The unnamed narrator, Sonny's brother, represents one of the "two sides of the African-American experience" ("Sonny's Blues" 16). An algebra schoolteacher and dedicated husband and father, the narrator attempts to integrate himself into white society by becoming "respectable" (Ognibene 16). As a result he is disconnected from his heritage and culture. He has distanced himself from the elements of the African American experience that are dark or unsettling.
He refuses to understand the struggles of his younger brother, Sonny, whose life has been twisted by heroin abuse and a prison sentence. The narrator has an emotional epiphany when he finally listens to Sonny play music. He perceives his connection to his family, to the African American race, and even to humanity at large. Embracing this truth temporarily relieves his suffering and allows him to understand Sonny's suffering.
The titular character of the short story, Sonny represents the other side of the African American experience. Struggling with drugs and depression, Sonny sinks down into the Harlem underworld, but finds meaning in a uniquely African American form of artistic expression: jazz. Through jazz, and particularly through the technically complex and abstract stylings of bebop, Sonny is able to both find himself and develop a connection to his heritage.
Sitting at the piano, Sonny is able not only to express himself but also to express the pain and suffering that have marked his family and the wider African American community. Through the blues, Sonny converts his personal pain into communal art. It is with music that Sonny is finally able to communicate with his older brother and make him understand the meaning of his life. Music is an outlet for Sonny, who throughout the story is never genuinely heard except through medium of the piano.
Sonny's friend is a typical drug addict, who still prowls the streets he grew up on, looking for heroin and money. The friend, who is reminiscent of Sonny, inspires mixed feelings in the narrator, from disdain, to guilt, to compassion. Sonny's friend is genuinely disturbed by Sonny's incarceration and even admits to feeling guilty about introducing him to heroin when they were both schoolboys. At the end of their conversation, the friend asks the narrator for money, as he has done every time they've encountered each other. It is unclear whether his visit to the narrator's school was inspired by his desire to inform him about Sonny, or his desire for money -- or perhaps an uncomfortable mix of both motives.
Isabel, the narrator's wife, helps hold the family together. She eases the tension when Sonny returns after his stint in prison, helping make the family whole again. Years earlier, she had brought Sonny into her parent's home after his mother's death left him homeless. Despite showing incredible strength in her ability to support her husband, she was deeply wounded by the death of her daughter and still wakes herself screaming some nights.
Isabel's parents allow Sonny to move into their home after the death of his mother. The narrator describes them as "dicty" (122), or pretentious, but they provide a warm home for Sonny when the narrator is stationed overseas in the military. They are disturbed by Sonny's constant playing of the family piano, but tolerate it nonetheless, sensing that it is of the utmost importance to him. When they receive a letter from the school district informing them that Sonny has not been attending school, they confront him, prompting his decision to leave and join the Navy.
Grace, the narrator's daughter, was only two years old when she died of complications from polio. Isabel, who witnessed her death, was left traumatized by the incident. Afterwards, the narrator's own suffering allows him to recognize and understand his brother's suffering, pushing him to write Sonny in prison for the first time. Grace's death can be understood as an act of grace, putting the narrator on the path to his ultimate redemption.
The narrator's mother
Like Isabel, Sonny's mother is a strong woman, who has helped support her husband and raise a family. After her husband's funeral, she tells the narrator about her husband's brother, who was killed when a group of drunken white men ran him down with a car. She implores the narrator to be there for his brother, sensing that her impending death will leave Sonny isolated. Many of her predictions and warnings come to pass, giving her a prophetic aura.
The narrator's father
Sonny's father dies at a young age, when Sonny is barely fifteen. A heavy drinker, the narrator's father loved Sonny fiercely, but worried about him and fought with him. The narrator explains that this was because his father and Sonny were too alike; they both had "that same privacy" (114). Sonny's father was deeply wounded by watching his brother die, and carried the burden of that event throughout his life.
Creole plays the fiddle and leads the band during Sonny's performance at the end of the story. Creole has a tremendous amount of admiration and affection for Sonny. Throughout their set, Creole reins in the other instruments to give Sonny an opportunity to shine as a soloist. His name is often thought to be a reference to jazz's Louisiana roots.
The narrator's uncle
The narrator's uncle was tragically killed at a young age when a car full of drunken white men ran him over. The incident permanently traumatized the narrator's father, witness to his brother's untimely death. The explicit racism of this scene is unique in "Sonny's Blues", a story that makes many oblique references to, but rarely directly addresses, prejudice.
Sonny’s Blues Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Sonny’s Blues is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.