Sonny’s Blues

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Sonny is the narrator’s brother. He’s a jazz musician and a heroin addict who lived a bohemian life in New York prior to being arrested for his drug abuse and sent to jail. Sonny is passionate, freethinking, and not particularly responsible. As his strained relationship to the narrator recovers over the course of the story, Sonny is able to stay off of drugs and begin to rebuild his life. While Baldwin does not maintain complete optimism about Sonny’s odds of beating his addiction, Sonny does manage to bring joy into the narrator’s family, and his music allows the narrator to begin to acknowledge his own suffering, a crucial development in mitigating the misery that the narrator feels about his regimented and fearful life.

Sonny Quotes in Sonny’s Blues

The Sonny’s Blues quotes below are all either spoken by Sonny or refer to Sonny. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Cycles of Suffering Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Penguin Books edition of Sonny’s Blues published in 1995.
Sonny’s Blues Quotes

These boys, now, were living as we’d been living then, they were growing up with a rush and their heads bumped abruptly against the low ceiling of their actual possibilities.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Sonny
Page Number: 2
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote, the narrator has just learned that his brother Sonny has been arrested for using and selling heroin. Here, the narrator is sadly contemplating the similarities between the lives of his high school algebra students and his and Sonny’s childhood. By drawing this parallel, the narrator is showing that the same social conditions force each generation into lives of suffering. This is an indictment of the consequences of racism, which limits the possibilities of African Americans, and it is also an indication that there hasn’t been much improvement over time (“Sonny’s Blues” was published in 1957, when the civil rights movement was in its infancy). The narrator’s outlook is one of doom—everyone experiences the same hardship, many (like Sonny) are consumed by their suffering, and there’s no cause to hope for the future either. While the narrator is still not empathetic towards Sonny’s plight, his ability to see that Sonny’s trouble with drugs has to do with the hardships he has faced is, at least, a step towards understanding him. This is an early example of near-empathy from a generally un-empathetic character.

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I feel like a man who’s been trying to climb up out of some deep, real deep and funky hole and just saw the sun up there, outside. I got to get outside.

Related Characters: Sonny (speaker)
Related Symbols: Darkness
Page Number: 10
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote appears in the first letter that Sonny writes to the narrator from prison. In it, he describes his awful suffering, which makes the narrator feel guilty that he didn’t reach out to his brother sooner. The image of the hole that Sonny sees himself climbing out of evokes the difficulty of overcoming addiction—once in the thralls of a drug habit, it’s very hard to break the cycle and return to normalcy (or, metaphorically, climb out of the hole). However, Sonny’s assertion that he finally sees the sunshine and wants to get out of the hole suggests that he does see a pathway to a better life. The language Sonny uses to talk about this also echoes Baldwin’s overarching use of darkness to symbolize suffering and light to symbolize the possibility of salvation. Here, salvation (recovery from drug addiction) is uncertain—it’s on the horizon, but there’s not a clear path to it. In reading this letter, the narrator realizes that Sonny needs his help, and that he could make the difference between Sonny staying in the hole and getting out.

When I saw him many things I thought I had forgotten came flooding back to me. This was because I had begun, finally, to wonder about Sonny, about the life that Sonny lived inside.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Sonny
Page Number: 11
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the narrator has just picked Sonny up from prison and is seeing him for the first time in many years. As we saw in the narrator’s encounter with Sonny’s friend, the narrator tends to lack curiosity about experiences that don’t fit with his ordered and respectable life. This tendency to shut out unpleasantness has made the narrator un-empathetic, because it precludes him from wanting to understand Sonny’s (or anybody else’s) troubles. In this moment, however, the narrator has finally begun to feel some curiosity about Sonny that will eventually morph into empathy. It’s significant that, upon feeling this curiosity, memories of the narrator’s that he hasn’t thought of in years are unlocked. This hints at the personal toll that the narrator’s rigidity and guardedness have taken on him. Though he sees his orderly life as protecting him from the suffering around him, it has also prevented him from grappling with the suffering—particularly in the form of painful memories—that he carries within himself.

Boys exactly like the boys we once had been found themselves smothering in these houses, came down into the streets for light and air and found themselves encircled by disaster. Some escaped the trap, most didn’t. Those who got out always left something of themselves behind.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Sonny
Related Symbols: Darkness
Page Number: 13
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage occurs when the narrator has picked up Sonny from jail and they are in a taxi driving through Harlem, the neighborhood where they grew up. Sonny hasn’t been back to Harlem in years, and, as a result, the narrator is seeing his home anew—and not favorably. Here, the narrator remembers how problems at home led him and Sonny to the streets, where even worse problems awaited them: in other words, suffering led to greater suffering. The gloom of this is compounded by the narrator drawing a parallel between his generation and the new generation. Things haven’t improved for young black men, as the same sufferings that led to Sonny’s current condition are still overtaking Harlem’s youth.

While the narrator and Sonny have, in their own ways, escaped Harlem (Sonny doesn’t live there anymore, and the narrator has a respectable job that has spared him the fate of many of Harlem’s residents), the narrator reflects that even those who got away—presumably like himself and Sonny—are still, in some way, trapped in Harlem. This alludes to the extent to which Sonny and the narrator’s childhoods still haunt them and, perhaps, always will.

The moment Sonny and I started into the house I had the feeling that I was simply bringing him back into the danger he had almost died trying to escape.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Sonny
Page Number: 14
Explanation and Analysis:

The house they’re entering is one of the housing projects that the narrator has just described in near-apocalyptic terms (“like rocks in the middle of a boiling sea”). The housing project is run-down and full of all the suffering and vice (including drugs) that led Sonny astray as a young man. While the narrator sees himself as someone whose commitment to hard work and respectability has allowed him to escape suffering, he realizes in this passage that, despite the life he has lived and the commitments he has made, he can’t provide a safe place for his children and his brother to live, and that makes him feel guilty. The narrator, despite all of his sacrifices, is still up against the same problems as always (Sonny is still an addict living in a place where drugs are readily available), and this emphasizes the tendency of suffering to replicate itself. It also illuminates the logic of the narrator’s pessimism; he doesn’t have much reason to hope that things will turn out better for Sonny this time.

“I ain’t telling you all this,” she said, “to make you scared or bitter or to make you hate nobody. I’m telling you this because you got a brother. And the world ain’t changed.”

Related Characters: The Narrator’s Mother (speaker), The Narrator, Sonny
Page Number: 21
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage comes just after the narrator’s mother has finished telling the story of the narrator’s father’s brother’s death. Here, she makes explicit that she told the story not simply to illuminate the private suffering that structured the narrator’s father’s life, but also as an instructive tale for the narrator, whose own little brother (Sonny) might someday need to be protected. Her cautions to the narrator—that she’s not telling this to make him scared, bitter, or hateful—show her wisdom and understanding of her son’s nature. Indeed, the narrator’s personality—his fixation on suffering and his bitterness in the face of the hardship around him—meant that this was precisely how he did react to this story. Learning of his family’s suffering strengthened his conviction that he should shut suffering out. His reaction to the story ends up clouding his ability to understand Sonny’s desire to be a musician, because the narrator is so scared that music will lead to Sonny suffering.

“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. You going to be evil with him many a time. But don’t you forget what I told you, you hear?…You may not be able to stop nothing from happening. But you got to let him know you’s there.”

Related Characters: The Narrator’s Mother (speaker), The Narrator, Sonny
Page Number: 22
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote is how the narrator’s mother ends her telling of the story of the narrator’s father’s brother’s death—by requiring the narrator to promise to protect and be there for Sonny no matter how badly the narrator might treat Sonny and no matter what happens in Sonny’s life. It’s a sweeping promise that the narrator does make, and its wisdom becomes apparent as the story progresses. The narrator’s mother anticipates Sonny’s troubles, the narrator’s initial reaction to them, and, more subtly, that her promise might (by forcing the narrator to continue his relationship with Sonny) spare him from the bitterness and sorrow that afflicted her husband. In other words, this promise appears to be for the benefit of Sonny, but it ultimately benefits the narrator just as much because it requires him to repair their relationship, which soothes his guilt and gives him tools—Sonny’s music—to confront and assuage his own suffering.

I had never thought about it before, had never been forced to, but I suppose I had always put jazz musicians in a class with what Daddy called “good-time people.”

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Sonny, The Narrator’s Father
Page Number: 24
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs just after the narrator’s mother dies, when the narrator is confronting teenaged Sonny about his future plans. He is dismayed when Sonny admits he wants to be a jazz musician, and one of the reasons is that it’s an occupation that the narrator believes his father would have looked down on. While it’s not clear that it’s true that his father would have thought this, the quote sheds significant light on the narrator’s character. He’s someone devoted to responsibility and respectability, and, for that reason, one of the worst things someone could be is “good-time people.” His dismissal of jazz musicians as “good-time people” shows that part of his objection to Sonny’s chosen occupation is his belief that Sonny is shirking responsibility and choosing an unserious life. While the narrator’s concern about Sonny’s financial stability is certainly genuine, the narrator also shows that he profoundly misunderstands the nature of Sonny’s passion. Being a jazz musician is not something he does for a “good time”—it’s something he feels that he has to do in order to confront and relieve his suffering. It’s a serious occupation that can bring joy and relief to Sonny and to those around him, but the narrator’s rigidity and prejudices mean that he cannot see this.

“I can make a living at it. But what I don’t seem to be able to make you understand is that it’s the only thing I want to do.”
“Well, Sonny,” I said, gently, “you know people can’t always do exactly what they want to do—“
No, I don’t know that,” said Sonny, surprising me. “I think people ought to do what they want to do, what else are they alive for?”

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Sonny (speaker)
Page Number: 26
Explanation and Analysis:

This exchange comes during the conversation between Sonny and the narrator, in which they are discussing Sonny’s future career, and it makes plain the stark differences between the brothers’ personalities. Sonny wants to be a jazz musician because he can’t imagine doing anything else. He’s passionate about music and feels that he should live for his passion. The narrator, by contrast, makes responsible choices—getting married, joining the army, becoming a high school teacher—but he never gives the sense that any of it (except his marriage) is actually fulfilling or brings him joy. Seeking joy and passion isn’t important to him, because he believes that it’s by making responsible choices that people keep themselves from suffering. To Sonny, it’s following the things that make you joyful that makes life worth living. More than any other, it’s this exchange that illuminates the source of the narrator’s bitterness. He truly doesn’t understand the importance of passion, and has never made an effort to make himself truly happy. It also foreshadows Sonny’s troubles—Sonny’s belief that people should do what they want to do ultimately extends to drug use. In this way, this exchange also shows what the brothers have to offer one another. The narrator can stabilize Sonny’s bohemian existence, and Sonny can show the narrator the importance of passion and joy.

“Look, brother. I don’t want to stay in Harlem no more, I really don’t.” He was very earnest. He looked at me, then over towards the kitchen window. There was something in his eyes I’d never seen before, some thoughtfulness, some worry all his own. He rubbed the muscle of one arm. “It’s time I was getting out of here.”

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Sonny (speaker)
Page Number: 28
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote, part of the conversation that the narrator and Sonny have about Sonny’s future, comes once the narrator has told Sonny that he has to with Isabel’s parents until he finishes school. Sonny’s mood shifts and the narrator doesn’t understand why. When Sonny says he needs to get out of Harlem, the narrator dismisses him without understanding the root of his concern. The significance of the passage is alluded to—Sonny has a worry that the narrator cannot share, and he rubs the muscle of one arm. This is a reference to his heroin addiction, which is starting to worry Sonny, and he touches his arm muscle because it’s sore from his intravenous drug use. Later in the story, Sonny admits to the narrator that addiction was on his mind during the conversation—he wanted to leave Harlem to save himself from drugs—but the narrator, typically un-empathetic and un-curious about Sonny’s inner life, never inquires enough to understand the danger Sonny is in. This is an example of the narrator failing Sonny by telling him what’s best rather than actually listening to him.

I didn’t like the way he carried himself, loose and dreamlike all the time, and 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.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Sonny (speaker)
Page Number: 32
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote comes when the narrator visits Sonny in New York after they’ve both returned from the war, and he finds Sonny living a bohemian life surrounded by musicians and drug addicts. The quote shows how little the narrator has changed since their conversation about Sonny’s future as a musician; the narrator still projects his own fear and disapproval onto Sonny’s lifestyle without bothering to understand why music is so important to Sonny. That the narrator says he believes music is just an excuse for Sonny’s disordered lifestyle also shows that the narrator still thinks of music as a way for Sonny to shirk responsibility, rather than as a way to confront and assuage suffering, or as a sincere passion that gives Sonny a sense of meaning and fulfillment in life. In addition, this insensitive observation shows that the narrator has little understanding of the nature of addiction—he has no appreciation for the difficulty of the trap that Sonny is in. The narrator’s attitude is rigid and dismissive, and he lacks compassion for and curiosity about his brother. While he thinks that he is doing what’s best for Sonny, this is an example of the kind of mistreatment of Sonny that the narrator’s mother warned about.

I think I may have written Sonny the very day that little Grace was buried. I was sitting in the living-room in the dark, by myself, and I suddenly thought of Sonny. My trouble made his real.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Sonny (speaker), Grace (speaker)
Related Symbols: Darkness
Page Number: 34
Explanation and Analysis:

After having a fight in New York, the narrator and Sonny don’t speak for a long time. This quote explains what made the narrator finally break his silence with his brother; once his own daughter died, his grief allowed him to finally feel compassion for Sonny’s suffering. This is a transformative moment in the story, because it’s the first time the narrator is able to begin to see the world through Sonny’s eyes, and this empathy is the foundation of a family bond built on compassion rather than obligation. It’s important that this suffering is what allows the narrator to find a connection to his brother. Like Sonny’s music, which turns suffering into beauty and community, this moment is an instance in which Baldwin suggests that suffering sometimes brings about something good.

In addition, this is an instance of Baldwin’s use of darkness as a symbol of suffering. Throughout the story, it is when characters recognize the darkness around them (like the narrator’s father did when his brother died) that they are suffering most profoundly. The narrator, sitting in the dark on the day of Grace’s burial, is clearly at a low point in his life.

“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….It makes you feel—in control. Sometimes you’ve got to have that feeling.”

Related Characters: Sonny (speaker)
Page Number: 39
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs just after the narrator has watched the revival meeting from his window and Sonny has come home after having watched the same meeting from the street. Just as the narrator saw the music soothing the crowd, Sonny draws an explicit parallel between the music and the soothing aspects of his drug use. Significantly, Sonny cites the feeling of being in control that heroin gave him as a primary reason for his drug use. Throughout the story, much of the characters’ suffering has been fueled by a sense of not having control over the hardship around them: the racism, violence, addiction, and tragedy that seem to permeate Harlem. For the narrator, control came in the form of rigid adherence to responsibility and shutting out difficult emotions, and for Sonny it came in the form of heroin. While the troubles caused by Sonny’s heroin use are clear, the parallel raises questions about the toll that the narrator’s own coping strategy has taken on his life and emotional health; indeed, the narrator’s bitterness shows that he has paid a price for his refusal to confront his own suffering.

They were not about anything very new. He and his boys up there were keeping it new, at the risk of ruin, destruction, madness, and death, in order to find new ways to make us listen. For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Sonny, Creole
Related Symbols: Darkness
Page Number: 50
Explanation and Analysis:

By this point, the narrator has listened to Sonny’s band for some time, and Sonny is beginning to hit his stride. Up until now, the narrator has tended to see music as a distraction from responsibility, and this is the moment in which he realizes that music actually grapples with suffering in a more honest way than the narrator ever has. The blues and jazz, the narrator realizes, are always the same story, and it’s the story of his whole community. Music doesn’t contradict the reality of suffering that the narrator sees all around him, but by making people hear that story, it gives people a way to confront their problems and sorrows, and it adds meaning to that suffering by making it beautiful. The narrator ends this passage by reflecting that amid all the darkness—symbolically, the suffering of everyone’s lives—music is the only light there is. This compares music to salvation. It’s a source of relief and comfort that isn’t frivolous, escapist, or destructive, as the narrator once believed.

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Sonny Character Timeline in Sonny’s Blues

The timeline below shows where the character Sonny appears in Sonny’s Blues. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Sonny’s Blues
Cycles of Suffering Theme Icon
...story opens on the narrator (unnamed) who has read in the newspaper that his brother Sonny was picked up by the police the previous night for using and selling heroin. The... (full context)
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Passion, Restraint, and Control Theme Icon
...narrator confesses that this news isn’t entirely a surprise to him. He’d had suspicions about Sonny but hadn’t wanted to believe them—he hadn’t ever wanted to see his brother meet the... (full context)
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...wife, the news. In the courtyard of the school, he sees someone he mistakes for Sonny—but it’s actually a childhood friend of Sonny’s that the narrator dislikes because he’s always high... (full context)
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The narrator and Sonny’s childhood friend walk together to the subway. They talk about what happened to Sonny, and... (full context)
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The narrator wants to ask Sonny’s friend more questions, but knows he couldn’t bear the answers. The man tells the narrator... (full context)
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...died. The narrator says that it wasn’t until this happened that he finally wrote to Sonny, and Sonny wrote him back a letter that “made [him] feel like a bastard.” In... (full context)
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Passion, Restraint, and Control Theme Icon
The brothers continue to write during Sonny’s time in jail, and the narrator picks Sonny up once he’s released. The narrator describes... (full context)
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Sonny and the narrator take a taxi to the narrator’s house, driving through wealthier Manhattan neighborhoods... (full context)
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Despite this, Sonny’s first night living with the narrator’s family is successful—the narrator’s two sons like him, and... (full context)
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...before he could find the better life he was looking for. The narrator explains that Sonny and his father never got along because they were too much alike. (full context)
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...army for his father’s funeral, and his mother made him promise he would look after Sonny if anything happened to her. The narrator doesn’t understand her worry, so she explains that... (full context)
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...too, and “the world ain’t changed.” The narrator promises not to let anything happen to Sonny, and his mother adds that even though he might not be able to stop something... (full context)
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...furlough from the army to attend her funeral. Remembering his promise, he talks with teenaged Sonny about his future, and Sonny says he wants to be a jazz pianist. Horrified that... (full context)
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Since the narrator must return to his army service, he tells Sonny that he has arranged for his wife’s family to take Sonny in. This isn’t ideal,... (full context)
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Isabel’s letters describe to the narrator how serious Sonny is about his music—she’s worried, even, about the extent of his dedication to it. Finally,... (full context)
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The next time the narrator sees Sonny they are both back in New York after the war, and he feels that Sonny’s... (full context)
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...describe his own grief, but says that the day Grace was buried he wrote to Sonny because “My trouble made his real.” (full context)
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The story then returns to the present. The narrator is home alone and considering searching Sonny’s room, presumably for drugs. Out his living room window, he sees a revival meeting across... (full context)
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Sonny comes home and invites the narrator to see him play in the Village that night.... (full context)
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The narrator makes a disparaging comment that all of Sonny’s friends have shaken to pieces, and in response Sonny explains that many of them actually... (full context)
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In this moment, the narrator realizes the harm that his silence while Sonny was in jail has done to their relationship. Sonny continues talking about suffering, saying that... (full context)
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The narrator tries to frame his statement as a concern that Sonny will die using drugs to try not to suffer, but it falls flat. He yearns... (full context)
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Sonny begins to tell the narrator about what the worst of his addiction was like. He... (full context)
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Sonny and the narrator go to a nightclub downtown (where Sonny is to play that night),... (full context)
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Sonny, Creole, and another man begin to play onstage while the narrator watches from a table... (full context)
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The narrator realizes that Sonny is struggling—he’s not fully throwing himself into his music—and the narrator thinks how hard it... (full context)
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Hearing Sonny play reminds the narrator viscerally of his own suffering, Sonny’s suffering, and the suffering of... (full context)
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...bandstand. The narrator watches her place a glass of scotch and milk on top of Sonny’s piano. Just before they start to play again, Sonny sips from it and meets eyes... (full context)