Discussing “Sonny’s Blues”

Use the comment section for this post to engage in a discussion of James Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues.”

To see your requirements and parameters for our discussion, see our Reading/Discussing Short Stories guidelines. Strive for a vigorous exchange, including debating differing interpretations, but always strive for mutual recognition of each other, working toward enhancing our collective understanding of the story.

Watch your period’s group presentation on the story and see the DQs below, if you are looking for inspiration.

period 1
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  • A lot of the story takes place with characters on the move, whether this is on the subway, in a taxi, world travel, or walking the streets. What could this constant motion symbolize?
  • Do you think the narrator sees potential in the boys he teaches or only sees their potentially rough futures?
  • After leaving work, the narrator runs into one of Sonny’s old friends. What do you think this interaction symbolizes?
  • There are short references to music scattered throughout the story, what do these inclusions add to the meaning of the story?
  • Do you think that the narrator truly cares for his brother’s well being or is only in his life because of a moral family obligation?

period 2
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  • How does the narrator deal with his suffering?
  • Will Sonny relapse and start using drugs again?
  • If everyone suffers and deals with their suffering individually, then is all expression an expression of suffering?
  • Why do those who grew up in darkness and suffer because of it raise their children in the same darkness?
  • How does Sonny and the narrator’s fraternal relationship affect their interactions and issues?

period 3
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  • What do you think caused Sonny to start using drugs?
  • What does the music being played symbolize at the end of the story?
  • How does Grace dying have an impact on Sonny and the rest of the story?
  • Do you think the story would be different if told from a different perspective?
  • What is the correlation between the drink Sonny receives at the end of the story and his life?

21 thoughts on “Discussing “Sonny’s Blues”

  1. Molly H

    The death of the narrator’s daughter, Grace, had a huge impact on the story. The event was very sad, but led to the connection of the two brothers. The tragic event results in Sonny writing a long letter to the narrator. He tries to explain how he ended up where he is. After Sonny’s letter, the brothers stay in constant communication. When Sonny gets out of jail, the narrator is there to take him home. I think that a theme in this story is connection within family, because even through a tragic event, the brothers become closer to one another.

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  2. Molly H

    The drink that Sonny receives at the end of the story, in my opinion, brings the story full circle. Although Sonny hasn’t given up drinking, he is in a better place due to help from his brother and their family. The text states, “He didn’t seem to notice it, but just before they started playing again, he sipped from it and looked toward me, and nodded. Then he put it back on top of the piano.” Sonny has had a hard time due to drug use, and he is still drinking. However, with his brother to help him, he shows the world his true talent which is playing piano. The brothers are better off because they have connected more and are there for each other.

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  3. HANNAH R

    When the narrator’s daughter, Grace, dies, a number of events follow. Its in the spring when the narrator first hears that Sonny has been arrested. Then the narrator is confronted by Sonny’s old friend and they converse about Sonny’s new predicament. The friend is unable to convince the narrator to do something about Sonny. The narrator instead ignores Sonny and only entertains the idea of writing to his brother. The narrator continues to ignore Sonny until his daughter dies in the fall. Grace has died from polio and Isabel was there to witness her daughter’s death. When the day of Gracie’s funeral arrives, the narrator finally wrote to Sonny. Gracie’s death helps the narrator realize that death is inevitable. The narrator has known that Sonny is in a dark situation and his drug abuse is killing him. It made the narrator realize that he didn’t get the chance to save Grace, but he can help Sonny live, who still has a chance. Her death sparked the narrator’s reconnection with Sonny and helped the narrator act like an older brother for once. Her death allowed Sonny to get better and return to his music. If she had not died, the narrator may have never written to Sonny, and Sonny would never have gotten better.

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  4. Abby S.

    After the narrator’s mother asks him to watch over Sonny, the narrator feels an obligation to look out for his brother. This causes issues with their relationship because Sonny starts to feel like his brother doesn’t understand him and the narrator thinks he can’t handle responsibility. After failing to reach out to Sonny when he was in prison, and losing his daughter, the narrator starts to realize the importance of family connection and being there for his brother. He starts to see him not as a person to watch over, but as a person with the gift of playing music. In the scene where the narrator is watching Sonny play the blues, he really gets to sit back and listen to his brother (something he hadn’t done before). He also sees the connection between Harlem and the music that is played there. Even though it is plagued with drugs and poverty, the community still comes together to bring each other up, and the narrator sees the part his brother plays in that.

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  5. Abby S.

    In regards to period 1’s question, I think the narrator only sees the potentially rough futures of the students he teaches in the beginning of the story. “All they really knew were two darknesses, the darkness of their lives, which was now closing in on them, and the darkness of the movies, which had blinded them to that other darkness…”(73) He sees his students as similar to him and his brother growing up, and the fact that his brother was in prison for drugs, indicates that the darkness and suffering continues as they grow up. He sees it as a repeated cycle that people can’t seem to get out of. I think though, as the story continues, and the narrator watches Sonny playing the blues, he thinks there could be some light in his student’s futures and they have to continue holding each other up.

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  6. cassie m

    Though James Baldwin leaves it up to the reader’s interpretation of whether Sonny relapses at the end of the story or not, I personally believe that he doesn’t, or at least he works to become better. Baldwin ends his story with Sonny is playing jazz in a bar with his brother watching, leaving an optimistic look on Sonny’s future as this final scene represents the gradual improvement of the relationship between the two brothers and Sonny’s dream of being a musician coming back. Earlier in the story, as the narrator recounts the time Sonny spent living with Isabel’s family, we learn that Sonny played piano constantly. Isabel confesses, “[Living with Sonny] wasn’t like living with a person at all, it was like living with sound” (81). The narrator also describes Sonny as “All wrapped up in some cloud, some fire, some vision all his own; and there wasn’t any way to reach him” (81). These quotations allude to the fact that music is Sonny’s dream. It’s what he wants to do with his life. It’s his whole world. However, after Isabel’s mother discovers that Sonny hadn’t been attending school but rather had been going to Greenwich Village with other musicians, she becomes furious with him. The narrator explains that Isabel’s mother, “Could tell, by watching him, what was happening with him. And what happening was that they penetrated his cloud. They had reached him” (82). Then, Sonny stopped playing: “The silence of the next few days must have been louder than the sound of all the music ever played since time began” (82). After Isabel’s mother’s anger and his arrest for heroin possession, Sonny doesn’t play piano for a long time. Finally, when he is released and returns to live with his brother and Isabel, Sonny invites his brother to a bar to watch him play. The narrator, Sonny’s brother explains, “I had never before thought of how awful the relationship must be between the musician and his instrument. He has to fill it, this instrument, with the breath of life, his own” (87). Though playing an instrument is a fairly common activity, the narrator’s depiction of breathing life into the instrument gives the scene the same aura of fantasy as the clouds that previously surrounded Sonny. Living with Sonny was also previously described as living with sound, thus alluding to the deep connection between the musician and the instrument that is revealed here. In addition, the narrator’s reflection on Sonny as well as his willingness to come to the bar to watch him perform exemplifies the improving relationship between the two of them. Finally, the story ends with Sonny playing as the pain and suffering seep from his face: “There’s no battle in his face now” (87). Thus, the story ends with an air of optimism as Sonny is slowly regaining his dream of becoming a musician as well as rekindling the lost relationship with his brother. This optimism alludes to the idea that though it will be hard, Sonny will fight to stay sober in order to retain his dreams and his brother.

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  7. Isabel K

    I don’t believe that the narrator sees the potential in the boys that he teaches. In fact, he admits that he thinks “maybe [heroin] did more for them than algebra could”(18). Although he seems to be hopeful that he is making a change in their lives, he is doubtful of his impact. When he and Sonny drive past their old neighborhood, the way he reminisces makes it clear that he doesn’t truly believe that this potential exists. As they pass the houses that look just like “the houses of our past”, he notes that inside are “boys exactly like the boys we once had been”(24). And then he says that “some escaped the trap, most didn’t. Those who got out always left something of themselves behind”(24). He sees himself as someone who has escaped, yet he himself feels like he has left something behind. If he can hardly see the potential in himself, I strongly doubt that he can see the potential in the children that he teaches.

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  8. Isabel K

    A fascinating characteristic of the piece is the way in which the story moves through time. Instead of being told in a linear fashion, Baldwin toys with the format and jumps from one point in time to another. The story begins with Sonny’s arrest and ends with Sonny and the narrator reconnecting after he served his time. However, the middle of the story is composed mainly of flashbacks. These anecdotes each provide context for the relationship between Sonny and the narrator. For instance, one flashback reveals a conversation between the narrator and his mother in which she asks him to watch out for Sonny. She tells the narrator the story of his father’s brother, who died due to a hate crime. She says, “your Daddy never did really get right again”(29). The narrator promises that he will be there for Sonny, a promise that he makes good on when Sonny returns to New York. These flashbacks allow the reader to more intimately understand the complex relationship that these two brothers have.

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  9. CAIT O.

    I saw this story as a commentary on a greater philosophical concept, how any event, random or not, ripples into other events with long lasting effects. When the narrator’s daughter, Grace, dies, this is followed by a plethora of events that would have never happened otherwise. If Gracie had never died, Sonny would have never gotten better. It makes you think, what would have happened if I left the house five minutes earlier that day? or if I missed that flight? With a global pandemic happening in our own world right now, my perspective on this one concept has grown. There are many opportunities that I missed and many that I gained from being quarantined for eight months. I would have done a great deal of travel by now, expanding my view on the world and gaining the amazing experiences that travel brings. I wouldn’t be in Boston right now at the airport writing this blog post, instead I would have stayed home for a football game or cheer practice. I wouldn’t have explored new cooking styles and learned how to make my favorite rice pudding. Instead, I would have been stressed about taking my ACT and passing my AP exams. I could go on and on. There are countless events in my life that would have never been if the pandemic never happened and it was fascinating to see a fictional account of this concept being told.

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  10. CAIT O.

    In response to period 1’s question, I do not think the narrator sees potential in his students. Even tough he wishes to make a greater change, he seems suspicious of his own impact on the boys. “And here I was, talking about algebra to a lot of boys, who might, every one of them for all I knew, be popping off needles every time they went to the head” (Baldwin, 18). The narrator knows that his presence in their lives is not substantial enough to create a safe environment in which these boys can find healthier coping mechanisms.

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  11. MCKALE T

    Do you think the narrator sees potential in the boys he teaches or only sees their potentially rough futures?

    I think that the narrator has a similar relationship to the students as he does with his brother. He sees their potential but he also sees their circumstances. He is worried about where they are and what their exposed to and how it is affecting them and how they are seen by others. He knows because he was in their position how many factors are working against them, and how common his brother’s story with drug use is within their community.

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  12. MCKALE T

    If everyone suffers and deals with their suffering individually, then is all expression an expression of suffering?

    I think that suffering is inevitable and completely connected with humanity. I don’t think there is a human who doesn’t suffer in some way, so I think that all expression has suffering connected to it, but not all expression is a coping mechanism for someone’s struggles. For Sonny, music is a direct coping mechanism, but at some point, it was also a source of conflict and pain for him and he turned to drugs. I think that for a lot of people the projects that they put their time into are a result of their suffering, for example, the narrator teaches children that are from a neighborhood just like the one he grew up in. The reader may interpret that as his way of dealing with the struggles he confronted growing up.

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  13. VIVIAN S

    In “Sonny’s Blues”, the narrator has a relatively strong relationship with his brother, Sonny, until the narrator returns home after the passing of his mother. The narrator and Sonny move away from mutual recognition and the narrator feels the need to become the new parental figure. Their relationship becomes strained and they become distant after multiple arguments. Sonny as a result leans on drugs as a relief from the disapproval of his brother and Isabel. After a year apart, he starts to feel guilty for not upholding the promise he had given to his mother before her passing, “‘You got to hold on to your brother,’ she said, ‘and don’t let him fall, no matter what it looks like is happening to him and no matter how evil you gets with him” (79). After sending notes to each other while Sonny is in rehab they are able to rekindle their relationship. The narrator takes Sonny under his wing and they’re both able to be open with each other. In regards to the question, “Will Sonny relapse and start using drugs again?”, the answer is no. Now that the narrator and Sonny’s relationship is much stronger than it was previously, Sonny will not relapse. Towards the end, the narrator states, “He didn’t seem to notice it, but just before they started playing again, he sipped from it and looked toward me, and nodded” (88). The narrator finally understands the passion Sonny has for playing the piano and being up on stage. If the narrator had chosen to not write to his brother, I believe Sonny would have relapsed.

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  14. SYDNEY R

    The question from period 2 asked, “Will Sonny relapse and start using drugs again?” My reaponse to that is no. I say no because at the end of the story him and his brother tend to set aside their differences which to me gave him another reason not to go back to drugs. Sonny then starts to pursue his love of playing his piano. This helps me believe that there is hope for Sonny to stay away from drugs. He lets him express himself when he is playing music, unlike when he was using drugs an was so independent and secretive. On page 87, it states, “Then they all gathered around Sonny and Sonny played. Every now and again one of them seemed today, amen. Sonny’s fingers filled the air with life, his life. But that life contained so many others.” This quote explains how greatful Sonny was of his life or life in general. The fact that he was relizing what the air felt like makes you interested in what life could be with, without drugs. Overall, Sonny will not relapse in drugs again due to his relization how how freat life was when you are doing something somone loves (piano).

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  15. SYDNEY R

    The question from period 3 it asks “What do you think caused Sonny to start using drugs?” This is a little easier to understand then normal due to the way that Sony talks about music in the future. I feel as if their was an internal reason. Sonny felt very quiet, lonely, and secretive. Sonny felt alone and did not want to tell anyone, meaning she resulted to not asking others for help. On page 84 of the story it states, “‘When she was singing before,” said Sonny, abruptly, “her voice reminded me for a minute of what heroin feels like sometimes—when it’s in your veins. It makes you feel sort of warm and cool at the same time. And distant. and—and sure.” he sipped his beer, very deliberately not looking at me. I watched his face. “It makes you feel—in control. Sometimes you’ve got to have that feeling.'” This quote shows how how Sonny was interested in using drugs because of how lonely he felt. He never let hjs feelings out, building them and putting her down. Later in the story when she starts thriving when taking piano, but in a different place. Overall, the reason why Sonny started using drugs is because of how said he was.

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  16. NAKAYLA M

    I thought “Sonny’s Blues” started off interesting. The writer had the reader dive straight into the story with very little context. “Sonny’s Blues” started off like “I read about it in the paper, in the subway, on my way to work…I was scared for Sonny”(72). I had so many questions when I was reading just the first page of the story. I of course know who Sonny is now but who the character is did not become super clear to me until page 73. Also in the beginning of the story, the reader can tell that Sonny and his brother are not close. Sonny’s brother does not know much about his brother’s situation until he looked into the newspaper. His brother was even asking Sonny’s friend what would happen/ what he thinks will happen to his own brother.

    I think Sonny started doing drugs because he never was able to talk/ express his feelings correctly. His brother even stated that ” It doesn’t do any good to fight with Sonny. Sonny just moves back, inside himself, where he can’t be reached”(77). To me, it seems like he had internal issues that he never was able to make peace with so drugs were his next best option.

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  17. Devin S.

    There are short references to music scattered throughout the story, what do these inclusions add to the meaning of the story?

    I think these references throughout the story serve to foreshadow the important role that music will play. At the end of the story, the narrator spends several pages describing the transformative nature of Sonny’s blues performance and the way it speaks to the difficulty of the human experience. Because of the way that references to music have been scattered in earlier parts of the story, this scene seems a natural progression of an ongoing theme about the power of music, not just a stand-alone anecdote, which makes the moment feel more significant to the reader. I also think that the references to music show a connection between Sonny and his brother that isn’t always evident in their conversations and interactions. While the narrator sometimes acts as if music is a waste of time, as shown by his negative reaction to Sonny wanting to be a musician on page 79, music underscores emotional moments in the narrator’s life as well. For example, when the brothers get into a fight at Sonny’s apartment, the narrator leaves “whistling to keep from crying…’You going to need me, baby, one of these cold, rainy days'” (82). Music being important to both characters in times of difficulty shows that they have more in common than they sometimes think.

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  18. Devin S.

    After leaving work, the narrator runs into one of Sonny’s old friends. What do you think this interaction symbolizes?

    This is an interesting question, I hadn’t considered the symbolism of this meeting. It could be representative of Sonny’s presence reappearing in the narrator’s life after a long period of separation. Sonny’s friend making an unpleasant and unsettling appearance parallels the narrator’s attitude towards his brother: his situation is something he’d rather not have to think about and deal with. The narrator’s reaction to running into this old friend is very strong– “abruptly, I hated him…I wanted to ask him what the hell he was doing in the school courtyard” (73)– which indicates the more serious, personal issues at play.

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  19. Hayden Smeaton

    The main question I want to respond to is “A lot of the story takes place with characters on the move, whether this is on the subway, in a taxi, world travel, or walking the streets. What could this constant motion symbolize?” since I think this idea in the book is very prevalent in our society today. The world and everything in it are always going to be doing something whether we are there to experience it or not. The narrator expresses displays their knowledge of this idea, “He hopes that the hand which strokes his forehead will never stop- will never die. He hopes that there will never come a time when the old folks won’t be sitting around the living room…And when the light fills the room, the child is filled with darkness. He knows that every time this happens he’s moved just a little closer to that darkness outside” since they know that they can’t always be protected from facing the reality of the world, as those that protect them won’t be around forever.

    The name of the short story, “Sonny’s Blues”, is fitting and also clever. Blue is a color commonly associated with sadness and “feeling blue'” or having “the blues” are both pretty well known expressions for depression and sadness. However, jazz and blues music also become the avenue for Sonny to show his emotions and all the struggle he’s gone through. The narrator notices the relationship between Sonny and his music when attending their performance, “He and the piano stammered, started one way, got scared, stopped; started another way, panicked, marked time, started again; then seemed to have found a direction, panicked again, got stuck.” The stops, starts, confusion, worry, and hope portrayed by Sonny’s performance on the piano is a perfect representation of how the narrator describes Sonny’s journey to persevere past obstacles and find a purpose in his life.

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  20. The question for period 2 is “Do you think sonny will relapse and start using drugs again” my answer to this is no. I do not think that sonny will relapse because the narrorator explains Sonnys reaction when he “Didn’t seem to notice it, but just before they started playing again, he sipped from it and looked toward me, and nodded.” (88) This shows that because he is finally passionate about playing piano and it has brought a new light into his life and that he mended his relationship with his brother and they now understand each other better. I think that since Sonny has new positive things in his life he will no longer feel as strong as a pull towards addiction that he did before.

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  21. In regards to the question “If everyone suffers and deals with their suffering individually, then is all expression an expression of suffering?” I believe that not all expression is expression of suffering and some expression is just a way to express happiness and joy by doing what u love. Sonnys action of playing the piano is both an expression of his internal suffering and also and expression of his happiness and passion that he has for playing the piano.

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