Sonny’s Blues

Sonny is the narrator’s brother. He’s a jazz musician and a heroin addict who lived a bohemian life in New York prior to being arrested for his drug abuse and sent to jail. Sonny is passionate, freethinking, and not particularly responsible. As his strained relationship to the narrator recovers over the course of the story, Sonny is able to stay off of drugs and begin to rebuild his life. While Baldwin does not maintain complete optimism about Sonny’s odds of beating his addiction, Sonny does manage to bring joy into the narrator’s family, and his music allows the narrator to begin to acknowledge his own suffering, a crucial development in mitigating the misery that the narrator feels about his regimented and fearful life.

Sonny Quotes in Sonny’s Blues

The Sonny’s Blues quotes below are all either spoken by Sonny or refer to Sonny. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Cycles of Suffering Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Penguin Books edition of Sonny’s Blues published in 1995.
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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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“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:

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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:

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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:

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“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:

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“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:

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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:

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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:

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“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:

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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:

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Sonny Character Timeline in Sonny’s Blues

The timeline below shows where the character Sonny appears in Sonny’s Blues. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Sonny’s Blues
Cycles of Suffering Theme Icon
...story opens on the narrator (unnamed) who has read in the newspaper that his brother Sonny was picked up by the police the previous night for using and selling heroin. The... (full context)
Cycles of Suffering Theme Icon
Family Bonds Theme Icon
Passion, Restraint, and Control Theme Icon
...narrator confesses that this news isn’t entirely a surprise to him. He’d had suspicions about Sonny but hadn’t wanted to believe them—he hadn’t ever wanted to see his brother meet the... (full context)
Family Bonds Theme Icon
...wife, the news. In the courtyard of the school, he sees someone he mistakes for Sonny—but it’s actually a childhood friend of Sonny’s that the narrator dislikes because he’s always high... (full context)
Cycles of Suffering Theme Icon
Family Bonds Theme Icon
Passion, Restraint, and Control Theme Icon
The narrator and Sonny’s childhood friend walk together to the subway. They talk about what happened to Sonny, and... (full context)
Cycles of Suffering Theme Icon
Family Bonds Theme Icon
The narrator wants to ask Sonny’s friend more questions, but knows he couldn’t bear the answers. The man tells the narrator... (full context)
Cycles of Suffering Theme Icon
Family Bonds Theme Icon
Salvation and Relief Theme Icon
...died. The narrator says that it wasn’t until this happened that he finally wrote to Sonny, and Sonny wrote him back a letter that “made [him] feel like a bastard.” In... (full context)
Family Bonds Theme Icon
Passion, Restraint, and Control Theme Icon
The brothers continue to write during Sonny’s time in jail, and the narrator picks Sonny up once he’s released. The narrator describes... (full context)
Cycles of Suffering Theme Icon
Passion, Restraint, and Control Theme Icon
Sonny and the narrator take a taxi to the narrator’s house, driving through wealthier Manhattan neighborhoods... (full context)
Family Bonds Theme Icon
Despite this, Sonny’s first night living with the narrator’s family is successful—the narrator’s two sons like him, and... (full context)
Cycles of Suffering Theme Icon
Family Bonds Theme Icon
Salvation and Relief Theme Icon
...before he could find the better life he was looking for. The narrator explains that Sonny and his father never got along because they were too much alike. (full context)
Family Bonds Theme Icon
...army for his father’s funeral, and his mother made him promise he would look after Sonny if anything happened to her. The narrator doesn’t understand her worry, so she explains that... (full context)
Cycles of Suffering Theme Icon
Family Bonds Theme Icon
Passion, Restraint, and Control Theme Icon
Salvation and Relief Theme Icon
...too, and “the world ain’t changed.” The narrator promises not to let anything happen to Sonny, and his mother adds that even though he might not be able to stop something... (full context)
Family Bonds Theme Icon
Passion, Restraint, and Control Theme Icon
Salvation and Relief Theme Icon
...furlough from the army to attend her funeral. Remembering his promise, he talks with teenaged Sonny about his future, and Sonny says he wants to be a jazz pianist. Horrified that... (full context)
Cycles of Suffering Theme Icon
Family Bonds Theme Icon
Since the narrator must return to his army service, he tells Sonny that he has arranged for his wife’s family to take Sonny in. This isn’t ideal,... (full context)
Family Bonds Theme Icon
Passion, Restraint, and Control Theme Icon
Isabel’s letters describe to the narrator how serious Sonny is about his music—she’s worried, even, about the extent of his dedication to it. Finally,... (full context)
Family Bonds Theme Icon
Passion, Restraint, and Control Theme Icon
The next time the narrator sees Sonny they are both back in New York after the war, and he feels that Sonny’s... (full context)
Cycles of Suffering Theme Icon
Family Bonds Theme Icon
Salvation and Relief Theme Icon
...describe his own grief, but says that the day Grace was buried he wrote to Sonny because “My trouble made his real.” (full context)
Cycles of Suffering Theme Icon
Passion, Restraint, and Control Theme Icon
Salvation and Relief Theme Icon
The story then returns to the present. The narrator is home alone and considering searching Sonny’s room, presumably for drugs. Out his living room window, he sees a revival meeting across... (full context)
Cycles of Suffering Theme Icon
Family Bonds Theme Icon
Passion, Restraint, and Control Theme Icon
Salvation and Relief Theme Icon
Sonny comes home and invites the narrator to see him play in the Village that night.... (full context)
Cycles of Suffering Theme Icon
Passion, Restraint, and Control Theme Icon
Salvation and Relief Theme Icon
The narrator makes a disparaging comment that all of Sonny’s friends have shaken to pieces, and in response Sonny explains that many of them actually... (full context)
Cycles of Suffering Theme Icon
Passion, Restraint, and Control Theme Icon
Salvation and Relief Theme Icon
In this moment, the narrator realizes the harm that his silence while Sonny was in jail has done to their relationship. Sonny continues talking about suffering, saying that... (full context)
Cycles of Suffering Theme Icon
Family Bonds Theme Icon
Passion, Restraint, and Control Theme Icon
The narrator tries to frame his statement as a concern that Sonny will die using drugs to try not to suffer, but it falls flat. He yearns... (full context)
Cycles of Suffering Theme Icon
Passion, Restraint, and Control Theme Icon
Sonny begins to tell the narrator about what the worst of his addiction was like. He... (full context)
Family Bonds Theme Icon
Sonny and the narrator go to a nightclub downtown (where Sonny is to play that night),... (full context)
Passion, Restraint, and Control Theme Icon
Salvation and Relief Theme Icon
Sonny, Creole, and another man begin to play onstage while the narrator watches from a table... (full context)
Cycles of Suffering Theme Icon
Passion, Restraint, and Control Theme Icon
Salvation and Relief Theme Icon
The narrator realizes that Sonny is struggling—he’s not fully throwing himself into his music—and the narrator thinks how hard it... (full context)
Cycles of Suffering Theme Icon
Family Bonds Theme Icon
Passion, Restraint, and Control Theme Icon
Salvation and Relief Theme Icon
Hearing Sonny play reminds the narrator viscerally of his own suffering, Sonny’s suffering, and the suffering of... (full context)
Cycles of Suffering Theme Icon
Family Bonds Theme Icon
Passion, Restraint, and Control Theme Icon
Salvation and Relief Theme Icon
...bandstand. The narrator watches her place a glass of scotch and milk on top of Sonny’s piano. Just before they start to play again, Sonny sips from it and meets eyes... (full context)