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Literature / Sonny's Blues

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"Sonny's Blues" is a short story written in 1957 by African-American novelist and playwright James Baldwin.

Set in Harlem, the story tells of its unnamed narrator's efforts to reconnect with his younger brother, Sonny, after the latter has been arrested for peddling and using heroin. In the midst of this reunion, the older brother also reflects on the series of events that led to Sonny's addiction, including the complicated relationship with their parents and friction with the narrator's wife's parents. He also reflects on Sonny's love of music, particularly jazz, and how it may or may not have contributed to Sonny's downward spiral into drugs and crime.

Examples of tropes in "Sonny's Blues":

  • The Alcoholic: The boys' father was this, and in fact he died because of it.
  • Aloof Older Brother: How Sonny has always seen his brother.
  • Big Brother Mentor: Creole, the fiddle-player in Sonny's jazz band, serves as this for Sonny much more than the narrator, Sonny's actual big brother.
  • Coming of Age Story: For Sonny.
  • Crapsack World: Harlem. According to the narrator's description, it's a place rife with drug addicts, prostitution, and enough corrupting influences to turn young people to the wrong side of the law. This is also during a time when racial inequality was still quite strong.
  • Death of a Child: The narrator's daughter Grace died of polio when she was just over two years old.
  • Drugs Are Bad: At the time the story opens, the narrator has just read a newspaper story outlining how Sonny got busted by the police for dealing in, and using, heroin. There are other examples of the effects of drug use scattered here and there throughout the story.
  • Drunk Driver: A car full of drunken white men ran over the boys' uncle when he and their father were younger. This incident caused the father to develop a hatred for all white people.
  • Everybody Smokes: Sonny and the narrator are just two examples.
  • Happily Married: The narrator and Isabel.
  • Irrational Hatred: How the narrator's mother described his father's hatred of white people following his brother's death, when she first told him what had happened.
    Mother: Your daddy never did really get right again. Till the day he died he weren't sure but that every white man he saw was the man that killed his brother.
  • Men Don't Cry: The narrator's father tried to play it straight, but...
    Mother: Your father always acted like he was the roughest, strongest man on earth. And everybody took him to be like that. But if he hadn't had me there—to see his tears!
  • No Name Given: The narrator's name is never mentioned at any point in the story.
  • "Not So Different" Remark: The narrator claims this as the reason Sonny never got along with their father—for one thing, both of them had a deep sense of privacy, despite Sonny being quiet and the father being rough and loud.
  • Obnoxious In-Laws: Played straight with Isabel's parents, who haven't been supportive of his relationship with Isabel. Averted with Isabel herself, regarding her interactions with Sonny; the narrator notes that she's always had a better and more relaxed relationship with Sonny than he himself has ever had.
  • Plagued by Nightmares: The narrator mentions that Isabel has recurring nightmares about their deceased daughter Grace.
  • The Quiet One: Sonny. The narrator admits that Sonny has never been very talkative.
  • Skipping School: An example that's played for drama, in the boys' shared back-story. While the narrator was serving in the military and Sonny was still attending school, arrangements were made for him to live with Isabel's family in the interim; however, instead of going to school, he'd been spending his time with jazz musicians in Greenwich Village. The school took notice of his increasing number of absences and sent letters to Isabel's family, but Sonny managed to intercept and destroy all the letters save one, which eventually found its way into Isabel's mother's hands and resulted in a fiery confrontation that led to Sonny leaving the home.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: The narrator presents a rather cynical view of Harlem and of life in general, while at the same time he makes a passing mention of Sonny being very optimistic when he was younger.
  • Stepford Smiler: A female bartender that the narrator sees on his way home.
    I watched her face as she laughingly responded to something someone said to her, still keeping time to the music. When she smiled one saw the little girl, one sensed the doomed, still-struggling woman beneath the battered face of the semi-whore.
  • Title Drop: The narrator does this while describing how Sonny, Creole and their jazz band play at the Greenwich Village club, while he's in the audience watching and listening to them.
    Listen, Creole seemed to be saying, listen. Now these are Sonny's blues.