Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Sonny's Blues

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Coming of Age

In the short story, “Sonny’s Blues”, Baldwin carefully crafts multiple elements of the story in order to support the master theme of suffering. The focus of the story is placed on the suffering of human lives and how one deals with the daily repercussions that are bestowed upon us. Baldwin meticulously arranges several motifs that can be traced throughout the story. Among the most notable of these are the premises of music and childhood. The significance of these symbols is displayed through their incorporation with the central theme.

A fundamental feature of the story is the motif surrounding the trials and tribulations one must endure in the process of maturing. The symbolism of aging is apparent as early as the story’s title. This aspect inevitably doubles as musical symbolism for the jazz that Sonny plays and the depression that Sonny encounters as he struggles to become a man. In addition, Baldwin took care in naming his main character, Sonny, so that the reader would think of him as a youngster and more importantly, as a son. The rich symbolism of music and the motif of childhood are closely intertwined throughout the story. As children, we are allowed to freely express our emotions which, in turn, helps us to deal with them. As we mature, adults are expected to control, and even hide their emotions and deal with them in other ways. Ironically, individuals face more stress in their adult lives which results in more pent up emotions. Baldwin enlightens the reader that many people can come to terms with these emotions through music.

As the story begins the reader perceives the Narrator to be a mature man since he is educated, is a teacher, and has a family of his own. However, even though there is only an age gap of seven years between the two brothers, Sonny is perceived to be immature and still struggling to make it in the world. Baldwin carefully crafts the Narrators descriptions of the boys in his classroom in order to further facilitate the reader’s assumption that the Narrator is a mature man.

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The author offers a simile regarding childhood that should serve as a cue to the reader. As the Narrator looks down upon a schoolboy, the boy whistles and “it seemed to be pouring out of him as though he were a bird”(4). Children are often carefree, just as a bird, with little valid emotions to hamper their daily lives.

In the introduction of the story, the Narrator is peering down from the window into the courtyard among the schoolboys. This scenario provides the reader with foreshadowing for the parallel occurrence that evolves when the Narrator looks down upon the street at Sonny and the revivalists. By this point in the story, the narrator has switched roles and is fulfilling a more fatherly portrayal in his relationship with Sonny.

After the death of their mother, the Narrator feels the need to keep his promise to her and the reader senses a shift in the relationship between Sonny and his brother as the narrator begins to display the role as a father figure to Sonny. Ironically, from this point on, Baldwin shapes the Narrators character as very similar to the average father today. The reader senses this as the brothers discuss popular music and the Narrator is behind in the latest trends. The Narrator expresses interest and concern with Sonny’s involvemnet with drugs and with ensuring that Sonny receives a full educatuon. We see Sonny, like a teenager still carefree in the discussion about his musical career while his brother � for the first time � is actually genuinely worried. A pivotal exchange occurs between the two brothers, which enlightens the reader to the maturity level of each of them

“Well, Sonny,’ I said gently, ‘you know people can’t always do exactly what they WANT to do�‘

‘No, I don’t know that,’ said Sonny, surprising me. ‘I think that people OUGHT to do what they want to do, what else are they alive for?’

‘You getting to be a big boy,’ I said desperately, ‘it’s time you started thinking about your future.’

‘I’m thinking about my future,’ said Sonny, grimly. ‘I think about it all the time.”

This conversation facilitates the reader’s perception of the maturity level of the two brothers. The reader realizes that the Narrator is much more mature in his philosophy of the world and Sonny is still living in the teenage freewill phase of his life. This interchange supports Baldwin’s desire to portray the Narrator as the more mature of the two brothers. This allows the reader to perceive him as the father figure to Sonny.

It is hard for children to leave the security of their parent’s arms. Even as adults, we still look up to our parents for advice and direction. Baldwin incorporates the idea of the suffering that one must endure when faced with the loss of a parental figure. A part of us will always hold on to the memories of our childhood and we will long for a time when life was simpler. Baldwin expresses this to the reader during the brothers cab ride through their childhood neighborhood. The Narrator articulates that “what they were both seeking through their separate cab windows was that part of ourselves which had been left behind. It’s always at the hour of trouble and confrontation that the missing member aches” (47). In the conclusion of the story, Sonny deals with his emotions through a musical release and the reader learns that he is dealing with the coming of adulthood and the loss of “that long line, of which we knew only Mama and Daddy” (6).

Children depend on their parents to be the one strong constant in their lives. Youngsters do not generally see their parents cry and this is why the child leans on them to be the emotional “rock” who endures all. Baldwin expresses this in his work during the conversation between the Narrator and his mother. The mother tells her son that his father “always acted like he was the roughest, strongest, man on earth . . . But if he hadn’t had me there � to see his tears” (50)!

Many teenagers are rude and disagreeable to their parents simply because they crave independence and they want to conquer the world on their own. Baldwin conveys this implication through Sonny’s statement, “Sometimes you’ll do anything to play, even cut your mother’s throat” (5). We must all learn life’s lessons through our own individual experiences. As teenagers, we will not accept the expertise of our elders because we are still filled with so much hope and we feel that we are invncible to the world. As adults, many times we are let down when we come to terms with what the “real” world encompasses. Sonny deals with his graduation to adulthood in the jazz club at the story’s ending. Sonny seems to come to terms with his suffering through the context of aging and he and his brother are finally connected as adults.

In the short story, “Sonny’s Blues”, Baldwin conveys to the reader the universal topic of suffering. We all must struggle in our daily lives and as we mature we will encounter more responsibilities and stressful situations. Our parents are the “rock” which we tend to lean on throughout our coming of age. Deaths in our families are just another part of this life-long struggle. As children, it is acceptable to convey emotions openly. However, as we mature we are expected to deal with emotions in a more discreet way. Baldwin shows the reader that one way that many people deal with these daily repercussions is to release and come to terms with their emotions through listening to music.

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