Sonny’s Blues

The Narrator Character Analysis

The first-person narrator of “Sonny’s Blues” is a high school math teacher in Harlem. As the story begins, he has to decide how to handle his brother Sonny’s trouble with addiction. The narrator is acutely aware of the drugs, violence, and lack of opportunity that pervade his neighborhood, and he has spent his whole life fighting to avoid meeting the fate of those around him. He has a good job, he’s married with children, and he seems devoted to living an orderly and upstanding life—a devotion that has paradoxically served to make him bitter and obsessed with the very suffering he’s trying to avoid. The narrator has a complex relationship to family. While he has crafted a traditional and loving family for himself, his relationship to his brother Sonny is fraught, and he feels guilty that he has watched Sonny suffer without intervening, as he promised his late mother that he would. Over the course of the story, as the narrator is forced to grapple more with the suffering of others, his relationship to Sonny improves and he becomes a warmer and more compassionate character.

The Narrator Quotes in Sonny’s Blues

The Sonny’s Blues quotes below are all either spoken by The Narrator or refer to The Narrator. 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 numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer 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 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:

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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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You can see the darkness growing against the windowpanes and you hear the street noises every now and again, or maybe the jangling beat of a tambourine from one of the churches close by, but it’s real quiet in the room. For a moment nobody’s talking, but every face looks darkening, like the sky outside…Everyone is looking at something a child can’t see.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Related Symbols: Darkness
Page Number: 17
Explanation and Analysis:

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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:

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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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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:

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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:

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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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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:

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The Narrator Character Timeline in Sonny’s Blues

The timeline below shows where the character The Narrator 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
The story opens on the narrator (unnamed) who has read in the newspaper that his brother Sonny was picked up by... (full context)
Cycles of Suffering Theme Icon
Family Bonds Theme Icon
Passion, Restraint, and Control Theme Icon
The narrator confesses that this news isn’t entirely a surprise to him. He’d had suspicions about Sonny... (full context)
Family Bonds Theme Icon
After the last bell of the school day, the narrator heads home to tell Isabel, his wife, the news. In the courtyard of the school,... (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... (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... (full context)
Cycles of Suffering Theme Icon
Family Bonds Theme Icon
Salvation and Relief Theme Icon
The narrative jumps ahead to a few months later, when the narrator ’s young daughter Grace has just died. The narrator says that it wasn’t until this... (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 that, on seeing Sonny for the... (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 and then into... (full context)
Cycles of Suffering Theme Icon
Family Bonds Theme Icon
Passion, Restraint, and Control Theme Icon
Salvation and Relief Theme Icon
The narrator then reveals that he lives in one of the menacing housing projects he described. He... (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 Isabel seems glad to have... (full context)
Cycles of Suffering Theme Icon
Family Bonds Theme Icon
Salvation and Relief Theme Icon
The narrator begins to remember his father, whom he describes as “always on the lookout for ‘something... (full context)
Cycles of Suffering Theme Icon
Family Bonds Theme Icon
Passion, Restraint, and Control Theme Icon
Salvation and Relief Theme Icon
The narrator digresses to recall the experience of children in Harlem listening to their parents speak about... (full context)
Family Bonds Theme Icon
The time period of the story then jumps backward, with the narrator recalling the last time he saw his mother alive. This was when he came home... (full context)
Cycles of Suffering Theme Icon
Family Bonds Theme Icon
Passion, Restraint, and Control Theme Icon
Salvation and Relief Theme Icon
The narrator ’s mother recalls that the brother used to play guitar and sing at different places.... (full context)
Family Bonds Theme Icon
Passion, Restraint, and Control Theme Icon
Salvation and Relief Theme Icon
Then, after his mother dies, the narrator gets a furlough from the army to attend her funeral. Remembering his promise, he talks... (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... (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... (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... (full context)
Cycles of Suffering Theme Icon
Family Bonds Theme Icon
Salvation and Relief Theme Icon
The narrator quickly describes his daughter Grace’s agonizing death from polio. Isabel saw Grace die, and her... (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... (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. The narrator agrees, sensing that he... (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... (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... (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... (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 talks about doing terrible things... (full context)
Family Bonds Theme Icon
Sonny and the narrator go to a nightclub downtown (where Sonny is to play that night), and the narrator... (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 in the corner. The narrator reflects that it’s very rare for... (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... (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 generations back—he says he... (full context)
Cycles of Suffering Theme Icon
Family Bonds Theme Icon
Passion, Restraint, and Control Theme Icon
Salvation and Relief Theme Icon
When the band pauses, the narrator asks a bartender to take drinks up to the bandstand. The narrator watches her place... (full context)