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Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
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.