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In “Sonny’s Blues” theme, form, and image blend into perfect harmony just like a bebop jazz rift. The story tells of two black brothers’ struggle to understand one another. The older brother, a Harlem algebra teacher, is the unnamed narrator who represents every big brother; the younger man is Sonny, a jazz pianist who has just been arrested for selling and using heroin. In this story of a musician, four-time sequences mark four musical movements. Musical terms along with words like “hear” and “listen” give the title a double meaning.
This story about communication between people then reaches its climax when the narrator finally hears his brother’s sorrow in his music.
The first movement begins when the narrator learns of Sonny’s arrest by reading the newspaper. The shock of recognition forces the narrator to confront his refusal to accept the truths around him. For too long, he thinks, he had been “talking about algebra to a lot of boys who might, every one of them .
. . be popping off needles every time they went to the head.” Pp. 87-88) He completes his own first lesson in understanding and takes his first step towards Sonny when he begins to hear his own students. “ I listened to the boys outside . . . . Their laughter struck me for perhaps the first time. It was not the joyous laughter which . . . one associate with children. It was mocking and insular, it’s intended to denigrate. It was disenchanted, and in this, also, lay the authority of their curses.
Perhaps I was listening to them because I was thinking about my brother and in them, I heard my brother. And myself. One boy was whistling a tune, at once very complicated and very simple, it seemed to be pouring out of him as though he were a bird, and it sounded very cool and moving through that harsh, bright air, only just holding its own through all those other sounds. (Pp. 87-88)This last boy represents Sonny, the young man who makes himself heard and transcends the darkness with his song.
Then the narrator encounters Sonny’s old friend who has come to the school to bring the news. Conversation between the two is guarded and hostile until the narrator, although he has never liked his brother’s friend, begins to feel guilty for never having heard him before, “for never having supposed that the poor bastard had a story of his own, much less a sad one” (p. 89). Standing together outside a bar while a jukebox sounds from within, the friend confesses that he first described to Sonny the effects of heroin. Again, the narrator psycho logically retreats. The Narrator asks what the arrest means. “Listen,” he shouts. “They’ll let him out and then it’ll just start all over again. That’s what I mean” (p. 91). The two-part after the friend, pretending to have left all his money home, the narrator expected it and still gave it to him out of guilt.
The second movement opens with the narrator’s first letter to Sonny. Sonny’s answer, equating drug addiction with prison and both with Harlem, shows his need to reach his brother. Finally, the two men have begun to communicate with one another. The letters continue until Sonny’s return to New York when the narrator, who has started at last “to wonder about Sonny, about the life that Sonny lived inside” (p. 93), takes him home. The narrator is awkward here, wanting only to hear that Sonny is safe and refusing to accept the fact that he might not be. He is still unwilling to see Sonny on Sonny’s terms; like an overly anxious parent, he must make Sonny conform to his own concepts of respectability. The word “safe” is the note that takes us into the third movement, to time past when Sonny’s father claimed there was “no place safe” (p. 96).
In the flashbacks, the narrator recalls events that fuse past, present, and future. Parallels are drawn between the father and Sonny, between the Harlem of one generation and the Harlem of the other. Images of darkness mingle with those of sound. For each generation, however, the tragedy is new, for the older people are reluctant to inform the young ones of the condition of the Black race. The old folks who sit in the dark quit talking, because if the child “knows too much about what’s happened to them, he’ll know too much too soon about what’s going to happen to him” (p. 98). Thus, even in the past, the silence was preferable to expression. We learn also of another pair of brothers, Sonny’s father and uncle. The uncle, like Sonny, was a musician who was killed one night when some drunk white men ran him over in their car. The narrator’s mother tells her older son this story to make him look after his brother, but her death, occurring shortly after this conversation, only shows the immeasurable gulf between the two boys. The narrator, recently married, thinks he is taking care of Sonny by forcing him to live with his wife’s family, but Sonny, already on drugs though unable to admit it, could not want anything less. Their failure to communicate is at its peak.
When Sonny announces his ambition “to play jazz” (p. 103), the appalled narrator is totally unresponsive. The most he can promise is to buy Charlie Parker’s records, although Sonny insists, he doesn’t care what his brother listens to. Certainly, he doesn’t listen to Sonny, urging him only to be respectable and stay in school: “You only got another year. . . . Just try to put up with it till I come back. Will you please do that? For me?” He didn’t answer and he wouldn’t look at me. “Sonny, you hear me?” He pulled away. “I hear you. But you never hear anything I say.” (P. 106) The narrator, though he didn’t know what to say to that (p. 106), reminds Sonny of the piano at his in-laws, and Sonny gives in. Later we learn of Sonny’s obsession with the piano. Because he has no one to communicate with, the piano becomes his only source of expression: As soon as he came in . . . , until suppertime. And, after supper, he went back to that piano and stayed there until everybody went to bed. He was at the piano all day Saturday and all-day Sun-day. . . . Isabel finally confessed that it wasn’t like living with a person at all, it was like living with sound. And the sound didn’t make any sense to her, didn’t make any sense to any of them- naturally. . . . He moved in an atmosphere which wasn’t like theirs at all. . . . There wasn’t any way to reach him. . . . They dimly sensed, as I sensed, that Sonny was at that piano playing for his life. (P. 107) They succeed in reaching him, however, when they discover he has not been in school but in a white girl’s Greenwich Village apartment playing music. After that Sonny enlists. When he returns, a man, although the narrator “wasn’t willing to see it” (p. 108), the brothers fight, for to the narrator, Sonny’s “music seemed to be merely an excuse for the life he led. It sounded just that weird and disordered?? (p. 109).
At this point, they cut off all contact. The fourth movement begins by recapitulating and developing the first. “I read about Sonny’s troubles in the spring. Little Grace died in the fall” (p. 109). We move through time easily now, perceiving the connection between the narrator’s first letter to Sonny and his daughter’s death: “Ivy trouble made his real?? (p. 110). He has begun, finally, to sympathize, to understand. The last movement then begins its own theme, the new relationship between the brothers. A subtly presented but major change in this relationship occurs when they watch a street revival meeting: The revival was being carried on by three sisters in black, and a brother. All they had were their voices and their Bibles and a tambourine. . . . “This the old ship of Zion,” they sang Not a soul under file sound of their voices was hearing this song for the first time, not one of them had been rescued. . . . The woman with the tambourine, whose voice dominated the air, whose face was bright with joy, was divided by very little from the woman who stood watching her, a cigarette between her heavy, chapped lips, her hair a cuckoo’s nest, her face scarred and swollen from many beatings, and her black eyes glittering like coal. Perhaps they both knew this, which was why, when, as rarely, they addressed each other, they addressed each other as Sister. (Pp. 110-111) There is a greater brotherhood among people than mere kinship.
Moreover, the narrator realizes that their music saves them, for it ” seemed to soothe a poison out of them” (111). The narrator’s simultaneous recognition of the meaning of brotherhood and the power of music leads directly to Sonny’s invitation. He asks his brother to listen, that night, to his own music. That street song is a prelude to the brothers’ first honest talk and carries us to the finale. Sonny now tells his brother that the woman’s voice reminded him “of what heroin feels like”‘ (p. 113). This equation of music and drugs explains why one could be a positive alternative to the other. We better understand Sonny’s desperate commitment to the piano. Sonny is “doing his best to talk,” and the narrator knows he should “listen” (p. 114). He realizes the depth of Sonny’s suffering now and sees also his own part in it: “There stood between us, forever, beyond the power of time or forgiveness, the fact that I had held silence–so long!–when he had needed human speech to help him?? (p. 114). The narrator’s epiphany allows Sonny to continue, and he makes clear the connection between music and his own need to be heard: There’s not really a living ass to talk to, . . . and there’s no way of getting
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