Sonny’s Blues

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The Narrator Character Analysis

The first-person narrator of “Sonny’s Blues” is a high school math teacher in Harlem. As the story begins, he has to decide how to handle his brother Sonny’s trouble with addiction. The narrator is acutely aware of the drugs, violence, and lack of opportunity that pervade his neighborhood, and he has spent his whole life fighting to avoid meeting the fate of those around him. He has a good job, he’s married with children, and he seems devoted to living an orderly and upstanding life—a devotion that has paradoxically served to make him bitter and obsessed with the very suffering he’s trying to avoid. The narrator has a complex relationship to family. While he has crafted a traditional and loving family for himself, his relationship to his brother Sonny is fraught, and he feels guilty that he has watched Sonny suffer without intervening, as he promised his late mother that he would. Over the course of the story, as the narrator is forced to grapple more with the suffering of others, his relationship to Sonny improves and he becomes a warmer and more compassionate character.

The Narrator Quotes in Sonny’s Blues

The Sonny’s Blues quotes below are all either spoken by The Narrator or refer to The Narrator. 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 certainly didn’t want to know how it felt. It filled everything, the people, the houses, the music, the dark, quicksilver barmaid, with menace; and this menace was their reality.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 7
Explanation and Analysis:

After hearing Sonny’s friend’s admission of guilt over having once told Sonny how good heroin felt, the narrator sees the world as being filled with menace. This seems to be due to the fact that the friend’s comment is doubly painful to hear: it stokes the narrator’s own guilt about not having helped Sonny, and it reminds him of the pervasiveness of the drugs that he hates. It’s significant that the narrator’s strategy for coping with difficult things is to not want to hear about them or engage with them. His life is built on a commitment to keeping suffering at bay through order and righteousness, so any attempt to reckon with a reality that he doesn’t like makes him feel threatened. This is also a moment in which the narrator could exercise empathy; he and Sonny’s friend share a sense of guilt about Sonny’s fate that could allow them to connect, but the narrator does not allow for this, instead deflecting his feelings into general observations of gloom. Over the course of the story, this attitude will be challenged and, eventually, overcome.

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.

You can see the darkness growing against the windowpanes and you hear the street noises every now and again, or maybe the jangling beat of a tambourine from one of the churches close by, but it’s real quiet in the room. For a moment nobody’s talking, but every face looks darkening, like the sky outside…Everyone is looking at something a child can’t see.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Related Symbols: Darkness
Page Number: 17
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the narrator takes the story back in time through a series of recollections. At this moment he is generally recalling the state of being a child in a room full of adults as dusk is closing in. This is his memory, but also one that stands in for all the children of Harlem. While there is no explicit menace mentioned in this passage, Baldwin’s focus on darkness signals to the reader that he is invoking suffering or fear; his observation that “every face looks darkening” indicates that, though the child doesn’t understand, all the adults are thinking about the sufferings they have endured. The imagery, too, of the darkness “growing against the windowpanes” shows the fragility of the home as a bulwark against despair. While the darkness is thickest out on the street, that darkness has permeated the room, too, in the form of the shadows crossing everyone’s faces. This passage shows that, despite the child’s innocence and inability to understand the specifics of the adults’ memories, the child is still raised in an environment permeated by darkness. Suffering is a baseline condition—one so pervasive that it becomes the atmosphere of the room. Baldwin is suggesting here that nobody can grow up in that environment and be unaffected by the suffering around them.

The silence, the darkness coming, and the darkness in the faces frightens the child obscurely….The darkness outside is what the old folks have been talking about. It’s what they’ve come from. It’s what they endure. The child knows that they won’t talk anymore because if he knows too much about what’s happened to them, he’ll know too much too soon, about what’s going to happen to him.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Related Symbols: Darkness
Page Number: 17-18
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage is also part of the narrator’s reverie about being the lone child in a room full of adults in Harlem, but this passage focuses more specifically on the effects of silence. The darkness, which symbolizes suffering, is frightening to the child, but even more so because of the silence with which it is greeted. The child understands enough to know that the adults won’t talk about suffering around him because that will give him something specific to fear, but the silence actually increases his fear because it means that he has the liberty to imagine the terrors that might await him. This poisonous effect of silence is echoed throughout the story—in the narrator’s long silence with Sonny, for example, or in his father’s silence about his brother who died. Both of these silences, like the silence described in this quote, are meant to be protective of the self or of a family member, but each of them does more harm than good (the narrator’s silence hurts Sonny and himself, and the father’s silence makes him suffer privately and prevents the family from understanding the mood of their house). This passage suggests the importance of open communication in families—communication, compassion, and empathy are central to the family bond, and even to the prevention of future suffering.

“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.

Not a soul under the sound of their voices was hearing this song for the first time, not one of them had been rescued. Nor had they seen much in the way of rescue work being done around them….As the singing filled the air the watching, listening faces underwent a change, the eyes focusing on something within; the music seemed to soothe a poison out of them and time seemed, nearly, to fall away from the sullen, belligerent, battered faces, as though they were fleeing back to their first condition, while dreaming of their last.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 36-37
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage occurs during an afternoon when the narrator is home alone and looking out the window at the religious revival meeting across the street. His attitude shifts over the course of the quote. At first, he is dismissive of the value of such a gathering, which seems related to his belief that music is simply a distraction from responsibility. However, as he watches the faces of the crowd, the narrator notices that as people listen to the music their faces change and they seem soothed. This is the first stirring of the narrator’s ability to understand the power and importance of music, and it foreshadows his transformative experience at the jazz club. The narrator—who recognizes that everyone gathered around the revival was suffering and could use something to rescue them—seems to grapple with the possibility that music could be a way of making suffering more bearable, though he doesn’t seem to make the connection yet that music might help his own suffering. It’s also important to note here that the context of the revival meeting, a religious gathering, evokes a parallel between music and religion. Neither God nor music necessarily offer something “new,” but they can both soothe suffering and create community.

All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 47-48
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator provides this meditation on music while he is listening to Sonny’s band at the jazz club. It’s a complex and ambiguous quote, but, at the very least, it signifies a turning point for the narrator in that it shows his new willingness to take Sonny’s passion seriously. It’s interesting that the narrator suggests that listening to music only corroborates what a person has already experienced—it’s almost as though the narrator sees listening to music as being parallel to the way he himself interacts with the world. The narrator is rarely willing to take in a new perspective or experience—he only accepts ideas that support what he already thinks, which was made clear in his prior conversations with Sonny, in which he refused to listen to Sonny’s point of view and dispensed advice that didn’t fit with Sonny’s life. The narrator then grants that creating music (which is analogous to Sonny’s way of interacting with the world) is greater and more challenging, because it requires creating something new and being in touch with the self enough to channel and control the expression of powerful emotions and experiences. This passage is, in a sense, the narrator’s concession that Sonny has achieved something braver and more difficult than the narrator. This is a realization that the closed-off and bitter narrator of the beginning of the story could never have had.

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.

I saw my mother’s face again, and felt, for the first time, how the stones of the road she had walked on must have bruised her feet. I saw the moonlit road where my father’s brother died. And it brought something else back to me, and carried me past it, I saw my little girl again and felt Isabel’s tears again, and I felt my own tears begin to rise. And I was yet aware that this was only a moment, that the world waited outside, as hungry as a tiger, and that trouble stretched above us, longer than the sky.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), The Narrator’s Mother, The Narrator’s Father’s Brother, Isabel, Grace
Page Number: 51
Explanation and Analysis:

As the story nears its end, the narrator continues to explain the thoughts and feelings that Sonny’s music evokes in him. After his abstract meditations on the nature of music and its relationship to suffering, here the narrator begins to turn inward and confront his personal memories and sorrows. Significantly, these memories are deeply empathetic—he feels the stones bruising his mother’s feet, and he sees the road from the saddest night of his father’s life—which shows that the music is actually growing his compassion for others, and connecting him to the past suffering of his family. The narrator also begins to confront his own memories of his daughter, which seems here to be a healthy catharsis for a person reluctant to grapple with his emotions. Baldwin does not allow for a glib ending in which music erases suffering—the narrator knows that outside of the club trouble still awaits the people of Harlem (“as hungry as a tiger”). However, this passage suggests that Sonny’s music has made the narrator more able to cope with the suffering he will inevitably experience, and the narrator’s reflections show the extent to which his character has evolved from rigid and un-empathetic to self-reflective and compassionate.

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The Narrator Character Timeline in Sonny’s Blues

The timeline below shows where the character The Narrator 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
The story opens on the narrator (unnamed) who has read in the newspaper that his brother Sonny was picked up by... (full context)
Cycles of Suffering Theme Icon
Family Bonds Theme Icon
Passion, Restraint, and Control Theme Icon
The narrator confesses that this news isn’t entirely a surprise to him. He’d had suspicions about Sonny... (full context)
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After the last bell of the school day, the narrator heads home to tell Isabel, his wife, the news. In the courtyard of the school,... (full context)
Cycles of Suffering Theme Icon
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Passion, Restraint, and Control Theme Icon
The narrator and Sonny’s childhood friend walk together to the subway. They talk about what happened to... (full context)
Cycles of Suffering Theme Icon
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The narrator wants to ask Sonny’s friend more questions, but knows he couldn’t bear the answers. The... (full context)
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The narrative jumps ahead to a few months later, when the narrator ’s young daughter Grace has just died. The narrator says that it wasn’t until this... (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 that, on seeing Sonny for the... (full context)
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Passion, Restraint, and Control Theme Icon
Sonny and the narrator take a taxi to the narrator’s house, driving through wealthier Manhattan neighborhoods and then into... (full context)
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The narrator then reveals that he lives in one of the menacing housing projects he described. He... (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 Isabel seems glad to have... (full context)
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The narrator begins to remember his father, whom he describes as “always on the lookout for ‘something... (full context)
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The narrator digresses to recall the experience of children in Harlem listening to their parents speak about... (full context)
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The time period of the story then jumps backward, with the narrator recalling the last time he saw his mother alive. This was when he came home... (full context)
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The narrator ’s mother recalls that the brother used to play guitar and sing at different places.... (full context)
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Then, after his mother dies, the narrator gets a furlough from the army to attend her funeral. Remembering his promise, he talks... (full context)
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Since the narrator must return to his army service, he tells Sonny that he has arranged for his... (full context)
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Passion, Restraint, and Control Theme Icon
Isabel’s letters describe to the narrator how serious Sonny is about his music—she’s worried, even, about the extent of his dedication... (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... (full context)
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The narrator quickly describes his daughter Grace’s agonizing death from polio. Isabel saw Grace die, and her... (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... (full context)
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Sonny comes home and invites the narrator to see him play in the Village that night. The narrator agrees, sensing that he... (full context)
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The narrator makes a disparaging comment that all of Sonny’s friends have shaken to pieces, and in... (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... (full context)
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The narrator tries to frame his statement as a concern that Sonny will die using drugs to... (full context)
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Sonny begins to tell the narrator about what the worst of his addiction was like. He talks about doing terrible things... (full context)
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Sonny and the narrator go to a nightclub downtown (where Sonny is to play that night), and the narrator... (full context)
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Sonny, Creole, and another man begin to play onstage while the narrator watches from a table in the corner. The narrator reflects that it’s very rare for... (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... (full context)
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Hearing Sonny play reminds the narrator viscerally of his own suffering, Sonny’s suffering, and the suffering of generations back—he says he... (full context)
Cycles of Suffering Theme Icon
Family Bonds Theme Icon
Passion, Restraint, and Control Theme Icon
Salvation and Relief Theme Icon
When the band pauses, the narrator asks a bartender to take drinks up to the bandstand. The narrator watches her place... (full context)