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James Baldwin’s Perspective on Suffering in “Sonny’s Blues”

Updated November 13, 2021
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James Baldwin’s Perspective on Suffering in “Sonny’s Blues” essay

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Yes, everyone suffers, it is an inevitable pain that all people must face at some point in their life. It is a pain in which everybody experiences, and of which everyone has their own unique way of coping. However, the question is not whether we suffer, rather, it is do we let the suffering devour us, or do we use the suffering as a tool to better define who we are?

In the short story, “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin, Baldwin explores the concept of suffering and its significance to the development of an individual’s personality. The story follows two brothers, Sonny and the Narrator, and their continuous journey as they learn to cope with the daily hardships and depression they face in their 1950s neighborhood of Harlem, New York. Throughout the short story, Baldwin’s perspective on suffering is supported via the use of symbols, imagery, and allusions when discussing topics such as: the suffering in Harlem, the suffering of Sonny, and the suffering of the Narrator.

One of Baldwin’s initial topics that relates to the story’s concept of suffering pertains to the suffering that goes on in Harlem. When discussing this topic, Baldwin often relies on a negative tone to describe the atmosphere of the neighborhood. In one scene, the Narrator describes the streets of Harlem as “killing streets,” later on stating that the “housing projects jutted up out of them now like rocks in the middle of a boiling sea”(24). In this portion of the story, Baldwin’s description of the ominous neighborhood really does help sell the idea that Harlem as a whole is an unpleasant place, a place that will undoubtedly impact the lives of its residents. Moreover, Baldwin comparing the streets of Harlem to that of a boiling sea can be interpreted as a biblical allusion, in which, Harlem itself is seen as a form of Hell on Earth.

Furthermore, another method that Baldwin utilizes to portray the suffering that goes on in Harlem is the imagery of darkness throughout several scenes of the story. In the story, Baldwin uses darkness to portray the pain and suffering that Harlem inflicts upon its population, oftentimes, during moments of despair and dread. An early example of this darkness is when the Narrator claims that his algebra students themselves live their lives in the darkness. However, the most explicit definition of what the word darkness truly represents comes from the Narrator when he recalls the behaviors of the older people from his childhood:

The darkness outside is what the old folks have been talking about. It’s what they’ve come from. It’s what they endure. The child knows that they won’t talk any more because if he knows too much about what’s happened to them, he’ll know too much too soon, about what’s going to happen to him. (27)

Here, Baldwin uses the Narrator to portray the darkness as a vicious cycle, a generational prophecy, in which all current and future residents of Harlem must endure. Moreover, Baldwin hints at the idea that the darkness is what changes the personality of people, somewhat working as a mold. Overall, Baldwin uses the suffering of Harlem to build upon his message that suffering does indeed play a vital role in the development of an individual’s personality.

Similar to the suffering of Harlem is the suffering of Sonny. As the reader, Sonny’s suffering is made blatantly clear from the beginning of the story. Not only is Sonny a drug addict and a failure to the Narrator, but Sonny is also imprisoned and neglected by those around him. As an individual, Sonny arguably suffers the most throughout the story, a prime example being his letter to the Narrator in which Sonny says,

You don’t know how much I needed to hear from you. I wanted to write you many a time but I dug how much I must have hurt you and so I didn’t write. But now I feel like a man who’s been trying to climb up out of some deep, real deep and funky hole and just saw the sun up there, outside. I got to get outside. (22)

In this section of text not only is Sonny’s suffering made clear, but the situation and mentality that Sonny is in is also made clear. On top of that, Sonny acknowledges the harm that he has caused to the Narrator and for that takes the guilt. Nonetheless, the most important aspect of this text relates to the symbolism of light and darkness. In the story, light and darkness is a religious reference, in that, light is this particular instance represents Sonny’s hope and ambition to better his life. On the other hand, the darkness in this text represents Sonny’s suffering and despair, as it is appropriately compared to a dark hole in which Sonny can only see the unobtainable light of the sun. Although it is not directly stated, one can infer that Sonny is an individual who has been devoured by his suffering, and that at this time of his life he as person wants to use his suffering to change who he is as a person.

Likewise, Baldwin’s use of music in the story yet again supports the idea that Sonny’s suffering can be used to change his life for the better. Although music in the story can be interpreted to signify a variety of topics, the most prominent interpretation comes from Sonny’s suffering. In the story, not only does Sonny use music to express his emotions, but it also acts as a double edged sword, for the reason that music also distances Sonny from his family. Most importantly, Sonny’s music is his way of expressing his suffering, it is his unique way of coping with hardships and depression. And in playing music, Sonny develops as a character, not only does he begin to leave the figurative darkness that has plagued his life, but Sonny also begins to change as a person as he continues his journey towards the light. As Baldwin puts it,”the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new…there isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness”(47). In other words, not only can music can be used to suppress suffering, but music itself can also be the thing that keeps Sonny from “drowning” in the darkness.

Finally, there is the suffering that the Narrator endures. Like Sonny’s suffering, the Narrator’s suffering is also showcased at the very beginning of the story. In the opening scenes of the story, the Narrator is distraught and upset by the recent news of Sonny’s imprisonment, for that reason, he fears the notion of what his brother has become. In this case, the suffering is represented via the symbolizing of an ice cube, as the Narrator depicts it, “a great block of ice got settled in my belly and kept melting there slowly all day long…sometimes it hardened and seemed to expand”(17). The Narrator here renders the ice cube as a matter of uneasiness and discomfort, evoking a realistic sensation similar to when the body comes in contact with something cold.

Another way in which the Narrator’s suffering is depicted comes in the form of darkness. Almost identical to that of Harlem, once again the imagery of darkness is used to portray pain and suffering. A prime example of this comes from the Narrator when he states that he was “sitting in the living room in the dark”(37). In this occasion darkness plays two roles, as it can be interpreted as both a negative and a positive thing. On one hand, darkness represents the Narrator being consumed by his suffering, but on the other hand the darkness is the reason as to why the Narrator seeks to reconnect with Sonny. Regardless, the reader can assume that the darkness that torments the Narrator has undeniably changed who he is as a person, whether it’s him isolating himself or him seeking to reconnect with his brother. All in all, both literary devices encourage the Narrator to reestablish his relationship with his brother, ultimately, changing who he is as a person.

To summarize, the use literary devices in “Sonny’s Blues” when describing the suffering of Harlem and the suffering of the two main protagonist clearly exposes Baldwin’s message that suffering plays a vital role in the evolution of an individual’s personality. As voiced by Sonny, “no, there’s no way not to suffer,”nonetheless, suffering and hardships should not be seen as negative aspects our lives. Instead, as Baldwin indirectly points out, we should try convert our suffering into something better. We should acknowledge our suffering as a possibility to change who we are.

James Baldwin’s Perspective on Suffering in “Sonny’s Blues” essay

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James Baldwin’s Perspective on Suffering in “Sonny’s Blues”. (2021, Nov 13). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/james-baldwins-perspective-on-suffering-in-sonnys-blues/

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