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 family takes orphaned Sonny in, but makes it clear that they only did so because it was proper, not because they had compassion for Sonny’s predicament. Both of these instances of familial indifference compounded Sonny’s problems and fueled his despair, showing the power of family to grievously harm.
However, while familial cruelty or indifference propels the plot of “Sonny’s Blues,” Baldwin resolves the story by exploring how much more complex a family obligation is than it can initially appear. He suggests that family obligations, when met with real compassion, are mutually rewarding. The possibilities of a family relationship built on compassion emerge most clearly through the narrator’s growth once Sonny moves in with his family. At first, the narrator believes that he has been asked to care for Sonny because he is the more stable brother—he thinks that he has something to give Sonny, but nothing to gain by helping him. As the story progresses, however, and the narrator becomes open to understanding and accepting who Sonny is, the narrator begins to absolve himself of the guilt of having failed both his brother and mother. Also, more importantly, it becomes clear that Sonny’s music is an antidote to the bitterness and hopelessness that the narrator feels. Sonny and the narrator need one another—Sonny needs compassion and a place to stay, while the narrator needs a model of somebody who is striving for joy in spite of the suffering all around them. Their bond, then, is mutually beneficial.
It’s possible to see this complexity, too, in the narrator’s promise to his mother, a promise she forced him to make. The narrator’s mother sees this promise as a corrective to the previous generation’s tragedy, in which the narrator’s father failed to protect his own brother from a senseless and violent death. The narrator’s mother was the only person who saw the extent of her husband’s suffering afterwards, and, while the promise appears at first to be for Sonny’s benefit, it could also be seen as the mother’s attempt to spare the narrator a grief similar to his father’s. Overall, the story suggests that, while it is tempting to view family relationships and obligations as straightforward and even transactional, showing real compassion for family can offer surprising rewards, including the relief of a person’s most intractable suffering.
Family Bonds ThemeTracker
Family Bonds Quotes in Sonny’s Blues
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.
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.
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.
“He says he never in his life seen anything as dark as that road after the lights of that car had gone away.”
“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.”
“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.”
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.”
“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?”
“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.”
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.
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.
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.