The narrator and Sonny, as black men in America, live in a world that tries to control them. They also live in a world that seems completely overwhelming because it is so saturated with suffering. Baldwin sets up the two brothers as being emblematic of two diverging responses to this pervasive suffering. One chooses a life of passion, idolizing artistic expression and casting aside a traditional life in order to find meaning, and the other is scrupulous about being responsible and living an orderly life. Both of these lifestyles are, in essence, an attempt to control the suffering they face. Baldwin does not propose that one of these modes of living is better than the other—each is shown to have severe drawbacks—nor does he suggest that suffering can ever be fully controlled, but he does show that the brothers can help one another by sharing the strengths that each mode of coping with suffering provides.
The narrator, who is the older of the brothers, is shown as living a life devoted to responsibility and rational decision making. He joins the army, gets married, has a family, works as a high school math teacher, and is all the while in a simmering rage that his choices have not led him to a better life than the one he grew up with, and that his sacrifices will not provide better opportunities for his children than the ones he had. Baldwin shows that, paradoxically, the narrator’s obsession with choosing a path that would lead him away from suffering has actually caused him to suffer because he has not prioritized finding joy or meaning in his life.
Sonny, the younger brother, has known since he was little that he loved music, and he decides to make a life of it because, as far as he is concerned, “people ought to do what they want to do, what else are they alive for?” Sonny’s pursuit of music leads him to not graduate from high school and to keep the company of people who lead him to drug use, which derails his life and lands him in prison. While Sonny is certainly the brother whose life seems, on the surface, more dominated by suffering (addiction, jail, having nowhere to go), he also is able to channel that suffering into something beautiful through his music.
Since suffering has led both brothers to lives that are, in some way, incomplete or unsustainable, Baldwin shows that they need one another. Sonny’s devotion to his passion means that he relies on the fruits of the narrator’s restraint—his home, family, and money—in order to start rebuilding his life. The narrator, though, also needs to be close to Sonny’s passion in order to bring joy and relief into his life that has been, so far, consumed by rage and bitterness. At the end of the story, Baldwin gives readers a glimpse of how the blending of their lifestyles gives them new ways to see the control they crave. Music, the narrator begins to understand, is a way to impose order and even beauty on emotions that are dark and often incomprehensible. To listen to Sonny’s music liberates the narrator from his excruciating need to control all of the darkness in his world by suppressing his emotions. Music helps him understand that his feelings about suffering, while terrible, can also be an opportunity to access community and compassion.
Passion, Restraint, and Control ThemeTracker
Passion, Restraint, and Control Quotes in Sonny’s Blues
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
“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?”
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.