Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
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.
Read more about imprisonment as a motif in Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities.
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.