Sonny’s Blues


James Baldwin

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The Cup of Trembling Symbol Analysis

The Cup of Trembling Symbol Icon

At the end of the story the narrator has had an epiphany due to Sonny’s music, and Baldwin introduces a symbol—“the cup of trembling”—to encapsulate the moment. This image is about salvation, and it comes from the Book of Isaiah in the Bible: the Lord says, “Behold, I have taken out of thine handthe cup of trembling, even the dregs ofthe cupof my fury; thou shalt no more drink it again.” In a story that is so concerned with suffering, the cup of trembling signifies a moment in which God took suffering away, much like music has decreased Sonny’s and the narrator’s sufferings. Though the symbol seems to appear out of nowhere, there are echoes of it throughout the story: for instance, Baldwin consistently describes people who have succumbed to the dangers of Harlem as “shaken to pieces.” It’s the trembling of rage, addiction, and despair that this cup takes away, and Baldwin’s use of the symbol is therefore clearly optimistic, but not wholeheartedly so. The cup is described as shaking above Sonny’s head, which seems a precarious and threatening position—it’s as though the whole endeavor could collapse and harm him, much like he could relapse into his old lifestyle of drug use. The future is uncertain for these characters, but the cup of trembling confirms that, through music, they’ve both found a way to relieve themselves, at least for a moment, from the suffering in which they’re immersed.

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The Cup of Trembling Symbol Timeline in Sonny’s Blues

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Cup of Trembling 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
Family Bonds Theme Icon
Passion, Restraint, and Control Theme Icon
Salvation and Relief Theme Icon play, and the narrator watches the cup shake above Sonny’s head “like the very cup of trembling .” (full context)