Sonny’s Blues

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Darkness Symbol Icon

Throughout the story, Baldwin uses imagery of darkness to signal the dangers and traumas of growing up black in Harlem. This begins early on; in the first paragraph, when the narrator is reeling from the news of Sonny’s arrest, his face is “trapped in the darkness which roared outside.” From then on, Baldwin’s mentions of darkness are always significant—they come at times of fear, despair, and hopelessness. Important instances of Baldwin dwelling on darkness include the narrator’s meditation on the futures of his algebra students (“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…”), the darkness of the night in which the narrator’s father’s brother was killed, and the darkness that surrounds the living room in the narrator’s memory of being a child in a room of adult conversation. In both of these instances, darkness is a menace. Baldwin also (less frequently) uses light to symbolize the opposite of darkness. In moments of optimism, Baldwin will describe light on people’s faces, and at the jazz club the narrator observes that music is “the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.” The opposition of light and dark is, of course, Biblical—there’s the pervasive danger of falling into evil and despair, but also the insistent hope of salvation, symbolized by the light.

Darkness Quotes in Sonny’s Blues

The Sonny’s Blues quotes below all refer to the symbol of Darkness. 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

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.

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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.

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.

“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.

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.

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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Darkness Symbol Timeline in Sonny’s Blues

The timeline below shows where the symbol Darkness 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
Family Bonds Theme Icon
Passion, Restraint, and Control Theme Icon
Salvation and Relief Theme Icon
...to recall the experience of children in Harlem listening to their parents speak about “the darkness outside,” which refers to all that they’ve had to endure. He speaks of the comfort... (full context)
Cycles of Suffering Theme Icon
Passion, Restraint, and Control Theme Icon
Salvation and Relief Theme Icon
...a band succeeds, the narrator calls it “the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.” (full context)