The narrator’s mother, by charging him with watching over Sonny, is asking him to serve as his brother’s keeper. The dynamic between the two brothers echoes, in part, the relationship between the brothers Cain and Abel in the Bible. In that narrative, Cain, after murdering Abel, asks whether he is supposed to be his brother’s keeper. The narrator, following his mother’s death, is presented with a similar dilemma. Since their mother’s death, Sonny’s life has been marred by prison and drug abuse. The tension between the two brothers is so great that after one particular fight, Sonny tells his brother to consider him dead from that point on, a statement that, again, deliberately echoes the biblical narrative of Cain and Abel. Like Cain, the narrator turns his back on his brother and fails, at first, to respond to Sonny when he is prison. He has failed to live up to his mother’s commandment that he watch over his brother—but the failure is only temporary. By the end of the story, the narrator has taken Sonny back into his home. He finally takes on the role of his brother’s keeper, constantly watching and worrying over Sonny as he emerges from the darkness of prison and drug abuse.
The idea of brotherly love extends beyond the relationship between the narrator and Sonny into the community as a whole. Harlem is plagued by drugs, poverty, and frustration, but members of the community come together to watch over and protect one another. The adults spend their Saturday afternoons sharing stories, providing a sense of warmth and protection to the children around them. The narrator, although initially angered by one of Sonny’s old drug-addicted friends, in the end recognizes his connection to the man and offers him money. Even Sonny, for all his problems, helps the people around him endure and survive by channeling their frustrated desires into his music.
Throughout the story, the narrator repeatedly remarks on the barely concealed rage in the people around him as a way of showing both the internal and external conflicts that haunt the characters. Fury and rage are products not only of the limited opportunities that came with being African American at that time but of life in Harlem as well. Early in the story, the narrator notes that his students are “filled with rage.” They are aware of the limited opportunities available to them, and that knowledge breeds an internal, destructive rage that threatens to destroy their lives. With nowhere left to go, they inevitably turn their anger onto themselves, leading them into a life of darkness.
An equally strong rage is present in the streets of Harlem. While looking out the window, Sonny notes with amazement the simple fact that Harlem has not yet exploded. The narrator observes a “furious” man as he drops change into a church bucket. The fury that underlies daily life in Harlem is evident everywhere, even in the religious revivals held on the streets. It’s a fury fueled by desperation and desire, and it finds its truest form of expression in the music Sonny plays at the end of the story. As painful and difficult as that fury is, it also makes the type of jazz Sonny plays possible. It gives life to the religious revival Sonny passes on the street, and although it inevitably exacts an enormous toll on all of the people who bear its weight, it also offers something in return.
The characters in “Sonny’s Blues” are trapped both physically and emotionally. Throughout the story, the narrator and Sonny are constantly struggling to break free from one barrier or another. Sonny is physically imprisoned in jail as well as by his addiction to drugs. The narrator is confined to Harlem and, more specifically, to the housing projects that he clearly detests. In addition, he is also trapped within himself, unable to express his emotions or live up to his obligations as a brother until his daughter’s death gives him the motivation he needs to change.
The narrator and Sonny are imprisoned and also free in exactly opposite ways. Sonny, while in prison, is physically locked up, and yet as a young man, he was able to do what his brother never did: escape from Harlem and create a life of his own. On the other hand, the narrator is physically free. He is not in jail or, unlike Sonny and many of the young men in his community, addicted to drugs. Nonetheless, he is trapped inside Harlem and its housing projects. As a musician, Sonny is able to express the frustration and rage that derive in part from his imprisonment. While playing the piano, he is able to break loose and live as free as any man. The narrator, however, lives his life trapped inside of himself. He has a difficult time communicating with his brother and even fails to do so because he cannot bear the emotions that come with it. He is, in the end, temporarily freed by Sonny, whose music offers him a rare glimpse into himself.
The narrator and Sonny are both seeking a form of salvation, not only from the world but also from themselves. The world they live in is plagued by darkness, despair, drugs, and confinement, leading each brother to seek a form of redemption that can cleanse them of their sins. Salvation in “Sonny’s Blues” comes in several forms. The narrator is haunted by his failure to respond to his brother, a failure that is a denial both of his brotherly obligation to Sonny and his mother’s dying request. The death of Grace, the narrator’s daughter, is ultimately an act of grace. It spurs the narrator into immediately writing to his brother, whom he knows he has failed and whose forgiveness he seeks. Sonny, at the same time, has been through a form of hell and, upon his release from prison, wants to be saved from the life of drugs that destroyed him. Just before Sonny invites his brother to watch him perform, he passes a revival on the street, where salvation is promised but never fully attained. During Sonny’s performance, both the narrator and Sonny find the salvation they’ve been seeking, even if only temporarily.
At the end of the story, the narrator describes a glass sitting over Sonny’s piano as shaking “like the very cup of trembling” to highlight what a difficult and complicated position Sonny is in. This image is borrowed from the Bible, where the cup of trembling is used as a symbol to describe the suffering and fear that have plagued the people. The biblical passage promises a relief from that suffering, but Baldwin’s use of the cup of trembling as a symbol is less overt. Sonny’s drinking from the cup of trembling serves as a reminder of all the suffering he has endured, while also offering the chance for redemption and peace. As a musician, Sonny takes all his suffering and that of those around him and transforms it into something beautiful.
Like the figures from the Bible, Sonny is moving toward salvation, but his fate remains uncertain. Perhaps he will continue to suffer, suffering being the cost he has to pay for being a musician. There is something Christlike about Sonny’s pain, and suffering for Sonny is at once inevitable and redemptive. At the end of the story, it remains unclear whether he will continue to suffer in order to play his music or whether a greater peace and redemption awaits everyone involved. The fact that the glass is filled with scotch and milk only further highlights the tension and duality Sonny faces.
The housing projects in Harlem were for Baldwin clear symbols of Harlem’s decline and fall. He describes the projects as “rocks in the middle of a boiling sea.” It is an apocalyptic image, one meant to convey the awful conditions of life inside of the projects. The phrase also has a biblical undertone in that it invokes a type of hell on earth. As rocks in a boiling sea, the projects are massive, lifeless objects surrounded by misery. The word rocks highlights the buildings’ cold, brutal nature.
The projects offer up a false image, a “parody of the good,” in that they were initially built with the supposedly noble intention of providing affordable housing but in fact became almost immediately broken-down, drug-infested buildings. The projects symbolize a perversion of the real world, one in which good ideas are actually living nightmares. The projects have playgrounds that are populated by drug dealers; they have large windows that no one wants to look out of. The people who live in them are bitterly aware of what the projects are, making their existence cruel and bitterly ironic.
Light and darkness are in constant tension throughout “Sonny’s Blues,” and Baldwin uses them to highlight the warmth, hope, gloom, and despair that mark his characters’ lives. Baldwin uses light to describe Sonny’s face when he was young and the warmth that came from sitting in a room full of adults after church. Light represents all of the positive and hopeful elements that are a part of life. It also has a religious undertone. Not only does light represent the best elements of life, but it also symbolizes a form of salvation and grace. To live in the light is to live a proper, moral life.
In exact opposition to the light is the darkness that constantly threatens the characters in the story. The darkness, which represents a roster of social and personal problems, can be found everywhere. The darkness literally haunts the figures in the story, something they are acutely aware of once the sun goes down. Sonny’s life in prison, his addiction to drugs, and the general state of life in Harlem are all embodied by the darkness. As pervasive as the darkness is, however, it is always balanced against a measure of light. Light, ultimately, comes to signify salvation, comfort, and love, whereas darkness represents the fear and desolation that always threatens to extinguish it.