Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Interpreting "Sonny's Blues"


As you were assigned in class, interpret the below passage and relate it to a theme of the story, "Sonny's Blues." Be sure to use specific examples from the text as well as direct quotes to illustrate your points. Refer to the "Writing About Fiction" fun-pack that I gave you in class last week for help on formatting, etc.

The quote: "For while the tale of how we suffer and how we are delighted and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard."


I have finished my own answer to this prompt, albeit without having proofed it yet. But I hope my own, sometimes too wordy writing, serves as a decent model of one way you could go about developing your thesis points.

I have in bold and italics my thesis statement, which is pretty indirect. The body paragraphs follow the basic, thesis idea and are illustrated with examples--direct quotes and some summary--from/of the story itself. Notice that none of my quotes are "hanging" alone. I introduce them with a phrase or weave them into a complete sentence. I also make sure that they are supplemented with some explanation that helps the reader to interpret them.

This is due by class time on Thursday, September 25, 2008. Please be sure to follow the proper heading format as I demonstrate below.

To post a comment, simply click "Post a Comment", or, if that is not listed, click "Comments" and then follow the rather self-explanatory directives that pop up in the new window. In order to make it easier for yourself in terms of formatting your own response, write out your response in a WORD document first and then copy and paste it into the "Comment" box. If you want to see the original post as well as the comments on one page, click the header above: Interpreting "Sonny's Blues"

Happy Writing!
BRobPeach, FSC

Bro. Robert Peach, FSC (my name)
Bro. Robert Peach, FSC (the teacher's name)
ENG 165 / Writing the Essay (the subject)
25 September 2008 (date due)

Yesterday's Blues: Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues" and the Restorative Power of Music
(a relatively clever title)
Thesis paragraph: Towards the end of James Baldwin's short story of interpersonal healing, "Sonny's Blues," the narrator tells us, "For while the tale of how we suffer and how we are delighted and how we may trimph is never new, it always must be heard" (51). Speaking through the elder brother of the afflicted genius, Sonny, Baldwin proffers a personal philosophy which suggests that while human experiences are often the same--be they ones of despair or hope--they are made uniquely real by the power of their expression in communication with others, be it through conversation or, as in the case of young Sonny and his older brother, through music (i.e. jazz and the blues). Baldwin's short story of reconciliation between two, formerly estranged brothers is thus a fitting declaration of victory over the pain of human suffering that demonstrates the religious power of art to express the deepest of human emotions, to indeed serve as a means to "tell the tale of how we suffer and how we are delgithed and how we may triumph," which, though never new, "must always be heard" if we are to survive (Baldwin 51). In "Sonny's Blues," it is through the character of Sonny and his love for music that the narrator's own story of suffering is expressed in a way that brings him and us into a better, more empathetic, understanding of Sonny's story of struggle and triumph.

First developing paragraph (2nd in all) with some summary: Ironically enough, Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues" is less about Sonny than it is about Sonny's older brother who, again, is responsible for telling Sonny's tale. But as he recounts his difficulty in confronting his little brother's battle with an addiction to heroin as well as Sonny's rebellious love for playing the blues and jazz, which seems to isolate him from his family, we see that the narrator ultimately comes into a greater understanding of himself in relation to Sonny. Really, Sonny's own struggles to find an identity as a young black musician in the harsh urban environment of Harlem provides a shadowy backdrop to the setting of his older brother's battle to reconcile--spritiually, emotionally, physically, psychologically or otherwise--with broken relationships involving his dead, alcoholic father; his deceased daughter, Gracie; or Sonny.

Second developing paragraph: Moving like an improvisational jazz tune or mournful blues anthem, the narrator's tale of fraternal strife and ultimate healing moves back and forth in time as he recalls in bits and pieces his shared history with Sonny. The story transitions into the subtley warm moment of jazz-inspired reunion at the end with the image of Sonny lifting up all of his woes in full-bodied piano notes as if praying to the heavens for release. The narrator's account here stands in stark contrast to the beginning of the story wherein, at the news of hearing about Sonny's arrest for drugs, he states, "A great block of ice got settled in my belly and kept melting their slowly all day long, while I taught my classes algebra" (Baldwin 26). The narrator's emotionally distant iciness that sent "trickles of ice water all up and down [his] veins" (Baldwin 26), eventually transforms into the burning heat of an alchemist's refining fire that transmutes base metal into gold, thus inspiring the narrator to experience a sort of communion with his brother. He says it best: "Sonny's fingers filled the air with life, his life. But that life contained so many others. And Sonny went all the way back, he really began with the spare, flat statement of the opening phrase of the song. Then he began to make it his. ... I seemed to hear with what burning he had made it his, with what burning we had yet to make it ours, how we could cease lamenting. 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 51).

Third developing paragraph: In this musical baptism by fire, Sonny, like a holy priest, annoints anyone willing to listen to the story of his having suffered a lonely childhood--one of "privacy" like his dead dad (Baldwin 34)--and the loss of his child-like innocence that Sonny's parents, or at least his mother, tried to preserve in the lives of him and his brother. As the narrator notes in recollection of faraway days when he and Sonny used to sit in the living room on a "Sunday afternoon, say, when the old folks were talking after the big Sunday dinner" (Baldwin 34): "The child knows that they won't talk any more 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" (Baldwin 34-35). Indeed, Sonny is not the only one whose innocence was lost in face of the harshities of existence. He shares in a history of sadness and tragedy with his Mother whose husband turned alcoholic in reaction to the death of his brother--Sonny's uncle--by a group of drunken, white hit-and-run drivers. And as we learn towards the middle of the story, Sonny also shares in the suffering of his older brother. In lamenting the loss of his Gracie to an asthmatic attack spurred on by polio, the older brother, in truly empathetic fashion, states, "My trouble made his [i.e. Sonny's] real."

Concluding paragraph (5th in all) with some final statements, emphasizing, without restating, my thesis idea of reconciliation and restoration through music: And so it is through Sonny's desire to share his pain with his elder brother by seven years that the two are ultimately reunited as their mother hoped they would when she warned the aloof older son to "let him [i.e. Sonny] know you's there" (Baldwin 37). It isn't until after years of estrangement that the older brother completes that simple task that requires him to merely listen, if not understand. By doing so, Sonny paradoxically becomes the wiser, he becomes the prophetic healer who, by expressing his passion in music, opens up his brother's heart to allow room for compassion and to tell his own story--a feat that, in the end, begins the process of healing between brothers and helps them to let go of all those painful memories of their shared past. Like Isaiah, Sonny successfully takes out of his own and his brother's hands the "cup of trembling," which glows like that smooth concoction of milk and scotch atop his piano--that instrument of peace that instills in the two brothers strength enough to no more drink of that cup of trembling again.