Literary Devices In Sonny’s Blues

Introduction to Sonny’s Blues

The short story has been written by James Baldwin, a famous American writer. It depicts the inner life of the characters fighting for their existence in the Harlem community of New York. The story unfolds through the perspective of one of two brothers, Scott Jessup, who tries to make sense out of his uncomfortably close relationship with his musician little brother named Sonny. As the story goes on, the narrator gains a broader perspective of Sonny’s existence and music emerges as an art medium tapping into the very depths of human soul.

Themes in Sonny’s Blues


The main theme of the story revolves around the evolving power of the music. It is one of the most integral element through which Sonny conveys his deep feelings and pain.

It provides the common voice between Sonny and his brother. It also serves as a bridge of communication between them.

Music helps to mend the infinite bonding through words and actions. The story specifically explains that how art and music have the ability to pull us at the very edge of this world and leave us staring at the vastness of the universe.

It leaves us with a profound sense of calm and contentment, which one carry with him long after the last note has been played.

The other important theme in this short story is to explore the suffering and its impact on the lives and relationships of the people.

The writer categorically mentions that the personal suffering shapes the identity and choices of the people.

For Sonny, music functions as an avenue to channel his grief and personal problems. It is an outlet for his unmentioned pain which he chooses to express in a lovely and succinct manner.

In the story, the narrator not only describes the individual social and economic problems deeply, but also puts them into the broader context of the masses of sufferings within the African American community.

Literary Devices in sonny’s blues

1- Symbolism

“Sometimes you’ll do anything to play, even cut your mother’s throat. He had been trembling. It was as though he were shaking himself free of some deep stupor. Then, as though he felt rather bashful about what he’d been trying to say, he looked toward me and muttered something and smiled. And it was my feeling that he had probably been a junkie for a long time. I was terrified. I also felt an immense rush of relief. It was as though something I hadn’t known I’d been holding onto had let go. It turned out that what I’d been holding onto was a kind of icy dread. I felt my stomach roar and my hands were wet.”

Through this passage, the narrator expresses his emotions by using the words “icy dread”. They symbolize the despair about Sonny’s own dangers and life choices.

The coldness shows not the author but the narrator’s absentee empathy for Sonny’s plight and his own aversion to the strong feeds that Sonny’s situation ignites.

The ice is just a wall that separates him from what his brother is really feeling. It’s a freezing agent that kills his feelings.

The moment of realization, i.e., when he feels the “icy dread” represents a defrost of his feelings and thus, a point where he actually faces the situation, rather than only obstructing it, in search of acknowledging and empathizing with Sonny.

This shift is significant for the main character’s development which becomes the basis for the story that he eventually reconciles with the activities of Sonny due to music.

2- imagery

“I was sitting in a cab, watching the first snowfall of the year tumbling down through the yellow glow of the streetlights. The snow blanketed the black ruins of buildings; it fell down into the street, making it quiet, softening the jagged edges of things. A few people were out, bending heads down against the wind, moving like black shadows slowly through the streets.”

The author employs the imagery of the snowfall in order to produce a sensory experience. To some extent, it is both visual and auditory.

The “yellow glow of the streetlights” contrasts against the night darkness. It shows how snowcapped sidewalks and streets transform the urban space.

The snow that “softening the jagged edges of things” is metaphorically described as the momentary interlude that is void of the cruelty and decline generally associated with the metropolis.

The shadows passing like somebody ‘s black shadows through the streets express a mood of loneliness, the people of the neighborhood struggling against what is outer condition at the same time reflecting virtually the inner conflict of the main characters.

Here, the use of imagery not only depicts the physical world but also to replicate the psychological mood matching the depth of emotion in the narrative, so that the reader gets to feel the character’s experience as well as the environment that shapes them.

3- Flashback

“I was eager to leave Harlem. I had already begun, in my mind, to note the kinds of boys who were going to get out. I watched them with something like envy. Very few had the courage to say outright: I want to get out. The statement itself was dangerous; it challenged everything. But I knew I wanted to get out and that part of what made me want this was the spectacle of my brother, unshaven, dirty, his eyes glazed, his hair and his clothes a mess, making himself more and more a stranger to me, someone whose most awful pain I suddenly, and with a rush of guilt, realized I was glad to be rid of. I hadn’t seen him for over a year. And now it looked as if I’d never see him again.”

The narrator recalls his past and the difficulties which he had faced during spending his days in Harlem.

This reflection offers a contrast between him and the life of Sonny because he does not share his father’s treatment and due to that his own ambition remains in the background.

The memory of the narrator in question is so potent to enable an appreciation of the different feelings in relation to Sonny, subdued by a concoction of emotions- a split between indifference, guilt, and a sense of relief.

The flashback of the narrator is vital for the readers to understand that he has inner conflict over the unreality and the psychological distances that appear between him and Sonny because of his freedom of pursuit.

4- Allusion

“And I was yet aware that this was only part of the truth. I was responsible for him too. I sensed that I might be able to help him if I could reach him. It was as though he were horse and rider and he were trying to save the horse from throwing him.”

The author substantiates the themes of responsibility and taking care of the brother.

He makes the story coincide to the biblical story where Cain, after killing his brother Abel, askes “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

His conscience at that moment betrays him, for he knows that he let his brother killed. In this story, the narrator is in conflict about his responsibility towards his brother Sonny.

He contemplates his ability to support Sonny through his difficult life. He is feeling guilty and obligated, similar to Cain from the Bible after his irreversible actions.

This biblical allusion adds a moral complexity to his inner conflict, deepening the story’s exploration of the strong yet challenging bond between the brothers and emphasizing the theme of community responsibility.

5- Metaphor

“Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did.”

Here, the metaphor “freedom” is not only visualized as a being that walks around, but also giving the substantial, and eluded image.

Music provides freedom to Sonny from the agony of his life in Harlem and from its consequences.

The use of metaphor is figurative, which suggests that the freedom he enjoys through music is not only for himself but it extends to his brother, the narrator.

Hence, the metaphor exquisitely by binding the idea of personal and communal liberation indicates that understanding and empathy through music can free them all.

6- Conflict

“Sonny, I haven’t been trying to make you feel guilty. I’ve been trying to make you see what kind of condition you’re in. So that you can get clear of it!” “I don’t know if I can make you understand.” “You don’t have to make me understand,” I said sharply. “I understand you, far as I’m able to understand you. But you’ve got to listen to me, too. I’m telling you this for your own good. What you don’t know is that I need this too! Do you think your life is the only one that’s got to be got straight?”

The conversation shows the emotional and inner conflict between the speaker and Sonny.

The narrator has chosen a traditional path of life, therefore, he finds it hard to overcome the decisions of Sonny and his deep commitment to music as a means of expression and redemption.

He attempts to convince Sonny to amend his lifestyle so that he may not indulge in further problems.

Sonny believes that his elder brother takes wrong decisions and he feels undiscerning and duty-bound by his brother’s efforts to dictate for his life, especially the music which becomes his healer.

This conflict performs as a broader theme which reminds of the miscommunication and missing points in understanding that occur within the members of a family, especially in the socioeconomic problems and personal failures.

7- Characterization

“All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours.”

The writer depicts Sonny as a person with a highly appreciated passion, emotionally sensitive and gifted self expressing. Sonny has been indicated, who engages with the music on a root level.

The process of Sonny’s inner turmoil serves as an interpretation of lifeless struggle and the way he justifies the tragedy with his exceptional skill and isolation.

With the representation of the power of music in Sonny’s life the writer shows that the character’s main features are his complexity, pain and ability to create order and beauty.

He is thus brought closer to the audience to whom he becomes a very empathetic person and a vividly human character.

8- Irony

“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. They were filled up with rage. All they really knew were two darknesses, the darkness of their lives, which was now closing in on them, and the darkness of the movies, which had blinded them to that other darkness.”

The irony of the passage is clear as the narrator, who self-sacrifices and claims to be consciously aware and the educator of his village, finds out much later that his own brother, Sonny, is going through much rough time.

He sees the dilemmas and uncontrollable anger of the students arising from their life circumstances. This realization does not immediately trigger him to empathize with such lives.

The striking contradiction here also suggests another central idea of the story—that it is hard to really save those who are close to us although we intentionally or unintentionally try to do so.

This gradual process becomes clearer to the narrator as he starts seeing the reality as if he is in Sonny’s place where all people he sees remind him of the students in his class and the common challenges within the society realizing that there are unseen linkages that keep all members as colleagues.

9- Point of View

“I heard what he had gone through, and would continue to go through until he came to rest in earth. He had been picked up, the evening before, in a raid on an apartment downtown, for peddling and using heroin.”

The use of the first person “I heard” is important because it emphasizes the emotional distance and a personal connection to the events affecting his brother.

The narrator is not the regular reader of the events rather a experiencer and somebody who has been benefitted because of them.

The point of view, being the third party in the whole story, beholds an aspect under which the entire story flows; the emotions and prejudices of the narrator.

The reader gets the ability to easily trace along the narrator’s path of developing the emotions of guilt and finally, realization regarding Sonny’s life problems as well as his addiction.

The viewpoint that the narrator shares, in addition, helps to clarify these themes, raising the spectre of pain and redemption.

See also: The Lovely Bones Literary Devices

10- Motif

“Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until he did listen to us.”

The excerpt deals with the music and the issue of freedom.

The author recognizes that music is the source through which Sonny finds an outlet to express the most intimate aspects of his inner world and current predicament.

Music is the favorite common motif of the writer, which he uses to solidify his theory that the same is among the cornerstones in building characters’ personality traits.

Music not only works for them as such an unseen spot that would help them communicate what is in their heart despite words fail, but also is an effective way of rebuilding their once broken relationship.

The use of this motif uncovers some of the story purposes, where art is used as a way of coping with the miseries, and for the individuals to find some order in a world that often feels as if it’s in a box.

It also brings out the fact that music does a lot more to overcome human hardships than most people know.

See also: Literary Devices in Water for Elephants

Literary Devices In Sonny's Blues
Literary Devices In Sonny’s Blues

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