The underlying theme
in James Baldwin
’s Sonny’s Blues
is that all grown people
feel that they have lost something upon growing up
, and that each person seeks this
“something” out in their own way
in order to try to deal with the problems that come
uponst them in adult life. In the story, the nameless narrator
spends a great deal of time telling stories
of his childhood
in relation to himself and his brother Sonny
, who is seven years his junior. The major link
between these stories is that quest to retrieve that lost “something” that disappears in adulthood. There are many examples of this theme in the text
The most evident example of this theme can be seen in the passage where Sonny is first coming to live with his brother and Isabel, during the taxi ride. During this paragraph, Baldwin states, “Yet as the cab moved uptown through the streets. . . it came to me that what we both were seeking. . . was that part of ourselves which had been left behind.” In this passage, the reader is clued into what both the narrator and Sonny are searching for. It could be said that this searched after “something” is innocence, but this term does not encompass all that is lost in adulthood. If innocence is all that is lost, the search is useless, because childhood innocence, once lost, cannot be regained. There is more to be searched for.
Another example of what is lost in the transition from childhood to adulthood appears during Baldwin’s discussion of a child sitting in a room full of adults talking about life. The adults cut the conversation short, because “if he knows too much about what’s happened to them, he’ll know too much too soon, about what’s going to happen to him.” The child wants to sit in the dark room and listen to them talk forever, but knows that it will not happen. The child can hide in the physical darkness from the darkness within, but “when light fills the room, the child is filled with darkness. He knows that every time this happens he’s moved just a litle closer to that darkness outside.” Even as a child, we know that we will lose something as we grow, and fear its loss, even as we know subconsciously that it is inevitable.
Another example of the loss of. . . something during childhood is given in the poor communication and lack of understanding demonstrated between the brothers after their mother’s funeral. The narrator, now an adult, and responsible for his still-youthful brother, attempts to take a parental role in encouraging Sonny to stay in school, but Sonny tries to convince him that the Jazz world is where he belongs. He tries to explain that jazz is “all he wants to do”, but the narrator does not understand. He vicariously attempts ot regain his own “something”, lost in childhood, by protecting that of his brother. Little does he know that his attempted protection is fultile, and that the “something” in his little brother is already practically gone.
The narrator also fails to understand Sonny’s desire to leave Harlem, even at the cost of joining the armed forces, nor his attempt to escape the drug scene there. He urges Sonny to stay put and to stay in high school, even though Sonny states that he isn’t learning anything in school other than bad stuff about drugs. The narrator has grown up, and has lost the connection of communication with his younger brother. That communication is another part of what is lost and cannot be regained.
Throughout the story, there are other examples of childhood and innocence lost, and of the elder generation attempting futilely to protect the innocence of the younger. The boys’ uncle is killed, destroying the innocence of the father, but the mother keeps that secret from the boys to protect their innocence. The narrator’s daughter dies at age two, which must have had an effect on his sons. Even the street gospel singers are described as only marginaly different from the street whores who look on, and their song is compared by Sonny to the effects of heroin. No adults are innocent, and children quickly grow up, no matter what measures are taken to protect them. No one is safe from losing that “something”.
The one device that allows Sonny to connect partially to that “lost” self is through Jazz. At the end of the story, Sonny sits in with three other musicians. It takes the duration of the first set to regain what he’d lost after a year away from the piano, but he does, and after Creole “leads him to deeper water”, much like a parent teaching a child to swim, Sonny swims on his own again, and the music, despite the dirty and ugly world around, is pure and innocent.
In all, the theme of this story is very true and applicable to today’s world as well. The world has not changed. Children lose their “something”, despite the actions of protest by their seniors. As adults, all people seek unsuccessfully to regain what has been lost. What the narrator (and possibly the writer as well) realizes at the end of the story, is that losing that “something” as we grow, and then searching for it later, is not only all right, but necessary to our way of life. It is the way things are, the way things have always been, and the way things always will be. It is life. It is Sonny’s Blues.
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