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.
Salvation and Relief Theme Icon

Each of the characters in “Sonny’s Blues” is living a life that is, in some way, governed by suffering, but it is the significant instances of salvation and relief that prevent “Sonny’s Blues” from being utterly hopeless and tragic. Salvation and relief come in many forms in the story, some better than others, but it is the final invocation of the “cup of trembling” (a quote from the Biblical Book of Isaiah) that suggests a relief from suffering that might endure.

Sonny’s drug use is one way of finding relief from suffering. He describes the feeling of heroin as something that makes him feel “distant” and “in control,” the latter being a feeling that “you’ve got to have” sometimes. Sonny, then, has turned to drugs in order to escape the feeling that the suffering in his life is not within his control. His drug use, of course, ultimately compounds his suffering instead of allowing him to escape it.

Sonny’s music is a more complex example of relief from suffering. While the narrator initially considers music to be a way for Sonny to shirk his responsibilities, he ultimately realizes that Sonny’s music fuels his life; it’s a way for him to make his suffering meaningful, and without it he would likely succumb to despair. In the passage in which the narrator listens to Sonny play at the bar, Baldwin makes clear that Sonny’s music is never separate from his suffering; playing piano is not an instance of pure joy in a horrible world, but rather an art that allows Sonny to make sense of suffering and turn it into something beautiful. This then lets him communicate with others and make people feel less alone. While listening to Sonny, the narrator realizes that music has the power to “help us to be free,” in his case because it helps him, for the first time, acknowledge his own sadness.

The final sentence of “Sonny’s Blues” describes a glass of milk and scotch that the narrator has given his brother. Baldwin writes, “it glowed and shook above my brother’s head like the very cup of trembling.” This references a Bible passage that describes God taking suffering away from humanity: “I have taken out of thine hand the cup of trembling…; thou shalt no more drink it again.” The story’s ending is ambiguous, but it certainly suggests that Sonny’s music has taken suffering—at least temporarily—from both Sonny and the narrator. This is a complicated image, because it is both optimistic and precarious—the cup, like the relief it symbolizes, seems like it might be about to topple. The story has painted a detailed and explicit picture of the magnitude of suffering in Harlem, and Baldwin isn’t asking the reader to accept that music will cure it. However, this final moment suggests a way forward; music can take suffering and make it meaningful. In other words, it can’t cure suffering, but it can make the burdens of suffering easier to bear.

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Salvation and Relief ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Sonny’s Blues related to the theme of Salvation and Relief.
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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“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 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.

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.

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.