Symbolism in “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin
Symbolism in “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin In James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” the reader meets Sonny, a recovering addict, and his older brother, a high school teacher. Although these two brothers have completely different lives and personalities, the author’s use of symbolism brings them more tightly together like a real family. Baldwin uses symbols such as ice, lightness and darkness, and jazz music to add more depth and meaning to “Sonny’s Blues. ” People usually think of ice or the cold as being bitter and causing discomfort.
When it is cold outside, people wear jackets to eliminate the bitterness of the cold. In “Sonny’s Blues,” Sonny uses heroine to escape the discomfort of the reality that is his life. Heroine is Sonny’s jacket. Also, ice can symbolize fright, dread, and the feeling of being unsettled. When the narrator, Sonny’s older brother, first reads the newspaper and finds out that Sonny was arrested, “he felt as if a great block of ice was sitting in his stomach…It sent little trickles of water up and down his veins, but never got less” (50).
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The ice that the narrator feels in his stomach is actually the feeling of fright.
The narrator is scared for his brother and he feels partly guilty for not helping him in his time of need. When the ice is melting inside of the narrator’s stomach, the fright and shock is finally shrinking until the ice sends the trickles through his veins to remind him that something terrible has happened. Another example of the symbol of ice used by Baldwin is when a childhood friend of Sonny’s comes up to the narrator and asks if he has heard the bad news. Sonny’s friend tells the narrator about what will happen to Sonny after he is released from rehab and the narrator feels the ice again, “the same dread he had felt all day” (52).
The same dread that the narrator was feeling earlier that day is coming back because he knows that it will be his responsibility to water over his younger brother. Baldwin’s use of ice in his story gives the reader a better understanding of the narrator’s fright and dread. Also, Baldwin’s symbol of ice explains one of the reasons that caused Sonny to have an addiction to heroine. Another symbol that Baldwin uses throughout the story is the symbol of lightness and darkness. Lightness and darkness usually symbolize good and vil. One example of darkness that Baldwin uses in “Sonny’s Blues” is when Mama, the narrator’s mother, was telling him about the death of his and Sonny’s uncle. After Mama told the story of the brothers’ uncle being run over and killed by a car full of white men, she said, “Your Daddy says he never in his life seen anything as dark as that road after the lights of that car had gone away” (58). In this example, Baldwin uses the darkness of the road to create a deeper meaning behind the uncle’s death and the father’s sadness.
The reason the father felt as if nothing could ever be as dark as that road is because he experiences his only brother dying in front of him. Death, especially murder, is considered to be a very “dark” subject. When there is a funeral, mostly every person is wearing black or dark clothing because he is mourning over the death of a loved one. Another example is when the narrator reminisces on the days when all of the ‘old folks’ would sit around in the living room after church. “They would all sit in the chairs while the night is creeping up outside, but no one knows it yet…everyone is looking at something a child cannot see” (56).
Baldwin uses the darkness of night as a symbol of death in this quote because the sun is setting on the “old folks’” lives. Also, the narrator says that the children cannot see death because they are too you to understand why life ends. Baldwin’s use of the symbol of darkness here adds depth to the fact that the children do not view life in the same ways that adults do because children have just started their lives while the adults have already lived most of their lives. On the other hand, light symbolizes all of the optimistic and hopeful components that are a part of life.
Sometimes lightness is used to symbolize salvation. Baldwin uses light to denote the good things that to Sonny. For instance, at the end of the story as Sonny plays with his jazz band in a small club, the narrator says, “There is not any other tale to tell, it is the only light we have got in all this darkness” (70). The “tale” is the tale of what the blue is all about that Creole tells as he plays his fiddle. Baldwin uses this statement to add meaning to Sonny’s life by showing that music is his light. Through his music, Sonny escapes from all the darkness and suffering of his reality; jazz music is Sonny’s salvation.
James Baldwin uses light to show warmth and hopefulness in the characters’ lives. Jazz music in “Sonny’s Blues” is symbolic in different ways to the characters. The narrator thinks that jazz music is “beneath Sonny” (59). He links jazz music with the kind of people who are not serious about life. To the narrator, jazz music symbolizes Sonny’s addiction to heroine. Baldwin uses the jazz music to demonstrate the hatred that the narrator has towards musicians and drugs. The narrator’s disgust of jazz music shows that he only wants more for his younger brother’s life.
Sonny is the complete opposite of his older brother when it comes to jazz music; jazz is basically Sonny’s life. The narrator describes the music Sonny plays and says, “Sonny’s finger filled the air with life, his life” (70). In Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” jazz music symbolizes an escape from life for Sonny. Sonny is able to tell his story and his suffering through playing jazz music. Also, at the end of the story, the symbol of jazz music creates somewhat of a tie between the two brothers. When the narrator watches Sonny play at the club, he learns about a whole new side to his brother that he never knew.
The narrator finally begins to appreciate the ‘blues’ that musicians are put through just to play their music. Baldwin’s use of the symbol of jazz music creates a deeper understanding and meaning behind “Sonny’s Blues. ” Ice, lightness and darkness, and jazz music are symbols that James Baldwin uses in his story to create depth and deeper meaning. His use of the symbol of ice adds depth to how the narrator feels when he first hears of Sonny’s arrest. The symbol of lightness and darkness creates a deeper meaning of the good and the bad things that happen in the characters’ lives throughout the story.