Sonny’s Blues


James Baldwin

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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.

Cycles of Suffering

The central concern of “Sonny’s Blues” is suffering: Baldwin emphasizes that suffering is universal, and that it is also cyclical—that suffering tends to lead to more suffering. Baldwin demonstrates the effects of suffering on several different scales: he shows the way suffering affects an individual life, the way it affects a family throughout generations, and the way it affects a society overall.

The story—set in 1950s Harlem, a New York neighborhood that was then at…

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Family Bonds

In “Sonny’s Blues,” Baldwin asks how much family members owe to one another, and he examines the fallout when familial compassion fails and obligations are only halfheartedly met. The most explicit example of this is the narrator’s failure for most of the story to live up to his promise to his mother that he would always be there for Sonny. Another example of a halfheartedly met family obligation is when the narrator’s wife’s…

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Passion, Restraint, and Control

The narrator and Sonny, as black men in America, live in a world that tries to control them. They also live in a world that seems completely overwhelming because it is so saturated with suffering. Baldwin sets up the two brothers as being emblematic of two diverging responses to this pervasive suffering. One chooses a life of passion, idolizing artistic expression and casting aside a traditional life in order to find meaning, and the…

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Salvation and Relief

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…

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