The narrator switches from present to past to present while reminiscing about Sonny. What effect does this have on the story?
Baldwin eschews chronological time in order to better magnify the extent of Sonny's suffering and to stress the influence of the past on the present. The narrator vividly recounts all the most painful chapters of his relationship with Sonny and of his family's history. The effect overwhelms the reader, giving them a clear understanding of the depth of Sonny's--and the narrators--struggle. By focusing heavily on past events Baldwin reminds us that the past structures the present.
Explain the meaning of darkness throughout the work.
The narrator explains that the darkness is what his family and community "endure" (115). Given the story's setting, Harlem in the 1950s, the suffering being endured likely refers not only to general human suffering but to the racist societal and institutional forces that worked to oppress African Americans. The single explicit scene of racism, the death of the narrator's uncle, is described as particularly dark: the narrator's mother recalls that her husband had never "seen anything as dark as that road" (118).
Why does Grace’s death prompt the narrator to contact Sonny?
The narrator has distanced himself from much of the suffering endured by his brother and the wider African American community; he cannot relate to or understand his brother's experience. It is only after the tragic death of his daughter, when he experiences his own moment of intense pain, that he is able to begin to understand his brother's situation. Suffering acts as a bridge between the distant brothers, allowing the narrator to reach out to his youngest sibling.
Examine the variety of roles that women play in “Sonny’s Blues."
The story's protagonists, Sonny and the narrator, are men but several female figures appear throughout "Sonny's Blues." Isabel and the narrator's mother both work to hold their families together, supporting their husbands and easing the relationship between the brothers. Likewise it is a woman's singing during the street revival that moves both brothers and brings them closer together, paving the way for perhaps their first honest conversation. In "Sonny's Blues" women support men and, more specifically, facilitate the brothers' increasing intimacy.
What sub-genre of music is Sonny playing? Why might have Baldwin chosen this sub-genre specifically within the context of the story?
Critics have argued that the story "strongly supports a reading that it is jazz, and more specifically 'Bebop' that Sonny plays" (Sherard 691). Bebop, a technically complex and somewhat abstract form of jazz, would be baffling to unprepared audiences, as Sonny's music is to Isabel and her family. Bebop also incorporates long and experimental solos, like the one Sonny plays at the story's climax. Bebop, with its strong roots in the African American community and propensity for solos, is the perfect vessel to express both Sonny's connection to his heritage and his desire for unique expression.
Describe the impact of the revival meeting outside the narrator's apartment on the audience.
Both brothers witness the revival in the street and are moved by the music. The narrator notes that the music "seemed to soothe the poison out of" the audience, explaining the potential music has to impact individuals (129). Sonny later remarks that the singer must have had to suffer terribly to sing so beautifully. These observations outline Baldwin's ideas about suffering, art and communion: suffering, if channeled into art, can be used to communicate with another and that communication is the only reprieve from suffering possible.
How does Sonny justify his drug use?
Sonny explains that all human beings suffer, without apparent cause. By using drugs Sonny can provide a reason for his own suffering. By imagining that his suffering is a consequence of his own actions, he can gain control over his life. Thus drugs offer an elusive feeling of control. Moreover, since suffering is part of the human condition, ceasing to use drugs will not alleviate his suffering.
Explain the connection between art and suffering in “Sonny’s Blues."
Suffering, which has "humanizing power" (Nelson 28), is necessary to gain the understanding and compassion needed to produce great art. In turn, great art can, by allowing for communion between people, relieve suffering. The narrator's suffering is only relieved when he finally connects with his brother Sonny through his music. Sonny's music allows the narrator to understand his own pain as well as the pain of his brother. This intimate communication temporarily relieves his suffering.
What do the scotch and milk that the narrator sends his brother represent?
The scotch and milk represents the dual nature of Sonny's personality and of the ending. Scotch is a sinful drink while milk is innocent, even childlike. Likewise, Sonny is both a drug addict and a vessel for redemption. The story's ending is similarly ambiguous: the narrator experiences an epiphany but he is aware that the same world still waits "outside, as hungry as a tiger" (140). The reader is left wondering at the end of the story if Sonny relapses. The drink seals this ambiguity. In the last line the narrator refers to the glass as "the very cup of trembling", a biblical reference to great suffering. he glass becomes a symbol of past pain and, potentially, of pain to come (141).
Describe how "Sonny's Blues" handles the topic of racism.
Racism is obliquely referred to throughout the story. The narrator laments that his students face limited possibilities. He refers vaguely to an overwhelming darkness that marks the lives of his family and is destined to mark the lives of the next generation. These general allusions become explicit when the narrator's mother describes the death of her husband's brother at the hands of drunken white men. This anecdote illuminates the narrator's previous comments; the ominous world he describes so well is the product of not only poverty or other factors, but of racism.