This paper would discuss and evaluate the significance of perspective in the telling of a story. It would consider how the story would have changed dramatically if it were told from the perspective of a different narrator. Would it be the same story? How are perspective and plot-related? How might descriptions of places and characters be influenced by a particular narrator’s perspective and the attitudes he holds?
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“Sonny’s Blues” written by James Baldwin is a story that deals with very real aspects of society and is done so through the use of symbolism and imagery. The story is craftily written, using lightness and darkness as symbols throughout the entire story. Baldwin focuses “Sonny’s Blues” on the character of Sonny who is continuously struggling to find what makes him happy. Ultimately, Sonny finds two escapes, one of them being fatal: drug abuse and music. Baldwin opens the story at the school where Sonny’s older brother (the speaker) works as a teacher. He reflects on what happened to his brother as he watches the boys in the schoolyard.
“…here I was, talking about algebra to a lot of boys who might, everyone of them for all I knew, be popping off needles every time they went to the head. Maybe it did more for them than algebra could…These boys, now were living as we’d been living then, they were growing up with a rush and their heads bumped abruptly against the low ceiling of their actual possibilities. They were filled with rage. All they really knew were two types of darkness, the darkness of their lives, which was now closing in on them, and the darkness of the movies, which had blinded them to that other darkness, and in which they now, vindictively, dreamed, at once more together than they were at any other time, and more alone” (Baldwin, p. 110).
This quote describes not only how unaware the speaker felt about the youth abusing drugs, but also describes their lives using the term darkness. Darkness symbolizes all of the hardships that the boys are faced with which is masked by the movies and media making life look easy. The term darkness has a negative connotation and gives the reader a sense that this word symbolizes something depressing or troubling. Throughout the entire story, the terms lightness and darkness are used as symbols to describe several occurrences.
Additionally, Baldwin creates strong imagery in different instances throughout the story. For example, the speaker, Sonny’s brother says: “A great block of ice got settled in my belly and kept melting there slowly all day long…It was a special kind of ice. It kept melting, sending trickles of ice water all up and down my veins, but it never got less. Sometimes it hardened and seemed to expand until I felt my guts were going to come spilling out or that I was going to choke or scream. This would always be at a moment when I was remembering some specific thing Sonny had once said or done” (Baldwin, p. 109). Visually, the author creates vivid images for the reader to see as they are reading the story. This instance could be interpreted as a reference to Sonny’s use of heroin. The speaker describes feeling this way when thinking about past things Sonny had done, and perhaps the speaker felt this as he reflected on Sonny’s use of heroin. The ice moving slowly up and down his veins could perhaps be linked to Sonny shooting heroin into his veins.
The entire idea of perspectives change and switching over directly relates to what happened to Sonny. As Sonny grew up he saw the harshness of life and was unable to find happiness within himself. He grew distant from his family and did his own thing. Sonny became very independent and relied on music to express his inner pain. (Murray, pp. 353-57) Sonny also used heroin and other drugs as means for an escape from the harsh realities of his life. Sonny encompassed eternal darkness inside of him and was unable to be happy. He viewed the world as an ugly place and longed for an escape just as the child in the quotation was fated to do. Sonny was able to relate his two escapes (music and heroin) to each other: “when she was singing before…her voice reminded me for a minute of what heroin feels like sometimes-when it’s in your veins. It makes you feel sort of warm and cool at the same time. And distant: And-and sure” (Baldwin, p. 130). Sonny goes on to explain to his brother that music makes him feel in control and helps him “to keep from shaking to pieces” (Baldwin, p.131). Ironically, the heroin is what ultimately kills Sonny and his brother can see that.
A final example of the use of lightness and darkness occurs on page 135 when the speaker remembers going to see Sonny play music at a club: “The light from the bandstand spilled just a little short of them and, watching them laughing and gesturing and moving about, I had the feeling that they, nevertheless, were being most careful not step into that circle of light too suddenly; that if they moved into the light too suddenly, without thinking, they would perish in flame. Then, while I watched, one of them, the small, black man, moved into the light and crossed the bandstand and started fooling around with his drums” (Baldwin, p. 135).
This quote is significant in that it is contrasting with the darkness that has been repeated throughout the beginning of the story. Now the author brings on a light. Light leads the reader to see hope and happiness. The music is creating hope and happiness despite all of the harshnesses in the world. (Byerman, pp. 360-72) The speaker describes the band members as being fearful of the light, but then when in the light they can shine and express themselves. The author earlier describes the music’s power of healing: “the music seemed to soothe the poison out of them” (Baldwin, 129). From these passages, it is evident that Sonny had found his place and his escape that made him happy. Yet the heroin addiction was more powerful and took his life.
The story may be termed and interpreted as the story of two brothers who come to understand each other but their perspectives keep changing and the story itself twists with its plot. More specifically, it shows, through its two main characters, Sonny and his older brother, the two sides of African-American’s experience with much of racism. The narrator, Sonny’s brother, has tried to assimilate into the white society, but still feels the pain and the limits on his opportunity. (Terry, pp. 125-30) On the other hand, Sonny has never tried to assimilate and has to find a way out for his pain through drugs. Analyzing the plot of “Sonny’s Blues,” we can understand what happened, why it happened, and why characters acted the way they do. The exposition of the story starts when the narrator introduces the characters, scene, and situation of the story. The narrator learns from a newspaper that his younger brother, Sonny, has been arrested “for peddling and using heroin.” (Baldwin, p. 83)
The narrator is a high school teacher, and his wife is Isabel. Leaving the school, the narrator comes across an old friend of Sonny’s in the schoolyard. They talk about Sonny’s arrest and tell each other some of their fears. The friend says that he “can’t much help old Sonny no more.” This angers the narrator because it reminds him that he had given up trying to help his brother and not even seen Sonny in a year. However, he keeps in touch with Sonny again after his daughter dies. It is also the moment the narrator begins to wonder about Sonny again. The scene ends the exposition and opens the story’s rising action part. The story continues as the narrator meets Sonny after Sonny gets out of prison. At Sonny’s request, they take a long cab ride and recall the memories that they had experienced in “vivid, killing streets” in their childhood. Next, we hear the conversation between the narrator and his mother about his father and the death of his father’s brother. (Bieganowski, pp. 69-80)
The mother’s story makes the narrator realize how important he and his brother are to each other and how he, as the older, needs to let Sonny know “he is there” for Sonny. The narrator experiences a feeling of guilt, as he has not done as his mother asked, but he also remembers that Sonny’s choice of being a jazz musician “seemed beneath him, some how.” The conflict keeps rising as Sonny and the narrator argue about Sonny’s choice to be a jazz musician while Sonny has not finished his high school degree yet. We can see that the narrator’s actions and decisions are influenced by his promise to his mother. On the other hand, Sonny’s actions are because that is his choice. There is a close relationship between playing jazz and using drugs. This suggests that Sonny’s action of using the drug is “the accident of fate.” He can not control it; he uses drugs to “keep from drowning in” the suffering all humans have to go through. “… And then, when I ran away, that’s what I was running from… nothing changed, I hadn’t changed, I was just older.” (Baldwin, p. 102)
Sonny tries to escape from drugs, but he can not. Sonny confesses that he uses drugs again when the narrator and Sonny have a conversation after they witnessed a woman in an old-fashioned revival meeting. “So it comes again, All right,” Sonny’s brother said. “I had to try to tell you,” Sonny replied. “Yes, I understand that… I understand that…” Sonny’s brother repeated. (Baldwin, p. 102) The story reaches its climax when Sonny and his brother come to understand each other. The falling action part of the story describes the scene when the narrator goes with Sonny to a jazz club. It is difficult for Sonny to rejoin his music band since he has not played for a while. However, he begins to play “Am I blue,” Sonny takes control of the music, and becomes “part of a family again.” The story gives its conclusion when the narrator realizes that music has helped Sonny to stay free.
Furthermore, the narrator recognizes that the blues can help everyone be true to what and who they are. The story tells us that it is a good idea to follow your decision or judgment on your future life. Prejudice is wrong. However, there is a difference between prejudice and the elder’s advice. Those are valuable experiences that the elders have learned, or even paid from their lives. Listening to that advice can give people have a better choice for their career or a way to live.
- Baldwin, James. “Sonny’s Blues” An Introduction to Fiction. 8th ed. Eds. X.J.Kennedy, Dana Gioia. New York: Longman, 2002.
- Bieganowski, Ronald. “James Baldwin’s Vision of Otherness in ‘Sonny’s Blues’ and Giovanni’s Room.” CLA Journal 32 (1988): 69-80.
- Byerman, Keith. “Words and Music: Narrative Ambiguity in ‘Sonny’s Blues.’” Studies in Short Fiction 19 (1982): 367-72.
- Murray, Donald C. “James Baldwin’s ‘Sonny’s Blues’: Complicated and Simple.” Studies in Short Fiction 14 (1977): 353-57.
- Terry Teachout, James Baldwin: Early Novels and Stories: “National Review,” 1998; 125-30