Read in a certain light, Sonny in "Sonny's Blues" could be seen as a tragic character. Certainly, he has no shortage of trouble and strife throughout his life, though much of it is self-inflicted. Yet, it is almost impossible to properly understand Sonny himself without some juxtaposition to and input from his unnamed brother, the narrator of the whole story. In fact, it is very telling that Sonny himself is never a direct contributor to the story; his brother tells the story entirely about Sonny. The only details of his own life given by the narrator somehow all contribute to the story of Sonny and his many trials. However, the narration and laser-focus of the brother show his concern for Sonny but mostly his regret over how he treated Sonny.
Regret over Sonny's life is ill-placed. While the story begins with Sonny's sad foray into drugs, that only remains the focus if the reader chooses not to prioritize the rest. The fact is that, despite his heroin addiction and incarceration, Sonny has proven himself to be a survivor. He made bad choices but no human being is exempt from that. Even his brother, who became a teacher and seemingly escaped his childhood in a successful manner, made bad choices. In fact, the brother is as much in prison as Sonny has been through the guilt he feels over Sonny and many aspects of their lives (Byerman 371). The guilt he feels over Sonny is a powerful show of those bad choices and the way in which different choices manifest in different emotions, consequences and areas of life.
In fact, when Sonny is brought into the present portion of the story, he seems happier and, at least in some way, more fulfilled than his outwardly successful brother. Sonny has persevered through his addiction at least in part due to his love of music. Music has consumed him and, from an early age, he has known that it is what he should do. Through it all, Sonny did not stray from that love and passion. It sustained him even when he was "at the bottom of something, stinking and sweating and crying and shaking…" (Baldwin 43). His music and his unwavering pursuit of it is what makes Sonny seem more content and fulfilled, even after his bout with drugs. Compared to his brother, he followed his dreams and saw them through. This culminates with Sonny on stage and his brother realizing what a survivor he had truly been.
Sonny is also a hero because he comes through on the other side of a serious and dangerous drug addiction. The cold, hard reality of Sonny's addiction is that it could very well have killed him. Music may not have physically gotten Sonny through but his passion for it gave him the wherewithal to fight just hard enough to move past his own stink. This, in itself, gives credence to Sonny's ability to pull through and stay focused on music, the one thing that he wants to dedicate his life to. Sonny's heroism in surviving drug addiction is a testament to the importance of finding a passion and following dreams. Though "Sonny's Blues" was published in the 1950's, it can be used as an important lesson for many people facing trials even today.
The narrator was not in contact with Sonny for some time because he disapproved of Sonny's lifestyle and choices (Tackach 112). This disapproval was not only because of the drug addiction. Early in the story, a discussion between Sonny and his brother makes clear that part of the disapproval is over Sonny's music as well. Despite this disapproval and an almost utter lack of support, Sonny sticks with his dream of being a musician. "There's not really a living ass to talk to…" (Baldwin 42). Yet, in the end, Sonny is on a stage, in his element, with people treating him like "his veins bore royal blood" (Baldwin 44). This itself shows the power of following dreams and, in its own right, paints Sonny as a hero.
In the end, the two brothers are in the jazz club. Sonny is on stage, showing his passion for music and his brother is sitting in the shadows realizing how far Sonny has come. In an interesting twist, Sonny struggles to get into the music, into a rhythm of playing. This is symbolic not only of Sonny's life and his struggles but of the life of every human being. Though not everyone is addicted to heroin, everyone does have obstacles in life. Sonny shows that one way to make it through is to find a passion and pursue it fervently. Sonny survived by returning to his passion of music even when poor choices and life got in the way. Following his passion has softened him, made him insightful and reflective. The music itself represents humanity (MacParland 132). In the end, Sonny and his brother are united in part by brotherhood but also, through music, by humanity itself.
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