"This Morning, This Evening, So Soon," is set primarily in Paris, France and briefly in New York City. It is narrated in the first person by an unnamed famous jazz musician and movie star; while the real name of the narrator is never revealed, Vidal, the French director of the film that made him famous, refers to him by the name of his character in the film, Chico. The story begins with a domestic scene. The narrator has just raised his voice to his young son, Paul. His wife, Harriet, who is Swedish, expertly de-escalates the situation. The narrator's sister, Louisa, is staying with them. She is a school teacher in Alabama. The narrator feels under a particular stress in this opening scene because, for the first time in eight years, he will be returning to America. His son and his wife will be joining him, and neither of them have ever been to America. He's nervous because he despises America and feels that in France, he's been able to make a life for himself that is totally separate from the personal and institutional racism that flows like blood through every interaction in which he participates in America.
Louisa and Harriet spend the afternoon getting ready for a night out together. It is their last night in Paris before the journey home. The narrator has plans with Vidal, the director of the film that made him famous, to dine at an upscale restaurant and then go to a discotheque. After Harriet and Louisa leave for their night out, the narrator recalls the day he knew he was in love with Harriet. They were walking on the Pont Royal bridge and had just had an argument. He says, "There were millions of people all around us, but I was alone with Harriet. She was alone with me. Never, in all my life, until that moment, had I been alone with anyone. The world had always been with us, between us, defeating the quarrel we could not achieve, and making love impossible." But with Harriet, in Europe, the narrator feels able to separate himself from the ever-present white man's world.
He then recounts his trip back to New York when his mother died. He went to Alabama and then returned to New York City to work and save until he could return to France and to Harriet. He worked as an elevator operator, and recalls how poorly he was able to conceal his hatred of the rich, white people who rode the elevator and patronized his place of work. They would accuse him of "bringing back foreign notions," suggesting that after spending time in Europe, he considers himself their equal.
While recalling this first return to New York, the narrator also relates his time working with Vidal on the film. He remembers one scene in particular in which Vidal criticizes his performance in front of the whole cast and crew. The character, a North African working in France, is humiliated by a French store owner when he grovels for a job at his store. Vidal accuses the narrator of playing "the noble savage," a caricature rather than a complex character. Vidal then provokes the narrator to anger, in a way tricking him into channeling his own past and his experiences as a black man in America to access the anger and frustration felt by the character in the scene.
When Vidal and the narrator enter the discotheque, all eyes turn to them. They are celebrities, and people cautiously train their gazes on them, hoping the attention is reciprocated. After they settle into a table, they notice a group of black American students in a small group near the bar. One of them holds a guitar. One of the young women in the group, Ada Holmes, walks over to their table and introduces herself. She tells the narrator how much his work means to her and her friends and asks if they could buy them a drink. Vidal and the narrator end up spending the rest of the evening with the kids, drinking and playing music, eventually moving on to a sidewalk cafe.
The narrator's fame and the student's guitar-playing attract a small crowd around their table. Among the crowd is a North African prize-fighter named Boona with whom the narrator was once acquainted. The narrator invites him over, somewhat out of obligation. Boona jumps at the opportunity to join, and seems especially intrigued by the American women. They move on to a Spanish bar with live music and dance for a while, until another one of the students, Talley, takes the narrator aside and alleges that Boona stole money out of Ada's purse. The accusation leads to a confrontation in front of the bar. The narrator feels his allegiances being torn. He cannot openly admit that he believes Boona stole from Ada's purse, but he cannot, also, firmly deny that he did. Either way, he would be calling one side a liar. The incident ends awkwardly. Ada apologizes to Boona, but only to de-escalate the situation, not because she believes he didn't do it. In the end, all parties go their separate ways. The narrator goes back to his apartment, wakes up his son Paul, and gets ready for the trip back to America.
"This Morning, This Evening, So Soon"—similarly to the story which precedes it in the collection, "Sonny's Blues"—pays great attention to music, in particular jazz, gospel, and American folk. The title of the story, "This Morning, This Evening, So Soon," is also a title of an American folk song and figures into several folks songs as a refrain, including but not limited to "Tell Old Bill" and "'Dis Morning, 'Dis Evening, So Soon." Many American folk songs originated and were authored by African people enslaved in America, and were later co-opted by white singers and musicians. Like "Sonny's Blues," "This Morning, This Evening, So Soon" focuses on sound over sight. When the narrator returns to New York, a city he dreads so much, he recalls, "I was not aware of its towers now. We were in the shadow of the elevated highway but the thing which most struck me was neither light nor shade, but noise" (Baldwin). Noise, rather than visual spectacle, again affects another of Baldwin's protagonists the most when it comes to triggering memory or emotion.
Another major theme in "This Morning, This Evening, So Soon" that also figures prominently in "Previous Condition" is the notion that black men in America have to know how to navigate interactions with white men, especially white men in positions of authority, like police officers, in a way that minimizes any undue consequences or confrontations. The narrator presents a situation to Vidal that demonstrates this unjust balance act. "Maybe you’re walking along the street one night, it’s usually at night, but it happens in the daytime, too. And the police car comes up behind you and the cop says, ‘Hey, boy. Come on over here.’ So you go on over. He says, ‘Boy, I believe you’re drunk.’ And, you see, if you say, ‘No, no sir,’ he’ll beat you because you’re calling him a liar. And if you say anything else, unless it’s something to make him laugh, he’ll take you in and beat you, just for fun. The trick is to think of some way for them to have their fun without beating you up.” Later, describing his time working as an elevator operator after spending a few years in Europe, he says, "I had once known how to pitch my voice precisely between curtness and servility, and known what razor’s edge of a pickaninny’s smile would turn away wrath." "This Morning, This Evening, So Soon" demonstrates how, for the narrator, the racism and subjugation of black people are so finely knit into the fabric of American culture that he cannot stand to return.
In Europe, he's able to fall in love, with a white woman at that, because he feels extricated from the white man's world of America. When he says, "There were millions of people all around us, but I was alone with Harriet. She was alone with me. Never, in all my life, until that moment, had I been alone with anyone. The world had always been with us, between us, defeating the quarrel we could not achieve, and making love impossible," we see how the private world of romantic love was previously made impossible by the societal forces at play. When he tells Vidal about the incident involving his sister Louisa, her friend, and their boyfriends, where white police officers forced her friend to expose her genitals to prove she was a black woman, he's trying to make Vidal understand that white men in America are constantly trying to make black men feel like less than men. Louisa left her fiancé after than experience, even though if he were to have stood up for them, he likely would've ended up dead. Thus, the narrator demonstrates that America is a no-win environment for a black man.