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    Effects of a Harmful Environment in “Sonny’s Blues”

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    Poverty is an inarguable inevitability that exists in every country, and it is unlikely to disappear anytime soon. Despite being considered one of the most developed countries in the world, poverty rates within the United States have remained persistently high. Unfortunately, as this vicious cycle of impoverishment continues, ‘lifelong barriers and troubles are passed on from one generation to the next’. Throughout James Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blue’s”, the characters are forced to face limited possibilities and inconvenient situations in a hostile neighborhood. With the intention of wanting to inform people who are unaware of what it is like to live in poverty, Baldwin uses imagery and repetition to demonstrate how a conflicting environment can eventually cause a person to be negatively influenced based on the way they may think or act.

    At the beginning of the story, Baldwin’s use of diction establishes a perception of helplessness. After finding out that Sonny had been arrested for peddling and using heroin, the narrator was unwilling to convince himself that the “light” in the boy, who was once “bright and open”, had “gone out” (Baldwin 1). In many cases, light is often used to convey all the positive and hopeful aspects that can be found in life. Through these descriptions, the author attempts to emphasize how someone as promising as Sonny can become just as despairing as the other addicts within Harlem. Undeniably, Sonny has been stripped of all his innocence as a result of becoming a victim of the negativities surrounding him. He has succumbed to the drugs and cruelty of this debilitated neighborhood because of his inability to overcome his temptations, ultimately abandoning the life and future he could have had.

    Furthermore, Baldwin also uses repetition in an attempt to stress a sense of desperation within the characters. After attending the funeral of their mother, the narrator has a discussion with his estranged brother about what his plans are for the future. With his mind set on dropping out of school and his aspirations to become a musician, Sonny repeatedly expresses his desire to “get out of Harlem” in an earnest tone of voice (Baldwin 13). Based on how he persistently utters the same statement throughout his conversation with the narrator, Sonny clearly wants his doubtful brother to understand how committed he is to escape this toxic neighborhood. By making this revelation, Sonny is not only choosing to leave the place he spent his entire childhood, he is choosing to leave behind the many regrets and mistakes he made. Despite not having a clear plan, this sudden outburst was a way for Sonny to reveal his longing and willingness to simply have a life without drugs and arrests anymore. To him, this is an opportunity to reinvent himself. A chance to experience the infinite amount of possibilities that he could not challenge while living in Harlem.

    Lastly, at this point of the story, the author decides to use diction again in order to express a discouraging tone. While having yet another conversation with Sonny, the narrator tries to listen and understand his frustration, as he cries out that “there’s no way not to suffer” (Baldwin 18). The idea of suffering appears inescapably throughout the story. From poverty, addiction, and limited opportunities, each character experiences grief in some way. Though the constant presence of suffering wears some characters down, others are resigned to the idea despite knowing that they can never escape it. To Sonny, suffering is an inescapable aspect embedded in their lives. He is convinced that people like them, impoverished and hopeless, are bound to be miserable.

    In conclusion, the story’s ending enforces the author’s message to his readers that a conflicting environment can cause a person to be manipulated. In the last paragraph, the narrator is now starting to realize the hardships Sonny must have endured after watching him perform for the first time. He then proceeds to send him a drink that sits on top of the piano “like the very cup of trembling” as Sonny continues to play (Baldwin 22). According to the Bible, the cup of trembling is used to symbolize the fear and pain that have plagued the people. The biblical passage promises relief from that pain. By drinking from the cup, Sonny is not only reminded of his own suffering, but he is also accepting it and seeking redemption. Compared to how he was back in Harlem, Sonny seems to have found a source of happiness. Perhaps Baldwin wrote this story to show that who and what a person surrounds themselves with is a matter of choice and who they desire to be.

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    Effects of a Harmful Environment in “Sonny’s Blues”. (2021, Aug 19). Retrieved from

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