Sonny's Blues': Theme Essay

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Addiction to drugs is an overall theme in “Sonny’s Blues”, impacting both those with the addiction and their loved ones. In the story, heroin takes a toll on lives, families, and talent. From another perspective, it offers a period of time where the user can escape from depressing physical and emotional environments. Sonny uses heroin as a way to cope with the suffering he is feeling that is surrounding him. James Baldwin does not judge the characters in the story who are suffering from the use of drugs. However, the author does portray drug addiction as awful, nightmarish, and overall destructive.

An unnamed narrator at the beginning of the story finds in a newspaper that his younger brother, Sonny, has been arrested for the use of heroin in a home raid. While walking home, the narrator notices a man who he remembers was a friend of Sonny’s. The friend wants to discuss with the narrator how Sonny has been arrested and his addiction. The friend makes the statement, “I'm surprised at Sonny, though… I thought Sonny was a smart boy, I thought he was too smart to get hung” (Baldwin, pg. 225). Sonny’s friend says this to the narrator towards the beginning of the story. I found this to be a very interesting comment coming from an addict himself. I believe that having intelligence, or the lack of it, has nothing to do with becoming addicted to something. I disagree with this portion of the story because Baldwin comes across as anyone who has intelligence can take as many drugs as they want and they will not become addicted. There are very successful people who struggle with addiction. I believe that no matter what career or how successful a person is they still struggle with different things throughout life. Just because a person is successful does not mean that they do not have the potential for turning down the wrong path in life. An intelligent, successful man has an equal opportunity if not more, to become addicted to drugs or turn to alcohol in order to deal with their stressors.

Sonny’s friend makes it known to the narrator how painful and difficult Sonny’s addiction has been for Sonny and how it will only continue to be difficult. Sonny’s friend tries to explain how hard it will be for Sonny to kick his habit by speaking from his own experience, “listen. They’ll let him out and then it’ll just start all over again” (Baldwin, pg. 227). However, by saying this to Sonny’s brother he only created more fear for the brother. This caused the narrator to wrestle with the idea that his brother may never kick his addiction and he may never get his brother back. Speaking from my own personal experience, having a family member who is dealing with addiction is very difficult. When I was six years old, my father, who I knew as the kindest, gentle, loving man was facing addiction. I remember my mother constantly wondering when my father got into rehab if he would just start all over again. Everyone deals with addiction differently. Some people have a really hard time getting their life back on track and others understand that doing so is the only option they have. My father understood that he had made a horrible mistake for himself and his family. He chose to turn his life around and correct his actions. Much like Sonny, I believe my father turned to drugs as a way to cope with his emotional depression. My father’s mother passed away unexpectedly a few years before his addiction began. He was also dealing with being the one to find his uncle who had unfortunately committed suicide. I believe turning to drugs was a way out for my father and Sonny. It was a way to escape the pain they were enduring. Much like Sonny and his brother, my father and his brother were close when they were younger. As they got older, my father grew distant from his brother. My grandmother was no longer with us, my grandfather became a miserable man without her, my dad’s older sister was trying to start her own family, and my dad’s older brother became someone my father could not count on. Unlike Sonny’s brother, my uncle did not try to be a father figure for my dad. He did not try, like Sonny’s brother, to understand my father. This caused tension between my father and his brother, and this tension affected the entire family. Having this type of relationship with family is a feeling of loneliness and in this way, I am able to relate to Sonny.

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Sonny’s brother was always distant from his younger brother. He was seven years older and when Sonny was growing up, his brother was away in the War. After his parents both died, he had a responsibility that he’s never had before, to take care of his brother. He promised his mother he would do so, but they were never very close so this was challenging. Looking back the narrator says, “I was remembering, and it made it hard to catch my breath, that I had been there when he was born; and I had heard the first words he had ever spoken. When he started to walk, he walked from our mother straight to me. I caught him just before he fell when he took the first steps he ever took in this world” (Baldwin, pg. 228). Though the narrator seems to remember the special bond the brothers had when they were younger, the bond between the two brothers when they grew older could be described as intense. In a way, the narrator is like a parent figure in Sonny’s life, although he was never good at it. Sonny was never close to his father it seems. Family relationships can be complicated, especially between siblings. I believe that because Sonny did not have a good relationship with his father, he was looking for someone to play the role of a father figure. The narrator is family and with that comes the responsibility to be there to catch his brother when he falls. However, this was very hard for Sonny’s brother to do for him. The narrator did not understand his brother and what he was going through. He did not agree with how Sonny chose to deal with his issues. It was especially challenging for Sonny’s brother because he didn’t agree with his decision to become a musician. He wanted Sonny to be able to make a living for himself but Sonny wanted to follow his dreams.

Once Sonny’s brother got to hear him play at the bar, it finally started to make sense to him. Once Sonny and his band members played, it hit Sonny’s brother that this music has meaning. He could finally understand the importance of blues and the message it sends. It’s like, hearing this music, helped Sonny’s brother to accept the past and the struggles of addiction his brother faced. He says, “and he was giving it back, as everything must be given back, so that, passing through death, it can live forever” (Baldwin, pg.249). In the last few pages of the story we are introduced to Creole, a minor character, but once they get on stage, we learn he’s much more than a minor character in Sonny’s life. Creole was an older man, who seemed to serve as Sonny’s mentor. Sonny didn’t have a father figure in his life who accepted him in making music, Creole seems to be that person for him. The way that the narrator describes Creole guiding Sonny on stage, makes us understand that he wants the best for Sonny and knows that music is very important to him, as we can tell it is with Creole. I believe that it was completely necessary to Sonny that he found someone who understood him, that person was Creole. Creole is older than both Sonny and the narrator which allows him to have seen things in life and gives him certain wisdom that neither of the boys has. In a way, Creole serves as a teacher and a guide. To Sonny, Creole is someone who wants to see him get his life back on track and would do anything to help him do that. Creole is not only helping Sonny find his way out of his troubles but helped Sonny’s brother as well, allowing him to understand Sonny better and understanding the importance of music. To the narrator, Creole is helping him understand Sonny through the sound of the blues and gives him the opportunity to see his brother in a way he had never seen him.

Many of us have known people who have struggled with drug addiction or have lived it themselves. Addiction seems to be something that is not only an overall theme in “Sonny’s Blues” but in everyday life for people in our society. Addiction poses a threat to not only the users themselves but to the relationships of friends and family. Drugs can be seen by those suffering as a way to cope with what they are feeling and the situations they are dealing with. As the daughter of an addict, I know that we have to be there for them. We have to be a support system for them and allow them to have another place to turn to. As a society, we have to stop shaming addicts and show them that they are not alone. No matter how good the high may feel to the addict, it is our responsibility to show the user that addiction is a horrible, gut-wrenching, ultimately destructive disease.

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Sonny’s Blues’: Theme Essay. (2023, July 20). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 23, 2024, from
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