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“Sonny’s Blues” Paper Topics

September 22, 2011

Music

Music is key to this story, particularly jazz. Re-read these passages: the whistling boy; the dancing barmaid; the father’s brother and his guitar; Sonny’s decision to be a musician; Sonny and his piano practice; the singing of the revival meeting; the relationship between music, drugs, and suffering; and the final nightclub scene.

Think about:

  • What does music express for the people of Harlem? For Sonny? For the narrator at different points in the story?
  • Why is the story called “Sonny’s Blues” when the music Sonny plays is jazz?

Darkness and Light

Light and darkness are woven together throughout the story. They begin with the narrator’s awareness of the “darknesses” that fill his students as they rage against “the low ceiling of their actual possibilities” and end in the final paragraph, with the glow of the drink in the darkness. Trace the images of light and darkness throughout the story, paying special attention to the characters’ dark skin and its limiting effects in the white world outside of Harlem.

Think about:

  • What can you say about the author’s use of images of light and darkness?
  • How does this add to the meaning of the story as a whole?

Characterization

In “Sonny’s Blues,” the dramatic action mainly concerns the characters’ changes or lack of them. Examine the method Baldwin used to develop the narrator and his brother and come to some conclusion about how the character development both pushes the plot forward and illuminates the story’s theme.

Think about:

  • What method(s) of characterization does Baldwin use?
  • As you re-read the story, examine the narrator more carefully. How is his response to Sonny shaped by his own set of goals, hang-ups, and responsibilities?
  • What about the idea of the narrator being his “brother’s keeper”? Should he be?

Suffering

“Sonny’s Blues” helps us to understand the various ways people experience pain and suffering.  As a musician and artist, Sonny tries to make known the pain he sees around him. The narrator, on the other hand, denies his own pain and hardship, and that of those around him.  But when he is finally forced to see it, he begins to understand Sonny as both an artist and as a recovering addict.  What role does suffering play in the story?

Think about:

  • What is the narrator’s understanding of suffering? Does that change as the story progresses?
  • How does each brother take on the subject of suffering? Addiction?
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  1. Assignments 9/26 – 9/30 « English III

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