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Sonny’s Blues Is a short story written by James Baldwin. The short story was first published in 1957. The story is set in New York City’s Harlem and offers a personal narration of the main character who narrates the story about the challenges that his brother Sonny and himself face in life. James Baldwin’s Sonny’s Blues heavily relies on narration and setting to bring out the theme of suffering, which is predominant in his work.

Summary of the Plot

The setting of the story is based in the 1950s in Harlem, New York City. The author begins his account of events by reading a story about his estranged brother, Sony, in the newspaper. The story in the newspaper features his brother’s arrest due to the sale of drugs. The narrator is a decent individual who works as a math teacher in a high school in Harlem.

In contrast, his brother is a musician who has experienced troubles throughout his life. After his arrest, the author does not contact his brother. However, things change when his daughter passes on from polio. He finally writes to his brother, and they soon develop a constant communication. After his brother finally leaves prison, the two reconnect as Sonny moves in to stay with his brother. Sonny invites his brother to watch his performance. While at the nightclub, the narrator realizes how people at the nightclub adored and respected Sonny. While watching Sonny play the piano, the narrator slowly understands what his brother has had to go through. He also realizes the suffering that he has had to undergo. He gains an understanding of who exactly his brother is and what he is all about.

James Baldwin’s short story is fixated in suffering. From the beginning of to the end, the narrator recounts numerous instances that dictate suffering, which he undergoes through the suffering of his close family members as well as other people within his community. One of the main devices which he utilizes to narrate the suffering of his people and himself is the setting. The narrator lived in Harlem. His story is mainly based on activities that take place inside Harlem. Harlem is a historic place that is often associated with racial discrimination against African Americans. The city is characteristically poverty-stricken and laden with crime as well as the sale and abuse of drugs. Harlem is not a convenient place to live due to the misery which it imposes on people’s life and future. Sonny’s brother sums up Harlem in a few words by describing the Lenox avenue as a place which only causes danger and harm. He asserts that “And 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 25). His description of the residence of Harlem is a clear indicator of a place that has continuously tormented him and his brother for a long time.

The title of the story is Sonny’s Blues. From the title, one expects to read a story about the problems which Sonny faced or has faced in the past. The author obliges to the expectation of the title by highlighting Sonny’s problems. He does it so expertly to provide a first-person point of view from his brother. The choice to narrate the story from the brother’s point of view represents an excellent decision by the author. There are high chances that had the story been told from Sonny’s perspective; the audience would not have understood the misery and suffering that Sonny had experienced. Also, there is a likelihood that had the story been told from Sonny’s point of view; there are chances that it could not have been as detailed and precise as his brother’s point of view. Sonny was heavily involved in the abuse of heroin, and there are chances that the use of the drugs could have negatively impacted his ability to recollect his life events. Sonny’s brother provides a clear and concise description of his brother’s predicament. Another importance of the use of the first-person narration in the short story is that it gives a clear description of the narrator’s feelings and experiences. Sonny’s brother also suffered immensely. His account of his suffering from the first-person point of view helps the audience to relive his experience and create a bond between the reader and the story.

One of the movements that Sonny’s brother undergoes through suffering is when he loses his daughter to polio. The narrator lets the reader into his misery after the death of his daughter by vividly describing his traumatic experience in the wake of his daughter’s death. The narrator 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 37). From the narrator’s words, the reader can establish a connection with his state of emotion. He comprehensively outlines the agony which was caused by his daughter’s suffering. Had the story been told from another point of view other than the first person, the reader could not have related to his suffering as much as they had in the first-person narration.

Lastly, the narrator combines the use of the setting and narration to good effect to demonstrate suffering in the story by highlighting the death of the narrator’s and Sonny’s uncle. A group of drank white men murdered Sonny’s uncle in a car. The narrator learns of the death of his uncle from his mother. Through the narration of the mother, the reader learns about the cruelty of Harlem and the immense suffering that the murder of the narrator’s uncle had caused his mother. His mother narrates, “his car was full of white men…they aimed the car straight at him. They was having fun, they just wanted to scare him, the way they do sometimes” (Baldwin 29). The incident shows the brutality of white people in Harlem and the suffering they had caused Sonny’s family. The narrator adds, “Tears were gleaming on my mother’s face. There wasn’t anything I could say.” The audience gets an insight into the suffering that his family had gone through while living in Harlem.


James Baldwin’s Sonny’s Blues is a masterpiece which outlines the story of Sonny, his brother, and his family while living in Harlem. One of Harlem’s central themes in the story was suffering and how it impacted Sonny, his brother, and his family. The author uses first-person narration and the setting to good effect to provide an excellent illustration of the suffering that the characters have undergone while living in Harlem.

Work Cited

Baldwin, James. Sonny’s Blues. The Jazz Fiction Anthropology. Ed. Sascha Feinstein and Davide Rife. Bloomington: Indiana Up, 2009. 17-48