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No story can be as touching as family relationships and reconciliation and when it comes to family, two of the most famous stories about brothers are Sonny’s Blues and Goodbye My Brother. Goodbye My Brother is said to be one of John Cheever’s greatest literary success while Sonny’s Blues garnered widespread critical claim for James Baldwin. It is interesting to note that by comparing and contrasting the two, there are a lot of striking lessons about what to do and what not to do when it comes to dealing with family relationships can be learned from these stories.
John Cheever’s Goodbye My Brother is a story that centers around the Pommeroy family. The family is composed of the widow mother, Mrs. Pommeroy, and her four children named Diana, Chaddy, Lawrence and the one narrating the story. All of the children are grown up and are all living their separate lives and this reunion in particular was a special one because they have not seen Lawrence in four years.
Diana is divorced and is living in France, Chaddy is a successful businessman who lives in New York, Lawrence the youngest is a lawyer and the narrator teaches the secondary school.
The Pommeroys can be considered as an upper class family who got together in Laud’s Head in New England for a family reunion at their old beach house. The narrator openly talked about the siblings general dislike for Lawrence and despite the efforts of their mother, he refused to reach out and be a part of their family.
This apparent tension between Lawrence and their mother has a history. Lawrence was only sixteen years old when he said said that Mother was overly strong, mischievous and destructive. He was in boarding school back then and he did not come home for Christmas, after which, he seldom comes home.
Everything seems to be going as expected until the unnamed narrator brother beats his brother Lawrence who seemed distance since the beginning of the story. (Cheever, p. 1-10). This melodramatic tale was one of the earliest stories written by Cheever who has been compared with Dante because he perceives God as a mystical being. As a writer he gives emphasis to the incandescence of the earth and it can be aptly observed that many paragraphs from his works hardly pass without him invoking the luminosity of the world. This mystical notion is the reason why many people think that Cheever does not pay attention on God.
Goodbye My Brother has a very unexpectedly strange ending. The story ends with Helen and Diane walking like naked goddesses out of the sea and as such, it is safe to say that the title is inconsistent with the ending (Wood, p. 1163). However, other commentators who read this story appreciated the powerful language used by Cheever in the ending. According to them, the ending illustrated the familiarity of the author with King James and Shakespeare (Boyle, p. 1). In general, the mastery of the author in incorporating symbolism through his work can be best appreciated in this ending.
It can be noticed that Cheever uses water as a main symbolic element that clearly demonstrates how the ebb and flow of the ocean waters can be related to men’s existence. The narrator described the family get together as warm and tender which is in clear contrast with the exasperation that Lawrence is feeling with his family. This story gives the readers an exercise of their point of view as they observe the striking contrast between the optimism and the pessimism of human nature in the personality of the two brothers, the sunny and prejudicial unnamed narrator and his saturnine youngest brother Lawrence.
On the other hand, Sonny’s Blues by James Baldwin is another masterpiece that the readers love to read about two brothers and since the story of Goodbye My Brother is also about brotherly relationships, most readers can find that a mixture of the two relationships can give them a glimpse of what it would be like if they were to cooperate with each other or let pride and hatred get in the way of family. Sonny’s Blues is a story of how two African American brothers react to the “blues” of each other and how they handle their inner conflicts.
The feelings experienced by the main characters is called “blues”, which is a mental and emotional state that arose from the recognition of the limitation imposed mostly in the case of African Americans by the racial barriers to the opportunities that they often encounter. The narrator, who makes his living as a school teacher and his brother who is a jazz pianist make their way into the world struggling to understand the other party (Flibbert, p. 32). The narrator’s first instinct was to believe the story in the newspaper. It said that his brother was arrested for dealing with heroin and for him, it was not very hard to believe.
He started feeling scared for Sonny and it is here that the narrator has started to relate the fear that he has lived with his whole life. Little did he know that this event will serve as a catalyst for their closeness. While still in shock, the narrator was forced to confront their past. When a friend of the narrator went to his school to bring his the news about Sonny, he said that he abruptly hated him. (Baldwin, p. 2). However, as the narrator continues to express his sentiments, he realizes that he feels a little bit guilty for not listening to him before.
The friend goes on to talk about the effects of heroine in the body and as the conversation goes on, a hidden care for his brother can be sensed from the narrator. He even sent a letter to Sonny and this correspondence continues until Sonny returned to New York. This story has several flashbacks that contribute to the readers’ comprehension of the history of the distance of the two brothers and how they both overcome that distance little by little. In the last scene of the story, the narrator found himself in a jazz club where his brother works and so he understood that this was indeed what Sonny’s world looks like.
This is where the two brothers were finally reunited by music as the narrator listens to his Sonny and his friends. The usual experience of suffering is one of the things that makes men relate to each other and by denying these feelings, the narrator has denied himself a place among his community and friends. This last scene illustrates how the narrator took one more step into discovering his brother and how through his own suffering and Sonny’s example, he found himself in the brotherhood and company of men (Murray p. 197).
The common theme of Goodbye My Brother and Sonny’s Blues is family relationships. What makes these story appealing and real is the amazing insight that John Cheever and James Baldwin have on familial relationships. These two authors were able to successfully explore the notion of identity and social context in the stories and the readers feel a more personal connection with the character because they were told from a first person’s point of view. James Baldwin’s Sonny’s Blues opens when the narrator found out through a newspaper that his brother was arrested for heroin dealing.
Interestingly, the two stories involve two brothers but in contrast, Sonny Blues talks about how the two brothers were able to understand each other and Goodbye My Brother talks about the misunderstanding and refusal to reach out between two brothers. The striking contrast can be seen at the ending of the two stories. Goodbye My Brother ends with the bathing of Helen and Dianne at sea. After the fight of the unnamed narrator and Lawrence, nothing was said about them making amends and things were left the way they were.
On the other hand, Sonny’s Blues ends very well. At first, the two brothers here were distant like the brothers in Goodbye My Brother but over time, they have come to understand each other. Starting from the moment of Sonny’s arrest, the two brothers are getting closer and closer and in the end of the story, Sonny declared the narrator as his brother for the very first time (Baldwin, p. 23). Unlike here in Sonny’s Blues, the brother in Goodbye My Brother both lack the willingness to reach out and make an effort to fix their relationship and understand each other.
Some critics mentioned that the ending of Goodbye My Brother displayed the author’s familiarity with the King James version and that of Shakespeare’s works (Boyle, p. 1). In the same way, Sonny’s Blues also depicts Baldwin’s biblical sense. These two stories both use symbolism which makes the story profoundly interesting to the readers. The narrator Baldwin’s story can be likened to the character of Cain. In Genesis, after Cain kills his brother Abel, God asks Cain about his brother and he answered by saying that he is not his brother’s keeper.
The final conversation between the narrator and his mother sends a message to the readers that their mother wants him, to be his brother’s keeper but the narrator failed in doing his duty and this failure was made clear in the opening lune of the story. The narrator’s act of relying on the newspaper to know the whereabouts of his brother is not a sign of keeping his promise to his mother that he will take care of Sonny. As a matter of fact, Sonny did not even phone him after the arrest was made and this only shows the distance between them in the start of the story (Tackach, p.
4). Lastly, both stories carry a social message that many people today will find applicable. In Goodbye My Brother, the refusal of the brothers to fix their broken relationship was the primary factor that led to the violent ending of their relationship and as the title implies, the brothers are ready to cut their bond to each other while in contrast, it is the willingness of Sonny and his brother that led to the harmonious reconciliation of their relationship.
Happy ending or not, many people learned what life is like for those who harden their hearts and for those who open them for it is in the shared intensity of suffering that darkness is pierced and a new ray of hope is born. Works Cited Baldwin, James. Sonny’s Blues in Vintage Baldwin. New York: Vintage. 2004. Print. Boyle, T. “On Learning to Appreciate John Cheever’s Stories”. NPR. org. NPR. 2006. Web. 2010. <http://www. npr. org/templates/story/story. php? storyId=5652619>. Cheever, John. The Stories of John Cheever. New York: Random House, Inc.
1978. Print. Flibbert, Joseph. Sonny’s Blues: Overview in Reference Guide to Short Fiction. US: St. James Press. 1994. Print. Murray, Donald. James Baldwin’s Sonny’s Blues:Complicated and Simple. NY: Newberry College. 1977. Print. Tackach, James. “Biblical Foundation of James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”. BNET. 2007. Web. 20 May 2010. <http://findarticles. com/p/articles/mi_qa3777/is_200701/ai_n19197653/pg_4/> Wood, Ralph. The Modest and Charitable Humanism of John Cheever. Christian Century. USA: Christian Century Foundation. 1982. Print.
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