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In James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues" the symbolic motif of light and darkness illustrates the painful nature of reality the two characters face as well as the power gained through it. The darkness represents the actuality of life on the streets of the community of Harlem, where there is little escape from the reality of drugs and crime. The persistent nature of the streets lures adolescents to use drugs as a means of escaping the darkness of their lives. The main character, Sonny, a struggling jazz musician, finds himself addicted to heroin as a way of unleashing the creativity and artistic ability that lies within him. While using music as a way of creating a sort of structure in his life, Sonny attempts to step into the light, a life without drugs. The contrasting images of light and darkness, which serve as truth and reality, are used to depict the struggle between Sonny and the narrator in James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues."
The opening paragraph of the story contains a metaphorical passage: "I stared at it in the swinging light of the subway car, and in the faces and bodies of the people, and in my own face, trapped in the darkness which roared outside"(349). This reference is significant because it is a contrast to the dismal society that the narrator and his brother Sonny live in. The darkness is the portrayal of the community of Harlem that is trapped, in their surroundings by physical, economic, and social barriers. The obvious nature of darkness has overcome the occupants of the Harlem community. The narrator, an algebra teacher, observes a depressing similarity between his students and his brother, Sonny. This is true because the narrator is fearful for his students falling into a life of crime and drugs, as did his brother. The narrator notes that the cruel realities of the streets have taken away the possible light from the lives of his brother and his students. The narrator makes an insightful connection between the darkness that Sonny faced and the darkness that the young boys are presently facing. This is illustrated in the following quote:
"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.
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The passage demonstrates how darkness has overcome the lives of the children without their realizing it. The darkness represents the lack of opportunity available to them. The young boys live in a dark reality where they do not know and are not familiar with light, and therefore do not have anything to look forward to.
The motif of light and darkness is also demonstrated when the narrator recalls his and Sonny's childhood and gives examples regarding his recollection of his family on Sunday evenings. The narrator makes several points in regard to the silence in the room and "the darkness growing against the windowpanes"(356). He states that the darkness that is outside is where the older generation of his family comes from and what they bear. He recalls the children sitting on the mother's lap and he points out that
"the silence, the darkness coming, and the darkness in the faces frighten the child obscurely. He hopes that the hand which strokes his forehead will never stop--will never die. But something deep and watchful in the child knows that this is bound to end, is already ending. And when the light fills the room, the child is filled with darkness." (357)
In this quote, the narrator is showing that with the light comes knowledge of the world for the child. The light is bleak and not always encouraging. When the child exposes himself to the world he loses part of his innocence and childhood. Therefore, the child may wish to remain in the darkness. The darkness in this specific excerpt is personified as a slow and gentle relief. The narrator attempts to convey the concept that darkness, which is reality, means nothing without light to illuminate it because the light makes one aware of the dark, and therefore comprehend reality.
The pain that Sonny undergoes is only satisfied when he is playing his music, and it is through this that the narrator accepts Sonny as a person and as a musician. Acceptance of Sonny's profession is extremely difficult for the narrator because he has always associated Sonny's music with darkness and drugs. Nevertheless, the darkness of the night in the jazz club illustrates the complication and wonder of jazz to the narrator. In the jazz club, there is a struggle with light and darkness. This is exemplified when Sonny and the rest of the musicians wait to go on stage and the narrator notices
"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 to step into the circle of light too suddenly; that if they moved into the light too suddenly, without thinking, they would perish in flame." (370)
The passage suggests that to embrace the truth and gain conscious awareness too quickly is painful and devastating.
The daily struggles of life are all the same for everyone; however, the manner in which it is tackled is different. Within the consciousness of reality that is obvious throughout this story, there are peace and hope, which make the darkness and life worth living. The two brothers attempt to repair the void that has been left in their lives and are surrounded by a world full of shadows and light. Jointly, they face the unavoidable darkness that had overwhelmed their lives. Using music as a form of communication, the brothers are able to overcome their differences and create order in their chaotic life. The painful realization of the truth enables them to redirect their lives and rebuild a relationship marked by drugs and poverty.
Baldwin, James. "Sonny's Blues." Legacies. Ed. Carley Rees Bogarad and Jan Zlotnik Schmidt. 2nd ed. Fort Worth: Harcourt College Publishers, 2002. 349-73.