Significance of the Symbolism in Sonny's Blues by James Baldwin Essay

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Symbolism Explored in "Sonny's Blues"

Symbolism becomes a powerful literary technique that allows us to understand the characters and the environment in James Baldwin's short story, "Sonny's Blues." Through symbols, we become closer to the characters and their plight. Symbols help us see and feel what is happening in the novel and between the brothers. Baldwin successfully describes the neighborhood that the brothers spent their lives trying to escape. Other powerful symbols in the story are darkness and light, which allude to not only the life the brothers want to escape but also a sense of hope and reparation. The most powerful symbol in the story is that of music because it allows Sonny to escape the world in which he lives and it finally allows his brother to understand from where he is coming. Music is the ultimate language that they both can finally understand. These symbols operate together to create the image of loss, disappointment, and acceptance between two brothers that finally begin to value one another.Download full Download Microsoft Word File
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TOPIC: Essay on Significance of the Symbolism in Sonny's Blues by James Baldwin Assignment

Darkness and light are symbols incorporated throughout in the story to emphasize emotions and circumstances. Darkness is introduced early in the story as we learn how the boys grew up with and were filled with rage. We are told, "All they really knew was two darknesses, the darkness of their lives... And the darkness of the movies, which had blinded then to the other darkness" (Baldwin 23). Here we see that darkness is like a disease the boys are born with and something from which they must fight to be to rid. Donald Murray agrees with the powerful symbol of darkness in the story, asserting that there is "no escape from the darkness for Sonny and his family" (Murray 354). One painful scene that is associated with darkness is the death of the narrator's daughter. When Grace dies, the narrator has to deal with his wife's grief as well as his own and the death triggered thoughts of Sonny. We read that he sat in the "living room in the dark" (Baldwin 39) and the thought of his misfortune made Sonny's trouble "real" (39). James Tackach notes, "The narrator's daughter's name is, of course, highly symbolic. When the narrator loses his daughter Grace, he simultaneously identifies with the pain and darkness in Sonny's life and realizes his own loss of grace, resulting from the broken promise that he made to his mother the last time he saw her" (Tackach 113). Just before the narrator experiences watches his brother play, he says, "For while the tale of how we suffer... is never new, it must always be heard. There isn't any other tale to tell, it's the only light we've got in all this darkness" (47). With these images, Baldwin is connecting death, pain, and darkness to illustrate the troubled life that both men had as children and adults. Baldwin also utilizes light as a symbol in the story. Perhaps the most prominent scene involves the light references we find at the end of the story. In the bar, light becomes a symbol for Sonny's redemption. When the narrator hears him play, the light, so to speak, comes on and he begins to understand his brother. He tells us, "Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did" (Baldwin 47). Finally, the narrator comes to understand what Sonny was speaking of when he talked about playing and connecting with the music. The final scene with the light that "glowed and shook" (48) above Sonny's head represents the narrator's epiphany. Murray concurs, pointing out that the light that spills from the bandstand and the "way in which Sonny seems to be riding the waves of applause... is as if Sonny were about to undergo another stage in his initiation into mature musicianship" (Murray 358). Tackach adds, "The drink that now glows above Sonny like the cup of trembling... becomes a symbol of the special protection that the narrator will now extend to Sonny as Sonny struggles to confront the darkness surrounding him. Hence, the narrator, too, is redeemed" (Tackach 117). From this perspective, we see how the symbols of darkness light means imprisonment and freedom for both brothers. The contrast is necessary for us to understand the extremes of both elements.

The environment the two brothers grow up in is a symbol of desperation. One reason why the narrator does not visit his brother is because Sonny reminds him of his past, which is something from which he is successfully detached. To see Sonny, to talk to him is only a reminder of their dark and painful past. We read about the "stony, lifeless elegance of hotels and apartment buildings, toward the vivid, killing streets" (Baldwin 29) that were a part of the boys' lives. Even after years, the narrator notices, "These streets hadn't changed, though the housing projects jutted up out of them now like rocks in the middle of the boiling sea" (Baldwin 29). Here we see the environment that the brothers needed to escape. The killing streets and the projects jutting like rocks present us with the dangers that lurked in the boys' daily lives. The narrator's realization that nothing had changed since he was younger only emphasizes the hopelessness associated with living in the projects. When we read about these conditions, we have a sense that there is no hope for the people that are living in these conditions. There is no escape and if there is a sliver of hope someone will come along and extinguish it. This is echoed in Sonny's disposition. Sonny tells his brother that he lives by a passion that his brother simply cannot understand. He tells him about the many ways people can keep from "drowning" in their misfortune. He says, "It's terrible sometimes... You walk these streets, black and funky and cold, and there's really not a living ass to talk to... Sometimes you'll do anything to play, even cut your mother's throat" (Baldwin 43). This statement encompasses Sonny's way of coping. Playing is the only outlet he has to release the anger and frustration that his environment has caused him to feel. The significance of this point cannot be overlooked because what Sonny must do to escape is beyond words. This is important because the narrator hears the words coming out of his brother's mouth but he cannot grasp what they mean. To escape that painful, dark world is something Sonny cannot describe easily and that is why his form of expression is music.

Music becomes the most predominant symbol in the story. As we have already mentioned, it becomes the toll by which Sonny can effectively deal with this world. Laurie Champion notes, "Music, specifically the blues, is the most significant motif in the story. As Sonny acknowledges, his only source of meaning in life is through music... Sonny and his brother connect through jazz" (Champion). The music is cathartic for Sonny and, as a result, becomes necessary for his survival. It is worth nothing that this catharsis extends to the narrator as well in that he, too, experiences "relief from the grief he has felt for the deaths of his parents, and more recently, that of his daughter, Gracie" (Champion). John Reilly agrees with the significance of music in the story, noting that it becomes the basis of the brothers' relationship. He notes, "the unique quality of the Blues is its combination of personal and social significance in a lyric encounter with history" (Reilly 56). He states that an "intuition of the meaning of the Blues repairs the relationship between the two men who have chosen deferent ways to cope with the menacing ghetto environment" (56). Music is always seen as a universal language and this story illustrates how that idea works. Even with these two brothers, that took very different roads in life, music becomes a language that both can understand. The fact that one brother is a junkie and one is an Algebra teacher only reinforces this notion. Music becomes one way that they can connect and it can be safely said that music saved their relationship when all else seemed to fail them.

James Baldwin demonstrates the successful use of symbolism in his short story, "Sonny's Blues." Significant symbols in the story help us relate to both brothers and their world - past and present. Darkness becomes a significant symbol because it represents the hopeless projects in which the boys grew up. The narrator helps us see the homes and the streets and equates that with a looming darkness that never goes away. In addition, the darkness seems inescapable. While the narrator is able to rise above his station in life, Sonny is not so lucky but both men must deal with the darkness that still pervades their lives. Light enters the story as a symbol of hope and redemption as the narrator finally begins… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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