny is like before he’s introduced to the present-day narrative. This creates intrigue on our part. Suspense. And given that Sonny remains enigmatic once he leaves prison, this suspense and intrigue dangle over the plot for the remainder of the story.
In this sense, it’s important to have the narrator as our guide, providing us with insight into the world of Sonny. Perhaps this is why Baldwin chose to leave him unnamed. He is somewhat anonymous. An insight that we can impose ourselves onto.
Other writers have used this device to great effect, too, including Baldwin himself in his masterpiece novel Giovanni’s Room. Published just one year before ‘Sonny’s Blues,’ the titular character from Giovanni’s Room is also mysterious, open to inspiration and largely ‘off-screen’ as the reader explores the world through the first-person narrator, David’s, eyes.
Just because our unnamed narrator serves as a lens into Sonny’s world, it doesn’t mean that that’s his only purpose. Far from it. Baldwin is more than capable of layering literary devices to achieve multiple aims.
The narrator of ‘Sonny’s Blues’ for instance, is fully fleshed out. He has his own routine, a family that we’re introduced to, his own way of speaking. He is, unto himself, not simply a literary device.
And the story is infinitely better as a result. Certainly one of the strongest tropes here is the brotherly relationship between the narrator and Sonny, in particular, the power dynamic at play.
Power dynamics between characters have always been a strong and important device in storytelling. Whether on the giving or receiving end of such a dynamic, it can tell us a lot about a character. It can create motives, inject drama and advance plot in an engaging manner. (Consider, as an example, the importance of power dynamic in the relationship between Lenny and George in Of Mice and Men, and the impact that has not just on the characters, but the whole book.)
In ‘Sonny’s Blues,’ the power dynamic is atypical. Up until Sonny’s return from prison, we might expect the narrator to hold the power, given Sonny’s circumstances and the fact that the narrator is the older brother, straight living with a family and steady job. However, we quickly find out that this is not the case. As the two brothers drive through New York together in a taxi, the narrator remembers how Sonny used to be ‘all hipped on the idea of going to India’, and that he didn’t understand the fascination:
He read books about people sitting on rocks, naked, in all kinds of weather, but mostly bad, naturally, and walking barefoot through hot coals and arriving at wisdom. I used to say that it sounded to me as though they were getting away from wisdom as fast as they could. I think he sort of looked down on me for that.
And just a couple of sentences later, when agreeing to take the long route so that Sonny might see the park from the taxi, the narrator’s inner monologue follows with, ‘I was afraid that I might sound as though I was humoring him.’
This is one of the first exchanges the reader sees between the two brothers, and it sets up a powerful dynamic that unfolds throughout the rest of the story. We later find out that during his last conversation with her, the narrator’s mother tells him:
You got to hold on to your brother … and don’t let him fall no matter what it looks like is happening to him and no matter how evil you gets with him.
As for Sonny, he doesn’t take advantage of the power he holds over his brother. In fact, it’s unclear if he’s even aware of it. Perhaps, if the story were told from his point of view instead, he might feel the less powerful one. But as it is written, the narrator’s constant unease around his brother drives him forward, setting up the powerful and beautiful ending in the jazz bar.
Anyone will tell you that a good story needs to have a strong protagonist and antagonist, two opposing forces who create drama for one another with their conflicting views and motivations. But when we consider this in regard to ‘Sonny’s Blues,’ we may ask ourselves, who is the protagonist and antagonist here?
We could consider the narrator as the protagonist and Sonny his antagonist. There is an argument to be made here: Sonny’s heroin addiction is a disruptive influence on the narrator’s life, one that he needs to overcome in order to live the life he wants to.
Or perhaps vise-versa. We could try to imagine Sonny as the protagonist, trying to explore themes around mysticism and jazz, and his square brother is impeding him from doing so.
However, neither of these really stand up to the depth of themes and characterisation at play in ‘Sonny’s Blues’. Besides, both of these possibilities are rather weak. They don’t provide either character with enough motivation to reflect the gravitas of the story as a whole.
I believe that the real antagonist in this story isn’t Sonny or the narrator. In fact, I don’t believe that it’s a person at all. Rather, it’s society.
You see, a strong antagonist doesn’t have to be another person. It can be the force of nature, which is the case in many post-apocalyptic stories. Think of protagonists struggling against nature in books. A great example is J.G. Ballard’s apocalyptic series of novels, where the human protagonists struggle to survive against an increasingly severe and hostile natural environment.
In the case of ‘Sonny’s Blues,’ the antagonist is society, and it’s a theme that runs throughout the story. It’s encapsulated by racism, punctuated here be the tragic story of the brothers’ uncle being brutally run down by a car full of white people; by the narrator’s inability to move on from the type of housing project he and Sonny grew up in; by Sonny’s desperation to get out of Harlem, by any means necessary.
If we view the story from this point of view, both brothers are protagonists, fighting back against a racist antagonist society, in different ways: the narrator by getting his head down, working hard; and Sonny, using drugs as escapism.
As is often the case with conflict in great works of literary fiction, there is no clear resolution. The two brothers don’t vanquish the evils of society. They don’t overcome their collective antagonist. ‘Sonny’s Blues’ is more subtle than that. Rather, we see the two brothers come together a little closer in the final scene, with the narrator being afforded a real view into Sonny’s world.
As always, let’s take a look at some of the key themes explored here by considering alternate angles to ‘Sonny’s Blues,’ different approaches that Baldwin may have chosen that would have significantly shifted the story.
As we’ve discussed, Baldwin’s choice to have a first-person narrator who isn’t the titular character, and also the one around whom the main drama gravitates, has a huge bearing on how the reader interacts with the story. So what if, instead, it was Sonny telling the story from his own first-person account? How might this impact the key themes of racism, society, jazz? And what about Sonny’s brother? How would he be portrayed from Sonny’s narrative?
We saw above how Sonny holds significant emotional power over his brother, but what if this was reversed? What if it was Sonny who was vying for his brother’s approval throughout the story? Perhaps the narrator is critical of Sonny or uninterested in him, and Sonny is constantly trying to make an impression on his older brother. How significantly would this change the telling of the story? Could we end up with the same ending? And if so, how would we get there?
It’s difficult to imagine this story where society doesn’t play an antagonistic role, but perhaps we could imagine an alternative version where Sonny also creates conflict with his brother, where he is the main antagonist and the narrator is the main protagonist. What might this look like? How would Sonny behave toward his brother? How would his brother react? And how would the story work toward a resolution?