Sonny’s Blues

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The Narrator’s Mother Character Analysis

The narrator’s mother is not alive in “Sonny’s Blues,” but the narrator remembers her at length in the middle of the story. She is described as a wise and caring woman who took on the problems and sorrows of her family; this is best shown when she tells the narrator about his father’s troubles, and admits that she was the only one he ever talked to about it. Significantly, the narrator’s mother also makes the narrator promise her that he will keep Sonny out of trouble and always be there for him. This shows her great insight into her sons and her deep caring for them; the promise ultimately helps not only Sonny, but also the narrator, because it keeps him from allowing his strained relationship with Sonny to persist and forces him to become more compassionate.

The Narrator’s Mother Quotes in Sonny’s Blues

The Sonny’s Blues quotes below are all either spoken by The Narrator’s Mother or refer to The Narrator’s Mother. 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

“He says he never in his life seen anything as dark as that road after the lights of that car had gone away.”

Related Characters: The Narrator’s Mother (speaker), The Narrator’s Father, The Narrator’s Father’s Brother
Related Symbols: Darkness
Page Number: 21
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote, the narrator’s mother is telling the story of how the narrator’s father’s brother died on a dark road when a car of drunk white racists ran him over. This was a turning point in the narrator’s father’s life—his guilt and despair over having watched his brother die led him to a life of drinking and suffering privately. This is one of the most concrete uses of darkness as a symbol for suffering. While the narrator’s mother has told us that the road was not literally totally dark (there was a bright moon that night), the narrator’s father’s statement that he had never seen anything as dark as that road shows that what he actually meant is that this was the beginning of his greatest suffering. This passage is meant to echo the relationship between the narrator and Sonny, showing the guilt and sorrow that arises when one brother fails another.

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“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 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’s Mother Character Timeline in Sonny’s Blues

The timeline below shows where the character The Narrator’s Mother appears in Sonny’s Blues. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Sonny’s Blues
Family Bonds Theme Icon
...the story then jumps backward, with the narrator recalling the last time he saw his mother alive. This was when he came home from the army for his father’s funeral, and... (full context)
Cycles of Suffering Theme Icon
Family Bonds Theme Icon
Passion, Restraint, and Control Theme Icon
Salvation and Relief Theme Icon
The narrator’s mother recalls that the brother used to play guitar and sing at different places. One Saturday... (full context)
Family Bonds Theme Icon
Passion, Restraint, and Control Theme Icon
Salvation and Relief Theme Icon
Then, after his mother dies, the narrator gets a furlough from the army to attend her funeral. Remembering his... (full context)
Cycles of Suffering Theme Icon
Passion, Restraint, and Control Theme Icon
...knowing that his actions were just digging him farther in. He confesses that when their mother died he wanted to leave Harlem to get away from the drugs, but once he... (full context)
Cycles of Suffering Theme Icon
Family Bonds Theme Icon
Passion, Restraint, and Control Theme Icon
Salvation and Relief Theme Icon
...of generations back—he says he can feel how the stones on the road bruised his mother’s feet, and he can see the moonlit night when his father’s brother died. He begins... (full context)