Comparing Themes in Sonny's Blues And Recitatif

Categories: Short Story

Short stories have a way of teaching readers the intricacies of the society, its populace, and history in general. Two such short stories include Sonny's Blues by James Baldwin and Recitatif by Toni Morrison goes on to explain the themes of racial bias, suffering, and redemption as themes that drive the plot of both stories. Morrison's story is written during the Civil Rights Movement hence amply sheds light on the delicate concept of racism at this time in the history of Americans.

This essay, comprising a literary analysis will analyze the three common themes in both stories.

Suffering is an overt, yet dark them in the short story Sonny's blue. For one, the narrator loses her daughter which impacts on her much grief and suffering as she mourns her death. Death cases are suffering for those left behind as they spend days in a struggle to accept the reality that their loved one will never be around them. Another suffering can be seen as the narrator's uncle is killed in cold blooded murder.

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Suffering is depicted as inevitable, yet relevant to the story as Sonny says, “listening to that woman sing, it struck me all of a sudden, how much suffering she must have gone through-to sing like that.” Sonny's comments carry so much weight in suffering with it that translates to her compassion with others. His suffering transforms him into a compassionate individual with shreds of care to her once alienated brother. Suffering in this context brews in her a strong individual with the capability of concern for others.

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While characters in this short story suffer directly as the story would put it, Morrison's Recitatif explores the suffering many African Americans had to endure as part of a marginalized and disenfranchised group during the 20th century when rights were unequal and only reserved to their white counterparts. Twyla asserts that “I was feeling proud because she looked so beautiful even in those ugly green slacks that made her behind stick out.”

Maggie and Twyla's relationships to their mothers can be associated with the way they have largely detached themselves from a very positive environment or any sort of longstanding relationship. Also in a world where they have been ostracized, there is something about their movement that makes it inappropriate which also translates to a form of extreme opinion in the history of the United States. For instance, black people have suffered to free themselves from the stereotypes surrounding their race individuals who very often will not prioritize work. While racial prejudice as a theme cannot be pinpointed out directly in Sonny's blues, its negative undercurrent can be felt continuously with the characters and the events that unfold throughout the story. For one Baldwin is quick to connote to the housing projects as “rocks in a boiling sea." This refers to the pervasive segregation of houses from the federal government policies. The after effect is racism which has divided a community apart.

The issue of racial discrimination is echoed as Sonny feels, on behalf of the African American Student's the discrimination that they face for being people of color in a society where the white man has been heralded as the superior of races. The racial discrimination convolutes into suffering that the African Americans have to endure for being a people of different ethnic background. In the 17thcentury, American schools were divided for white people and their black counterparts. The former had better learning resources under the premise that they were superior while the latter had to school with limited resources and in unfit environments. This racial prejudice ensured that white children received the best education, student loans and even got better jobs compared to their struggling counterparts. Sonny's blues narrates the story of a people living in suffering, anger, alienation which, many of them only hope to be remedied from. Any one person facing the challenges that the characters face in the short story would certainly wish for full redemption from the hurdles, and hard knocks of the life bombard to them. At first, the narrator is depicted lost, disconnected and ensconced from family and the society in general. But when his beloved daughter dies, it takes a modicum of grace for him to understand his brother's struggles. As he grieves the loss of his daughter, he decides to contact his brother which can be seen as, although subtle and gradual, as a sign of the road to redemption. This redemption continues until the Sonny gets out of jail and is eventually reunited with his brothers and the narrator. When he finally lends an ear to listen to his sibling play, he understands his heritage which later grants him inner redemption.

Along similar lines, Morrison's work focuses on the issue of race, its identity and impact on the community in general. Questionable enough, the three main characters race is always kept deliberately covert. As a reader, one would quickly notice that one of the Twyla and Roberta characters take a white identity as the other takes a black identity. However, which takes which remains bleak as the characters themselves. Maggie can only be described as “Sandy Colored" making Roberta presume that she is black while Twyla remains uncertain. With her ethnic identity withheld and labeled mysterious, this goes to aptly show how race in the American society takes a social construction which is arbitrary. It further goes to shed light on the issue of American racism which is often a concept, most often than not, conceived through the people's mind. The fact that both characters are intrigued and bothered by Maggie's ethnic origin makes one wonder how and why someone's skin color is important. Perhaps so that people can know how to deal or work with her if she's either white or black?

Both short stories narrate the stories of characters who are either freeing themselves from the bondage of historical chains or either experiencing the ugliness that comes with living in a judgmental if not racial society. Morrison depicts the story of characters in bleak relationships with their parents and peers as a result of historical interwoven societal issues like racism and discrimination. Baldwin, on the other hand, shows characters who apart from experiencing racist remarks have to endure the troubles of suffering brought into their lives in the form of drug addiction or even death of a loved doing. And although the two tell different stories, both shed a positive light on what society could have been, and what it has become in its odyssey of fighting inequality and suffering.

Works cited

  1. Baldwin, J. (1957). Sonny's Blues. Partisan Review, 24(2), 181-191.
  2. Baldwin, J. (2013). Sonny's Blues. In J. Baldwin, Going to Meet the Man (pp. 45-80). Vintage International.
  3. Gates, H. L. (Ed.). (1997). Toni Morrison: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. Amistad Press.
  4. Morrison, T. (1983). Recitatif. In T. Morrison, Confirmation: An Anthology of African American Women (pp. 9-21). Random House.
  5. Morrison, T. (1998). Recitatif. In T. Morrison, Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality (pp. 1-8). Pantheon.
  6. Newell, S. (2000). Toni Morrison's 'Recitatif': Reframing the Debate about Colorblindness. African American Review, 34(4), 623-636.
  7. Payne, D. (2012). James Baldwin's 'Sonny's Blues': Complicated and Simple. The Explicator, 70(4), 285-289.
  8. Reilly, J. (2011). Understanding 'Sonny's Blues'. Studies in Short Fiction, 48(2), 125-135.
  9. Rust, R. (1998). The Double-Edged Blues of Sonny's Music. In B. Shaw (Ed.), The James Baldwin Review (pp. 161-176). AMS Press.
  10. Schiller, N. (1994). Something Like Redemption: Philosophy and Meaning in 'Sonny's Blues'. South Atlantic Review, 59(1), 63-79.
Updated: Feb 02, 2024
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Comparing Themes in Sonny's Blues And Recitatif. (2024, Feb 11). Retrieved from

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