Sonny’s Blues

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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.
Family Bonds Theme Icon

In “Sonny’s Blues,” Baldwin asks how much family members owe to one another, and he examines the fallout when familial compassion fails and obligations are only halfheartedly met. The most explicit example of this is the narrator’s failure for most of the story to live up to his promise to his mother that he would always be there for Sonny. Another example of a halfheartedly met family obligation is when the narrator’s wife’s family takes orphaned Sonny in, but makes it clear that they only did so because it was proper, not because they had compassion for Sonny’s predicament. Both of these instances of familial indifference compounded Sonny’s problems and fueled his despair, showing the power of family to grievously harm.

However, while familial cruelty or indifference propels the plot of “Sonny’s Blues,” Baldwin resolves the story by exploring how much more complex a family obligation is than it can initially appear. He suggests that family obligations, when met with real compassion, are mutually rewarding. The possibilities of a family relationship built on compassion emerge most clearly through the narrator’s growth once Sonny moves in with his family. At first, the narrator believes that he has been asked to care for Sonny because he is the more stable brother—he thinks that he has something to give Sonny, but nothing to gain by helping him. As the story progresses, however, and the narrator becomes open to understanding and accepting who Sonny is, the narrator begins to absolve himself of the guilt of having failed both his brother and mother. Also, more importantly, it becomes clear that Sonny’s music is an antidote to the bitterness and hopelessness that the narrator feels. Sonny and the narrator need one another—Sonny needs compassion and a place to stay, while the narrator needs a model of somebody who is striving for joy in spite of the suffering all around them. Their bond, then, is mutually beneficial.

It’s possible to see this complexity, too, in the narrator’s promise to his mother, a promise she forced him to make. The narrator’s mother sees this promise as a corrective to the previous generation’s tragedy, in which the narrator’s father failed to protect his own brother from a senseless and violent death. The narrator’s mother was the only person who saw the extent of her husband’s suffering afterwards, and, while the promise appears at first to be for Sonny’s benefit, it could also be seen as the mother’s attempt to spare the narrator a grief similar to his father’s. Overall, the story suggests that, while it is tempting to view family relationships and obligations as straightforward and even transactional, showing real compassion for family can offer surprising rewards, including the relief of a person’s most intractable suffering.

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Family Bonds ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Sonny’s Blues related to the theme of Family Bonds.
Sonny’s Blues Quotes

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.

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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.

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.

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.

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.