“Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin is a story of Sonny, a young jazz musician, who is addicted to heroin and arrested for abusing and selling the drugs. He later returns to his childhood neighbors after he is released from prison. Even though drugs remain central to the story, it is also clear that family, music, and struggling in life is evident in the story. Sonny tries to escape reality through music but is tied to addiction. The narration is perceived as a remarkable piece of modern literature.
In “Sonny’s Blues,” Baldwin uses the nonfiction elements dynamic characterization and setting to paint a picture of the struggles and prejudices that black people have faced in America and to show the immense amount of pain, loss, and disappointment that he has experienced throughout his life. There are two extremely different characters in this story, and he explains them in great detail.
The narrator in “Sonny’s Blues” is the dynamic character.
This is evident as he undergoes noticeable changes from the start of the story to the end. The dynamic characterization is more apparent when he tries to understand his brother Sonny. This element has a positive impact in that the unnamed narrator tends to present a perspective for a clear understanding of the narrative and gives an alternative view to the life of his brother. At one point, he narrates how it could be challenging to mitigate challenges with addiction, yet the constant addiction to heroin for Sonny impacts the people around him.
“I didn’t want to believe that I’d ever see my brother going down, coming to nothing, all that light in his face gone out” (Baldwin 455). However, he also tries to prove how difficult it is for someone who isn’t a musician to understand the kinds of motivation for other prominent musicians. The narrator states that “He was a man by then, of course, but I wasn’t willing to see it … I didn’t like his friends, and his music seemed to be merely an excuse for the life he led. It sounded just that weird and disordered.” (Baldwin 469).
The setting of “Sonny’s Blues” is a smaller world within Harlem City during the early 1950s. It is evident that the world is revealed towards the end of the story when Sonny plays at a nightclub. This element plays an essential role in the narrative because the reason for Sonny’s involvement with drugs is to escape the feeling of getting captivated in his environment. Harlem City is a bleak area with various dangers that live just below the surface. For instance, the narrator states that “I wondered what he looked like now. He had been picked up, the evening before, in a raid on an apartment downtown, for peddling and using heroin” (Baldwin 455). Even so, the city has a life on its own. The setting is a menacing area where he could forget about being a drug addict and face his suffering. Sonny is loved by people and becomes a celebrity in the club. To the audience, the setting conveys a feeling of racism, drug and substance abuse, and impoverishment filling Harlem. Darkness filling the area can be described as some kind of racism that most African Americans have been running from. Within the city, they could understand that there was a larger group of an African American population concentrated within a single area that is close to being cast away. Harlem is then presented as they are where the white culture could dominate African Americans.
The nonfiction elements of dynamic characterization and setting are well presented in the narrative “Sonny’s Blues.” The unnamed narrator plays the role of Sonny’s brother and wants to protect his deviance from ordinary life by all means. He dislikes the way he is addicted to alcohol. He even opts to remain in the city while Sonny wanted to change his mind. The story is also set around Harlem City to present a feeling of a town covered with all criminal activities, including drug use, impoverishment, and dominance by the white. This is important to let the reader understand concepts such as racism and poverty.
Baldwin, James. Sonny’s blues. Ernst Klett Sprachen, 2009.