Sonny’s Blues

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Passion, Restraint, and Control 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.
Passion, Restraint, and Control Theme Icon

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.

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Passion, Restraint, and Control ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Sonny’s Blues related to the theme of Passion, Restraint, and Control.
Sonny’s Blues Quotes

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.

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 47-48
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator provides this meditation on music while he is listening to Sonny’s band at the jazz club. It’s a complex and ambiguous quote, but, at the very least, it signifies a turning point for the narrator in that it shows his new willingness to take Sonny’s passion seriously. It’s interesting that the narrator suggests that listening to music only corroborates what a person has already experienced—it’s almost as though the narrator sees listening to music as being parallel to the way he himself interacts with the world. The narrator is rarely willing to take in a new perspective or experience—he only accepts ideas that support what he already thinks, which was made clear in his prior conversations with Sonny, in which he refused to listen to Sonny’s point of view and dispensed advice that didn’t fit with Sonny’s life. The narrator then grants that creating music (which is analogous to Sonny’s way of interacting with the world) is greater and more challenging, because it requires creating something new and being in touch with the self enough to channel and control the expression of powerful emotions and experiences. This passage is, in a sense, the narrator’s concession that Sonny has achieved something braver and more difficult than the narrator. This is a realization that the closed-off and bitter narrator of the beginning of the story could never have had.

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.