The Symbolic Use of Light and Dark in James Baldwin's Sonny's Blues Essay

The Symbolic Use of Light and Dark in James Baldwin's Sonny's Blues Essay

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The Symbolic Use of Light and Dark in James Baldwin's Sonny's Blues


In James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues" a pair of brothers try to make sense of the urban decay that surrounds and fills them. This quest to puzzle out the truth of the shadows within their hearts and on the streets takes on a great importance. Baldwin meets his audience at a halfway mark: Sonny has already fallen into drug use, and is now trying to return to a clean life with his brother's aid. The narrator must first attempt to understand and make peace with his brother's drug use before he can extend his help and heart to him. Sonny and his brother both struggle for acceptance. Sonny wants desperately to explain himself while also trying to stay afloat and out of drugs. Baldwin amplifies these struggles with a continuous symbolic motif of light and darkness. Throughout "Sonny's Blues" there is a pervasive sense of darkness which represents the reality of life on the streets of Harlem. The darkness is sometimes good but usually sobering and sometimes fearful, just as reality may be scary. Light is not simply a stereotypical good, rather it is a complex consciousness, an awareness of the dark, and somehow, within that knowledge there lies hope. Baldwin's motif of light and darkness in "Sonny's Blues" is about the sometimes painful nature of reality and the power gained from seeing it.

Baldwin's use of the symbols light and darkness seem at first stereotypical. Light is the good while dark is the bad, but after several uses it is clear that the author has a more complex idea. The first reference to light occurs while the narrator is thinking over the recently learned news that Sonny has been jailed. "I didn't want to believe that I'd ever see m...


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...shes a symbolic motif of light and darkness to illustrate the duality of the brothers' world. Darkness represents reality, often cold, sometimes comforting, while light is the hope that sees them through. Together Sonny and his brother will face the darkness with a light and their hopes, making the black a little less foreboding, creating a reality they can deal with. At the end of the story the narrator sits in the bar watching his brother receive his applause and sends him a drink. He comments, "I saw the girl put a scotch and milk on top of the piano for Sonny . . . as they began to play again, it glowed and shook above my brother's head like the very cup of trembling," (439). Dark and light united in a drink of life, trembling with tenacity.

Works Cited

Baldwin, James. "Sonny's Blues." The Oxford Book of American Short Stories 1992: 409 - 439.

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