An Analysis of the Theme of Suffering in “Sonny's Blues”

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An Analysis of the Theme of Suffering in “Sonny’s Blues”

The brief plot of “Sonny’s Blues” meticulously examines two adult brothers and their divergent approaches to coping with their depressing lives in the dilapidated, drug-ridden streets of Harlem. James Baldwin’s attempt at demonstrating his concern with families, roots, and identity is quite apparent, but the theme of suffering is most prominent. He expresses his thoughts on this subject through his distinctive and eloquent prose which accommodates an abundant use of rhetorical devices and symbols.

The largest and most noticeable devices are his allusions to biblical imagery. In one scene, the unnamed narrator describes the housing projects as “rocks in the middle of a boiling sea.” Such an apocalyptic image invokes a sense of hell on earth and the steadfast decline of Harlem. The rocks, which represent the projects, are massive, yet surrounded by incessant misery. Later, directly preceding Sonny’s performance, the author juxtaposes both light and darkness. For instance, he says “…I had the feeling that they, nevertheless, were being most careful not to step into that circle of light too suddenly: that if they moved into the light too suddenly, without thinking, they would perish in flame.” Light is a ubiquitous symbol in religion that not only represents warmth and hope, but a form of salvation and grace. On the other hand, darkness intimidates the characters by reviving their despicable, immoral tendencies and sins of the past while threatening to extinguish their optimistic futures. One could certainly make the argument that even Sonny’s performance itself has religious undertones – for his refreshment is likened to the “cup of trembling” at its conclusion. An image borrowed from the bible, the “cup of trembling” describes the suffering and fear which plagues human beings. Sonny drinking from the cup serves as a reminder of the pain which he has endured. However, Baldwin’s depiction of Sonny, who...
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