Brothers' Relationship in Baldwin's Sonny's Blues
Length: 571 words (1.6 double-spaced pages)
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Sipiora states that, "Characters often perceive (or fail to perceive) the context and implications of the circumstances and relationships they are in. Some characters act in good faith, whereas others do not. As we examine literary personae, it is especially important to judge them in terms of how they react to others" (77)
As "Sonny's Blues" opens, the narrator tells of his discovery that his younger brother has been arrested for selling and using heroin. Both brothers grew up in Harlem, a neighborhood rife with poverty and despair. Though the narrator teaches school in Harlem, he distances himself emotionally from the people who live there and their struggles and is somewhat judgmental and superior. He loves his brother but is distanced from him as well and judgmental of his life and decisions. Though Sonny needs for his brother to understand what he is trying to communicate to him and why he makes the choices he makes, the narrator cannot or will not hear what Sonny is trying to convey. In distancing himself from the pain of upbringing and his surroundings, he has insulated himself from the ability to develop an understanding of his brother's motivations and instead, his disapproval of Sonny's choice to become a musician and his choices regarding the direction of his life in general is apparent. Before her death, his mother spoke with him regarding his responsibilities to Sonny, telling him, "You got to hold on to your brother...and don't let him fall, no matter what it looks like is happening to him and no matter how evil you get with him...you may not be able to stop nothing from happening. But you got to let him know you're there" (87) His unwillingness to really hear and understand what his brother is trying to tell him is an example of a character failing to act in good faith.
The narrator's disapproval of Sonny's decision to become a musician stems in part from his view of musicians in general. His experiences with musicians have led him to believe that they are unmotivated, drug users, seeking only escape from life. He does not really understand what motivates Sonny to play music until the afternoon before he accompanies Sonny to his performance at a club in Harlem. That afternoon, Sonny explains to him that music is his voice, his way of expressing his suffering and releasing his pent-up feelings.
That evening, as he finally listens to his brother play, he is finally able to understand what Sonny is saying through his music: "I heard what he had gone through, and would continue to go through until he came to rest in earth. He had made it his: that long line, of which we knew only Mama and Daddy. And he was giving it back, as everything must be given back, so that, passing through death, it can live forever" (99). He is finally able to feel pride in his brother's accomplishments and to be there for him in a way he has not been before. He is finally acting in good faith, and his opinion of his brother evolves from one of disapproval and disappointment in a boy's pipe dreams to one of pride in a man's accomplishments as a musician and a human being.
Baldwin, James. "Sonny's Blues". Reading and Writing About Literature. Phillip Sipioria. New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc. 2002. 79-99.