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Sonny’s Blues

James Baldwin

Important Quotations Explained

Baldwin’s Style

How to Cite This SparkNote

1. Yet, when he smiled, when we shook hands, the baby brother I’d never known looked out from the depths of his private life, like an animal waiting to be coaxed into the light.

The narrator makes this observation about Sonny when he sees him after he’s released from prison. Prison, for Sonny, was a hellish experience, as was his addiction to heroin. Both experiences have altered Sonny, but he remains, at heart, the same person he’s always been. The narrator notes, somewhat mournfully, that he never actually knew his baby brother, even though he can see traces of him buried beneath the darkness of prison life and drug addiction. It’s a painful realization, one that he is forced to confront now that Sonny has become, to some degree, his responsibility. The question that remains for Sonny is whether he can be brought back into the light, whether he can ultimately be saved. While in prison, Sonny lived like a caged animal, trapped in the misery of his life. He is physically free now, but whether he is free of his addiction and sorrow is still unclear.

2. “All that hatred down there,” he said. “All that hatred and misery and love. It’s a wonder it doesn’t blow the avenue apart.”

Sonny, following his release from prison, makes this observation about the street outside the window. He has just passed a religious revival being held on the street, which promises salvation even though none will actually be granted. Baldwin’s story is as much about Harlem as it is about Sonny’s life. This observation captures perfectly the complicated nature of the community. It is neither wholly terrible nor wholly wonderful, but rather a mixture of love and hatred. This mixture is what makes Harlem such a vibrant place, but it also threatens to destroy Harlem and the people who live there. Baldwin’s concern with the particular streets in Harlem is evident throughout this story. The avenue Sonny is referring to is most likely Lenox Avenue, one of the most important streets in Harlem, which Baldwin frequently wrote about.

3. For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.

Near the middle of Sonny’s performance at the end of the story, the narrator makes this claim about the music’s function. The statement also holds true for Baldwin’s writing. “Sonny’s Blues” is a story about suffering and triumph, subjects that have been addressed countless times by other writers. Baldwin believed that these were the only things worth writing about, and throughout his prolific career he returned to the same themes again and again. Each exploration was a chance at redemption, an opportunity to make meaning out of the cruelty and hardships in life. Sonny is trying to do precisely that with his music, just as Baldwin tried to do that with his stories and essays. Art becomes the redeemer, the means by which we can save our souls.

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