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    The Failure as a Brother of the Narrator in the Short Story, Sonny’s Blues by James Baldwin

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    With an unexpected turn of events in the end of the short story, Sonny’s Blues, Sonny overcomes the tension in his life and leaves readers to see him where he is happy and sound. This ending emphasizes music’s importance in clarifying and defining the struggle between Sonny and the narrator and, for both of them, life.

    One particular thing I noticed was that the narrator is nameless. What is chiefly key in this is that the story is told through his perspective. So, why would Baldwin leave the arguably most fundamental character nameless? In my search to make meaning of the text, I found that most likely it was to emphasize that, despite his principles and life situation, he is no better than his brother. It humbles him. This is affirmed in the final scene where Sonny commands the room, along with his fellow musicians, in a godlike manner. He does this when he plays music, an atmosphere where he belongs and the narrator clearly does not (he is seated in the corner of the dark bar alone). It further emphasizes the importance of an inability to compare one life to another.

    We see this also when the narrator first finds out about Sonny and runs into an old classmate. Here the narrator battles his anger for the man who so closely resembles his failure of a brother, and contempt for someone who has nothing to do with his own or Sonny’s life situation. The narrator begins to see his ignorance: “Look. Don’t tell me your sad story. Then I felt guilty … probably for never having supposed the poor bastard had a story of his own” (89). This inner battle ensues and whenever the acquaintance, or rather stranger, has a bit of wisdom, bridging the gap between Sonny and him with some understanding and sympathy, music distracts the narrator (the “semi-whore” at the bar).

    After Sonny gets out of jail and lives with the narrator for a short amount of time, the narrator sees Sonny observing a church ensemble on the street below. Sonny says that the voice of the girl reminded him “what heroin feels like sometimes” (113). This is the catalyst of a conversation that makes both of them deal with Sonny’s struggle to keepP sober. Here, the narrator begs Sonny not to resort to it again. He pleads with him asking, “But there’s no need.. is there? in killing yourself?” (115). He gives himself and readers the answer with the paragraph that follows: “I wanted to say more, but I couldn’t. I wanted to talk about will power and how life could be-well, beautiful. I wanted to say that it was all within; but was it? or, rather wasn’t that exactly the trouble? And I wanted to promise that I would never fail him again. But it would have all sounded-empty words and lies” (115). The narrator has a groundbreaking epiphany that he is no better than Sonny. This is where the dynamics shift, and it becomes Sonny’s Brother’s Blues. Sonny describes finally why music means so much- that it is life or death for him. And, finally, the narrator begins to see this and realize he isn’t far from being as suffocated and at risk as Sonny.

    Finally, the story ends with Sonny playing in the club. He becomes god-like in his ability to take his struggle and hypnotize the room with it: “Sonny’s fingers filled the air with life, his life.. I understood at last that he could help us to be free if we would listen” (122). The narrator gives in to the power of music and makes the effort not to pity, but to understand his brother. We are reminded how hard Sonny plays for his life with the resonant and final image of the story: the Cup of Trembling. It is a biblical reference in which it is used as a symbol of fear. Here, because it is over Sonny’s head while he plays the piano, we see the balance music gives to Sonny. Yes, it is life or death, but Sonny takes his struggle, what he is and has been, and uses it to create a striking and true melody. The cup of trembling complements music as the image of power and hope that Sonny may surpass his struggles.

    While this ending and reading is cliché, I truly believe it is Baldwin’s intent. Readers are left with two black characters who are not defined by their struggle, but take the reins and make something of it. I didn’t even remember that they were black (aside from the fact that it is our class description), which further proves Baldwin’s seemingly effortless message that everyone struggles, despite skin color, and everyone has a chance to overcome that struggle.

    This essay was written by a fellow student. You may use it as a guide or sample for writing your own paper, but remember to cite it correctly. Don’t submit it as your own as it will be considered plagiarism.

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    The Failure as a Brother of the Narrator in the Short Story, Sonny’s Blues by James Baldwin. (2023, Mar 03). Retrieved from

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