The 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 narrator describes spending the rest of his day reeling from the news, feeling like he has ice water in his veins.
The opening of the story is disorienting and full of menace. Before the reader fully understands what has happened, Baldwin’s use of frightening, visceral imagery, like the ice water in the narrator’s veins, suggests that something terrible has happened. The fact that the narrator suffers so acutely from simply hearing bad news suggests that suffering is contagious.
The 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 same fate as so many other men in Harlem. In the narrative present, the narrator is teaching a high school algebra class, and he reflects that many of the young men in the classroom are likely using drugs, too, because drugs bring relief from the rage they feel at knowing how few possibilities they have in their lives.
Here, the magnitude of suffering in the narrator’s community becomes apparent; not only are the narrator and Sonny suffering, but they suffer in a way that mirrors the despair all around them. This passage begins to illuminate the major themes of the story: the narrator’s confession that he isn’t surprised by Sonny’s fate will later deepen into an admission of his guilt that he didn’t work to prevent it, and the narrator’s seeming separation from the suffering caused by drugs will become blurred as he realizes that his respectable life and job haven’t brought him relief from the suffering around him. This passage also makes a strong sociological comment on the limitations that racism places on young black men.
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, 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 and asking for money, although the narrator says that he always gives the man money when asked. Seeing him that day, the narrator realizes that he suddenly despises this man.
This introduces the story’s complex ideas about family. As the narrator rushes home to his wife, he’s confronted by someone who seems to be Sonny himself. Though the man isn’t Sonny, the mistake evokes the blurred distinction between blood relatives and community members, who can be as important as family. This man isn’t related to the narrator, but he is, nonetheless, tied to the narrator through a series of mutual favors: the narrator gives the man money, and the man seeks out the narrator to make sure he knows what happened to Sonny. Underscoring the narrator’s guilt and uncertainty about family bonds, he feels no warmth towards Sonny’s friend.
The narrator and Sonny’s childhood friend walk together to the subway. They talk about what happened to Sonny, and the narrator reveals that he’s not planning to do anything to help him because he doesn’t see any way that he could be helpful. The man admits that he wonders if he might be partially responsible for Sonny’s downfall, since he once told Sonny how good heroin felt. As the narrator is hearing this, he looks around the street and is filled with dread and hopelessness, seeing menace in “the people, the houses, the music” and everything else around him. He asks what will happen to Sonny, and the man says that he’ll go to jail, they’ll let him out, and then “it’ll all just start all over again,” since Sonny is an addict.
This is the moment in which the narrator’s passivity becomes clear; though Sonny is his brother, the narrator has no plans to help him. His guilt isn’t fully communicated in this scene, but it’s hinted at when Sonny’s friend is expressing his own guilt and the narrator can only look around in silence and despair. Baldwin leaves it open whether this is the narrator trying to absolve his guilt by blaming Sonny’s troubles on the neighborhood, or whether it’s the narrator feeling consumed by the hopelessness of how they grew up—it’s likely a combination of both. To compound the despair of the scene, Sonny’s friend is blunt about addiction; because addiction is cyclical, Sonny’s troubles aren’t likely to improve.
The narrator wants to ask Sonny’s friend more questions, but knows he couldn’t bear the answers. The man tells the narrator that this is going to be hard on Sonny, but the narrator doesn’t react. At the subway station, the man asks for a dollar and the narrator, realizing he doesn’t hate the man anymore, gives him five. The man tells the narrator not to worry about Sonny, that maybe he would write to him, but the narrator makes no similar promise.
It’s important that the narrator mistook the friend for Sonny at first—the narrator’s growing compassion for the friend is the first stirring of the emotional growth that will finally allow the narrator to repair his relationship with his brother. Sonny’s friend’s honesty and kindness make the narrator consider the reality of suffering outside of his own. It’s enough to make him give money, but not enough to make him promise to write to Sonny—at least not yet.
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 happened that he finally wrote to Sonny, and Sonny wrote him back a letter that “made [him] feel like a bastard.” In the letter, Sonny admits how much he needed to hear from the narrator, but says that he didn’t write first because he knew he had caused so much pain. Sonny is ashamed of himself—he says he’s glad their parents (implying that Sonny and the narrator are brothers) aren’t alive to see him like this—and he’s scared about his future, worried that he will relapse once he’s out of jail. Sonny is clearly suffering tremendously, and he takes pains to tell the narrator that he shouldn’t think that the trouble Sonny is in has anything to do with being a musician, though he can’t say exactly what the source of his trouble is.
Once the narrator has suffered tremendously himself, he begins to understand that Sonny needs his help and decides to write him a letter. Sonny’s reply compounds the narrator’s guilt at not having reached out sooner, because he realizes that his silence only added to Sonny’s suffering. This scene begins to sketch out Baldwin’s ideas about family bonds. The narrator and Sonny had been suffering privately, and the act of simply writing a letter was able to bring some relief to both of them. This hints at the power of compassion to heal despair. The passage also makes clear the difficulties that the two brothers face; Sonny’s comment about his drug use being unrelated to music hints at the narrator’s disapproval, and it’s clear that Sonny’s addiction is a problem that still looms on the horizon.
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 first time, long-forgotten memories return to him because “I had begun, finally, to wonder about Sonny, about the life that Sonny lived inside.” Sonny looks haggard, but the narrator sees traces of his baby brother in Sonny’s face.
This passage makes clear that one of the narrator’s moral failings is his inability to empathize with the suffering of others. His growth throughout the story mirrors a kind of growth of this moment, in which the narrator first begins to wonder about Sonny’s inner life. For Baldwin, it is genuine curiosity and compassion that leads to impactful and lasting family bonds—it’s significant that it’s only in this state of empathy that the narrator can see Sonny as his baby brother.
Sonny and the narrator take a taxi to the narrator’s house, driving through wealthier Manhattan neighborhoods and then into the “killing streets” of Harlem, where they both grew up and where the narrator now lives. The narrator observes the newly-built housing projects jutting up out of the streets “like rocks in the middle of a boiling sea,” and he describes young boys, exactly like they had been, growing up feeling smothered in their houses, then coming “into the streets for light and air and [finding] themselves encircled by disaster.” He notes that while he and Sonny can both be said to have escaped Harlem (the narrator by becoming a schoolteacher, and Sonny by not having lived in Harlem for years), a part of each of them is still on those cruel streets.
Seeing Harlem through Sonny’s eyes leads the narrator to reflect on the conditions in which they grew up. Baldwin uses frightening language and imagery to explain the forces that drive young black men to drugs and crime, suggesting the inevitability of such lives because of the lack of other possibilities. The narrator and Sonny are both separate from that world in Harlem, but the distinction between them and the way they grew up is blurred—Sonny’s passion for music got him out of the neighborhood but not away from drugs, and the narrator’s devotion to order and respectability got him a good job, albeit one that’s still in Harlem. This passage implies that Harlem still has a hold on both of them, and it contributes to their suffering.
The narrator then reveals that he lives in one of the menacing housing projects he described. He notes that his sons, growing up there, will face the same danger and suffering that he and Sonny faced as children, and he says that bringing Sonny to his home feels like putting him back in the situation that he’d “almost died trying to escape.”
In the context of the narrator’s description of the horrors awaiting children in Harlem, it’s devastating to learn that his own children are growing up in a rundown housing project. The narrator feels like a failure for allowing them to grow up that way, and also for not having a safer place to bring Sonny to recover from his addiction. The subtext here is that, despite the narrator’s best efforts, he has no way to protect his family from the suffering that surrounds them.
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 him there. The narrator, though, seems on edge, looking for clues that Sonny might be using heroin again and hoping he isn’t.
This scene shows the possibilities of family life—despite the brothers’ long estrangement, Sonny seems comfortable in the narrator’s home. All isn’t well yet, though. The narrator cannot stop wondering if and when Sonny’s addiction will return.
The narrator begins to remember his father, whom he describes as “always on the lookout for ‘something a little better.’” The narrator says this was even true on the weekends when his father got drunk, but that his father died on one of those drunken weekends 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.
The midsection of the story, a digression about childhood and family life, shows the importance of family and the past in shaping the characters’ present lives. The narrator’s father is a microcosm of the suffering in Harlem; while he strove for a better life, his drinking got the better of him. This isn’t a good sign for Sonny, who is like his father.
The narrator digresses to recall the experience of children in Harlem listening to their parents speak about “the darkness outside,” which refers to all that they’ve had to endure. He speaks of the comfort and terror that this brings children—the comfort of knowing that the adults stand between them and the darkness outside, and the terror of knowing that the adults won’t always protect them, so the children will one day have these same adult experiences of suffering.
This passage again illustrates the hardships of growing up black in America by showing the pervasive fear of the future and the sense of antagonism lurking outside the safety of the home. Baldwin is interweaving comfort and fear to show that those concepts are, in a way, interdependent—it’s fear that makes the children seek and appreciate comfort. This echoes the scene in the jazz club (and the two are also connected by the image of darkness), which suggests that suffering and relief are intertwined, as relief is made meaningful through suffering.
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 from the 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 her husband, the narrator’s father, once had a brother who died. The narrator has never heard of this brother before.
This passage finally illuminates the depth of the narrator’s guilt over his relationship to Sonny. Not only did his silence contribute to his brother’s suffering, but their estrangement violated an explicit promise the narrator had made to his mother. This passage also reveals another significant silence between family members: nobody had ever talked about the narrator’s uncle.
The narrator’s mother recalls that the brother used to play guitar and sing at different places. One Saturday night he and the narrator’s father were drunk and walking home when a group of drunk white men aimed their car at the brother and ran him over in the street. The narrator’s mother explains that this changed her husband irrevocably—that it made him crazy, bitter, and suspicious of whites. She tells the narrator that she’s telling him this story now because he’s got a brother, 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 from happening to Sonny, he must always let Sonny know he’s there for him.
Baldwin’s description of the brother as a musician suggests that readers should associate him with Sonny, and his violent death underscores the danger that Sonny is facing. This passage also makes clear the danger that the narrator himself is facing: after his brother died, the narrator’s father was consumed by a guilt and despair that led him to drink himself to an early death. The narrator’s own guilt and suffering, then, are similar to his father’s, and could become devastating if Sonny were to experience a similar fate to his uncle. The generational parallels show the ways in which suffering replicates itself. This repetition of familial patterns is inauspicious for the brothers, but the mother’s promise, if it is kept, seems to offer both of them a way out.
Then, after his mother dies, the narrator gets a 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 this isn’t a respectable or financially secure occupation, the narrator argues with Sonny, and Sonny insists that he doesn’t care what his brother thinks. The narrator tells him that people shouldn’t always do exactly what they want to do, and Sonny responds that, “I think people ought to do what they want to do, what else are they alive for?”
Though the narrator is attempting to make good on his promise to his mother, this is another example of his difficulty with empathy. Sonny wants to live a life of passion, and the narrator is sternly disapproving because he cannot relate. This is a failure of compassion and, in a sense, a betrayal of the familial bond, which Baldwin insists must be based on empathy and kindness. Family can bring relief from suffering, but not if it’s approached as a rote fulfillment of obligation. In order to help Sonny, the narrator needs to try to understand him, but he fails to do that here.
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, as Isabel’s parents are touchy and hadn’t approved of her marriage to the narrator. Seeming to understand the awkwardness of the situation, Sonny tells the narrator that he wants to leave Harlem (where Isabel’s family lives as well) instead. The narrator notices a worry in Sonny’s eyes that he doesn’t understand, and sees him touching his arm muscle. The narrator insists that Sonny stay in school in Harlem, and reminds him that Isabel’s family has a piano he can use, but the worry remains in Sonny’s face.
In the moment, the narrator does not understand the troubles that Sonny is experiencing. Sonny wants to leave Harlem, and as he says this he’s worried and touching his arm. This is a subtle evocation of Sonny’s increasing intravenous drug use (which would make his arm sore) and his concern that his addiction will snowball if he doesn’t leave Harlem. The narrator’s failure of empathy and curiosity, however, keeps him on the outside of these troubles, and leads him to put Sonny in a situation that makes his problems worse. This is a failure of his familial obligation.
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, Isabel’s family realizes that Sonny hasn’t been going to school and they scold him, which makes Sonny realize that they’ve endured his presence and constant practicing entirely for the sake of the narrator. Sonny can’t bear this knowledge, so he joins the navy and leaves without saying goodbye.
Sonny’s relationship to Isabel’s family is another instance of the harm that a family bond not based on compassion can do. Isabel’s family takes Sonny in, but they do it out of obligation rather than kindness—Sonny picks up on this, and it makes his problems worse instead of better. This passage also shows the complexity of Sonny’s passion for music. While it’s clearly the only thing that brings him joy, it’s also making him drop out of school.
The next time the narrator sees Sonny they are both back in New York after the war, and he feels that Sonny’s life is “weird and disordered,” a problem that the narrator believes is fueled by music. After a terrible fight, the narrator comes to Sonny’s apartment to make up, but Sonny won’t speak to him. He’s surrounded by people whom the narrator notices he treats like family, and Sonny tells the narrator that they’re dead to one another. The narrator recalls that they didn’t speak again until after his daughter died and he sent Sonny the letter in jail.
Though Sonny’s passion for music brings him joy and community, the narrator can only see the negative effects of music on Sonny’s life. This leads to a split between the two of them that explicitly defies the narrator’s promise to his mother. This is an acute instance of the consequences of the narrator’s lack of empathy. By trying to understand who Sonny is and what he cares about, the narrator could have intervened in his life before his problems got out of control. Instead, the narrator belittles Sonny’s passion and forces Sonny to turn to his community for family—but unfortunately, this community has the same addiction problems as Sonny.
The narrator quickly describes his daughter Grace’s agonizing death from polio. Isabel saw Grace die, and her nightmares about it still wake her up at night. The narrator doesn’t describe his own grief, but says that the day Grace was buried he wrote to Sonny because “My trouble made his real.”
For Christians, “grace” refers to God’s ability and desire to save sinners without a particular reason, and it’s significant that the narrator’s daughter’s name is Grace; her death, in a way, saves the narrator from himself by allowing him, for the first time, to empathize with Sonny.
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 the street. The narrator first remarks that these revivals are common but they aren’t saving anyone, but then he notices that the people watching the revival seem changed by the music–they are mesmerized and peaceful. He sees Sonny at the edge of the crowd, and Sonny gives the singers some change.
One of the narrator’s most prominent traits is his negative outlook—he’s obsessed with suffering, and, as his regimented life shows, he prefers to focus on keeping suffering at bay than actively seeking joy. His first reaction to the revival (that it isn’t helpful) is predictable, but his reconsideration also hints at his growth. He is beginning to see what Sonny already knows: that people can always seek out ways to be happy, even if their circumstances are dire.
Sonny comes home and invites the narrator to see him play in the Village that night. The narrator agrees, sensing that he can’t possibly say no. Sonny tells him that hearing the woman across the street sing reminded him of how heroin feels: he says, “It makes you feel—in control. Sometimes you’ve got to have that feeling.” The narrator asks him if he needs heroin to play music, and Sonny explains that it’s not to play music, but in order to stand the world, “in order to keep from shaking to pieces.”
This scene shows the changing relationship between the brothers. Though the narrator hates that Sonny plays music, he finally agrees to see him play, which allows them to have an honest conversation about addiction. Sonny draws the parallel between the sense of control that music and drugs give him, which evokes the control that the narrator desperately seeks through creating order with his job and family.
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 haven’t, at least not yet. Sonny remarks that this is “all any of us can say.” He then comments that the singing woman at the revival must have suffered so much to be able to sing like that, and the narrator says that there’s no way not to suffer. Sonny agrees, but says it’s never stopped anyone from trying.
This conversation, more clearly than any other, shows the narrator’s and Sonny’s differing worldviews. While Sonny would seem to be the brother more consumed by suffering, the narrator is actually the one more convinced that suffering is the dominant force in the world. The narrator suggests that suffering is unavoidable, and Sonny doesn’t disagree, but he at least understands that there are ways to mitigate it and find joy.
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 while people suffer for no reason, sometimes it’s easier to accept if a person does something to make themselves feel that they’re suffering for something instead of nothing. The narrator argues that it’s better to just accept it outright, and Sonny erupts, telling him that everyone tries not to suffer, and that the narrator is only upset about people who try in ways that aren’t his own.
The narrator is finally listening to Sonny and allowing himself to understand the harm he has done with his silence—this is tremendous growth from the un-empathetic man he once was. Still, the narrator resists being honest with himself about the fact that his own life of responsibility and order isn’t markedly different from Sonny’s life of passion, since both are just trying to find a way not to suffer. This is the last hurdle to the narrator being able to empathize with and understand Sonny’s life.
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 to tell Sonny that he will never fail him again, but knows that it would sound like an empty promise after what they’ve been through, so the narrator makes the promise silently to himself. Sonny explains that there’s a storm inside himself and he can’t get rid of it. “When you finally try to get with it and play it,” he says, “you realize nobody’s listening. So you’ve got to listen. You got to find a way to listen.”
Here, the narrator seems to be awakening to his job as a brother. While before he had promised his mother he would look after Sonny, now he is promising himself, which suggests that he finally understands the gravity of his role. Sonny’s explanation of his need to play music foreshadows the narrator’s own experience in the jazz club, in which he finds himself finally really listening to music and finding within the music a relief from his own internal storm.
Sonny begins to tell the narrator about what the worst of his addiction was like. He talks about doing terrible things to himself and others, and wanting to escape while knowing that his actions were just digging him farther in. He confesses that when their mother died he wanted to leave Harlem to get away from the drugs, but once he ran away and came back everything was still the same. “It can come again,” he warns the narrator.
With the narrator finally able to empathize and listen, Sonny can confess his worst memories and fears. Of course, these revolve around the self-perpetuating nature of suffering: addiction begets more addiction, meanness begets more meanness, and, no matter how long Sonny stays away, everything is always the same when he returns. This shows the seriousness of the narrator’s promise: it’s going to be difficult to really be there for Sonny.
Sonny and the narrator go to a nightclub downtown (where Sonny is to play that night), and the narrator meets some of Sonny’s musician friends, including a man named Creole. The narrator realizes how beloved and admired Sonny is in this circle of musicians, and he is a little surprised.
The narrator had always looked down on Sonny’s musician friends for living disordered and bohemian lives, but going to the jazz club makes the narrator realize that in his absence, Sonny created his own family who love him.
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 a person to really hear and be moved by music, and when you do, it’s a different experience from playing it. To hear music is a private evocation of personal experience, he believes, but to play it is to bring something new into the world—it’s “more terrible because it has no words, and more triumphant, too, for that same reason.”
The narrator draws an insightful distinction between listening to music, which can only evoke what you’ve already experienced, and playing music, which must create something that hasn’t existed before. He’s finally understanding the value that Sonny brings to the world with his music.
The narrator realizes that Sonny is struggling—he’s not fully throwing himself into his music—and the narrator thinks how hard it must be to have to make an instrument come alive. As the band begins the second set, Creole leads them into a different mood and something changes in Sonny’s playing. The narrator realizes that the band is telling the same tale of suffering that everyone has always told, but they’re using their art to keep it new in order to make people listen. The price of searching for a musical language that will communicate suffering is steep—madness, ruin, death—but when a band succeeds, the narrator calls it “the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.”
As Sonny begins to play well, the narrator finds in the music an entry point into confronting his own suffering. He simultaneously understands the difficulty of Sonny’s craft and the consequences of overcoming such difficulty to bring beauty into the world; these musicians often pay with their sanity and health. Significantly, the narrator is no longer judging them for this, but rather admiring their generosity in sacrificing parts of themselves in order to guide others through the darkness of their lives and bring whatever relief they can. This appreciation for Sonny shows the magnitude of the narrator’s empathetic growth.
Hearing Sonny play reminds the narrator viscerally of his own suffering, Sonny’s suffering, and the suffering of generations back—he says he can feel how the stones on the road bruised his mother’s feet, and he can see the moonlit night when his father’s brother died. He begins to cry, and remembers that outside the club the world is still waiting for them with all of its trouble.
Throughout the story, Baldwin emphasizes the consequences of silence. The father suffered because he wouldn’t talk about his brother’s death, and Sonny and the narrator suffered because of their estrangement. Sonny’s music is shown as an antidote to this silence—an acknowledgement of suffering that doesn’t take pain away, but at least makes its burdens easier to carry. Baldwin also lyrically connects the narrator’s and Sonny’s suffering to the suffering of their parents, suggesting an endless cycle of suffering and oppression within the black community.
When the band pauses, the narrator asks a bartender to take drinks up to the 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 with the narrator. He puts the glass on top of his piano and begins to play, and the narrator watches the cup shake above Sonny’s head “like the very cup of trembling.”
Baldwin ends the story with an optimistic symbol, a reference to a moment in the Book of Isaiah when God takes suffering from mankind. The narrator, who has finally learned to empathize with and care for his brother, has found relief from his own suffering through Sonny’s music. Baldwin doesn’t imply that their lives will cease to be hard, but he at least suggests that their mutual love can spare them the worst of their sufferings.