Sonny’s Blues

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Cycles of Suffering Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Cycles of Suffering Theme Icon
Family Bonds Theme Icon
Passion, Restraint, and Control Theme Icon
Salvation and Relief Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Sonny’s Blues, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Cycles of Suffering Theme Icon

The central concern of “Sonny’s Blues” is suffering: Baldwin emphasizes that suffering is universal, and that it is also cyclical—that suffering tends to lead to more suffering. Baldwin demonstrates the effects of suffering on several different scales: he shows the way suffering affects an individual life, the way it affects a family throughout generations, and the way it affects a society overall.

The story—set in 1950s Harlem, a New York neighborhood that was then at the center of urban black life—is particularly concerned with the difficult lives that await young black men in America. This is shown through the narrator’s reflections on the sad futures that his high school students face (lives of drugs, violence, and rage at having “their heads bumped abruptly against the low ceiling of their actual possibilities”), as well as the narrator’s and Sonny’s difficulty leaving Harlem despite their desire to get out. Baldwin shows that suffering is a central component of the African American experience, and Harlem is portrayed as a trap—a place of violence and suffering that, because of the trauma and racism its residents experience, is nearly impossible to escape.

Throughout the course of the story, Baldwin also reveals the parallel suffering occurring in the lives of different members of the narrator’s family, which emphasizes the echoes between the sufferings of previous generations and the suffering of the present. For instance, the narrator’s father’s despair over having watched his brother die mirrors the narrator’s own guilt and sadness about his failure to help Sonny with his addiction. Baldwin is not optimistic, either, about the next generation—the narrator, despite his becoming a schoolteacher, has not been able to provide better opportunities for his own children. They live in a rundown housing project and his daughter died an agonizing death of polio. He worries that his sons, like Sonny, will fall into the drugs that are everywhere on the streets of their neighborhood. This suggests that suffering is passed down generationally.

“Sonny’s Blues” also explores the ways that individual suffering ruins lives, particularly due to people’s reticence or inability to talk about their suffering. Baldwin shows how private suffering turns people bitter, estranges relationships, and even leads people to illness, addiction, or death. This is revealed most poignantly through the narrator who, at first glance, seems to be living a better life than Sonny. As the story progresses, however, we begin to understand the magnitude of the narrator’s anger, bitterness, and fear—he seems obsessed with avoiding the suffering that has plagued his family and community, but that obsession has effectively meant that he is fixated on suffering in a way that makes him miserable. While Sonny is more able to speak of his suffering than the narrator, he too seems to have been overwhelmed by suffering, which led him to addiction (itself a microcosm of self-perpetuating suffering), legal trouble, and temporary estrangement from his brother.

Baldwin does not promise an easy escape to such overwhelming suffering, but he does give hints that the burden of these cycles of suffering can be lessened. The narrator’s epiphany at the jazz club shows the importance of expressing suffering in order to take control of it, and Sonny’s friendships with musicians show how creating community can bring relief.

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Cycles of Suffering ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Cycles of Suffering appears in each chapter of Sonny’s Blues. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Cycles of Suffering Quotes in Sonny’s Blues

Below you will find the important quotes in Sonny’s Blues related to the theme of Cycles of Suffering.
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.

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.

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.

“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 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.

“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 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.

“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.

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.