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Harlem Life Expressed in “Sonny's Blues”

Paper type: Essay
Pages: 4 (797 words)
Categories: Book Review, Jazz Music, Short Story
Downloads: 40
Views: 1

James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” takes place in Harlem, New York City, and begins with an unnamed narrator reading a newspaper article about how his younger brother, Sonny, has been arrested for using and selling heroin. The narrator does not write to Sonny until his daughter, Grace, falls ill and passes away. They remain in contact after this, and when Sonny is released his brother takes him into his family’s home. The narrator has some flashbacks of a story his mother told him and Sonny dropping out of school to be a jazz musician.

In the final part of the story, the narrator attends one of Sonny’s performances and finally understands his brother’s love for playing jazz music. Throughout the story, suffering is an ever-present theme. Suffering often shows itself in horrible ways but, it also can be transformed into something beautiful like music. This essay will discuss how the devices of narration and setting portray the theme of suffering and music in this short story.

The setting of 1950s Harlem plays a significant role in the suffering of Sonny.

Harlem was a poverty-stricken neighborhood with high amounts of drug use and crime. It was not exactly a pleasant place. Sonny’s brother describes Lenox Avenue saying, “..I’d known this avenue all my life, but it seemed to me again, as it had seemed on the day I’d first heard about Sonny’s trouble, filled with a hidden menace which was its very breath of life” (Baldwin 74). It seems as though the setting, by nature, is a menacing place. Lenox Avenue breathes danger and hostility. The narrator thinks Harlem is one of the reasons his brother got addicted to drugs and fears bringing him back to this very place. The cycle could just start all over again as the narrator and a friend of Sonny’s discussed earlier in the story. This quote depicts the harsh reality of suffering in Harlem. Just being in the neighborhood makes you prone to its dangers of drug abuse.

Sonny doesn’t even want to live in Harlem. Sonny tells his brother his desire to escape in one of the flashbacks. Sonny knows Harlem is full of suffering people and he wants to get away from it all but, he ends up coming back and becoming a drug addict. If the setting did not take place in Harlem, it is possible Sonny would have never been prone to drug abuse in the first place. Harlem is also known for its jazz clubs. The piano is one of the things Sonny uses to express his pain and to transform that pain into a beautiful piece of music. Sonny’s brother finally understands why music is so important as he listens to his brother perform saying, “Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did” (Baldwin 240). Sonny is able to tell the story of his pain through music. He gets to beautifully just let it all out. Harlem is full of suffering but, it is also full of music where the story of an individual’s suffering can be told. Harlem’s history of suffering and music are vital to understanding the theme. Sonny’s brother narrates in the first-person point of view providing a reliable and clear narration that gets the theme across.

If the story had been told from Sonny’s perspective, it may have not been as clear. After all, he was dealing with heroin addiction throughout much of the story so the reliability of his memories for certain events could be questionable and his story might not have been as clear. His brother provides a clear and reliable narration. The first-person narration also allows the reader to relate and feel more a part of the story. It creates a sense of intimacy with the story. After Sonny’s brother tells the story of how Grace died, he says, “Isabel will sometimes wake me up with a low, moaning, strangling sound and I have to be quick to awaken her and hold her to me and where Isabel is weeping against me seems a mortal wound.” (Baldwin 230).

The first-person narration enables the reader to understand the narrator more than if it was told from another point of view. It allows the reader to be in the shoes of Sonny’s Suffering and music are major themes in James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”. Sonny goes through a lot of suffering but, he is able to transform that suffering into a beautiful piece of music. He lets out every bit of anger and grief and tells his story through playing the piano. The reader is able to understand this theme through the use of first-person narration and the setting of Harlem.

Cite this essay

Harlem Life Expressed in “Sonny’s Blues”. (2020, Sep 13). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/harlem-life-expressed-in-sonnys-blues-essay

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