In Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” two brothers try to live out their lives in the ghetto. This is an urban tale that takes place in some part of Harlem. Sonny tries to live his life as he wants but his brother tries to live his life as a provider for his family. They suffer, survive, and learn while trying to live out their life. This story begins when the narrator finds out that his younger brother has been arrested for either using or selling heroin. The narrator’s first response is that its Sonny’s problem “what the hell can I do” about it (232). This reaction tells the reader that the narrator is alienated from his brother, who has taken up a life of music and drugs.
The reader now finds out about the narrator’s mother and father. Sonny’s mother kept on telling her older son to look out for his younger brother. It seems that their mother knew that no matter what family is still family. The reader finds out that some drunk white male killed Sonny’s father’s brother. This haunts the narrator’s father for the rest of his life, because he felt that he could have saved his brother from his death. His mother tells him that he has a brother as well “and the world ain’t changed” (239). This is very significant in this story, because the narrator also feels guilt for how his brother is turned out. We find out that the narrator had promised his mother to look after his brother but he abandons his brother in his time of need.
The beginning of “Sonny’s Blues” marks an awakening for the narrator. He is faced with Sonny’s drug addiction problem. His own grief for the loss of his daughter focuses a new perception. “My trouble made his real” (245). Now the narrator tries to truly understand his younger brother and what he wants out of his life. The narrator must finally come to know his baby brother in order to understand the menace that he had almost died trying to escape. He realizes that he must come to terms with a failure, “the fact that had held silence- so long!- when (Sonny) had needed human speech to help him,” in order to find a new relationship with his brother (248). The narrator realizes the truth in his mother’s advice to him before she died. “You got to let him know you’s there,” and in doing so Sonny’s brother allow his silence to be challenged by Sonny’s account of his suffering and by the music that is Sonny’s lifeline (240).
Sonny cannot simply accept that he has to do the best he can within the environment that he is provided. He feels that “people ought to do what they want to do, what else are they alive for?” (242). Sonny tells the reader that he is alive to be a musician but him not being able to make it as a musician leads him into heroin addiction. Sonny is not afraid to test the boundaries of his world in order to find a better place in it while his brother tries to keep the world in its place by ignoring it. The brothers come together when they are faced with terrifying experiences of their lives. Sonny finally allows his brother into his world and once again “play for his life” knowing that his drug problem could come back (243). In an unsteady environment he accepts his brother and his wife, and leans again upon the strength within his family to accept him for what he is.
Sonny’s brother tries to teach his baby brother how to live his life. At the end of the story, the narrator learns about life from his younger brother’s music. Sonny’s brother finds new strength in his attempts to support and accept Sonny. In the beginning of the story he says, “I couldn’t find any room for it anywhere inside me,” referring to Sonny’s drug problem (230). The strength Sonny’s brother gains through loss is the strength of his mother, in the role of supporter he finds a will to survive.
The relationship between the brothers and their mother reveal that this family comes together in the time of need. They realize that by allowing one another to suffer, the pain becomes easier to bear. They gain a sense of understanding that helps them to face the life ahead of them.