Sonny’s Blues presents numerous biblical themes that strongly correspond with the Holy Bible. The biblical themes of salvation, redemption, forgiveness, light and darkness, and the cup of trembling are displayed throughout the narrative. Biblical themes of brotherly love, bondage, and the prodigal son are also discussed by Baldwin in the story. Each biblical theme articulates the struggles that Sonny dealt with in his life concerning his troubled past and his willingness to escape from these intense storms.
A musical theme of the blues is also displayed throughout the narrative to help Sonny to experience redemption, which is available through the music. Sonny’s Blues offers biblical themes and a single musical theme in order to express the uncertainty of Sonny’s future and his journey towards redemption of his dark and stormy past. In Sonny’s Blues, a college algebra teacher, who is the narrator of the story, speaks of his younger brother, Sonny.
Sonny is a lost and troubled young man, who is addicted to heroin at an early age in his life, and his older brother has sympathy for him, stating, “I didn’t want to believe that I’d ever see my brother going down, coming to nothing, all that light in his face gone out, in the condition I’d already seen so many others” (Baldwin 74). The narrator asserts that his brother has descended into a dark place within himself and struggles to find a way of escape.
Baldwin utilizes light to give a description of Sonny’s face when he was younger, and the tenderness that he receives from the church members and relatives, while sitting down after a church service. “And when light fills the room, the child is filled with darkness. He knows that every time this happens he’s moved just a little closer to that darkness outside,” which foretells Sonny’s state over the years (Baldwin 82). He is introduced to the darkness outside as he gets older.
Sonny and his brother are both attempting to seek a form of salvation, not only from the outside world, but from within themselves. Furthermore, the two brothers are dwelling in a world of darkness that is plagued with despair, drugs, and confinement, which leads them to discover a form of redemption that is able to purify them from their sins. Although the narrator appears to be a successful math teacher and raising a loving family, he also experiences tremendous gloom, since he has resided in the city of Harlem his entire life.
As children, Sonny and his rother felt ensnared in “lifeless elegance of hotels and apartment buildings toward the vivid killing streets of our childhood” (Baldwin 80). In addition, the narrator states that he feels trapped inside Harlem and its housing projects, which describes his state of misery. Despite his position in the middle class, he must still reside in his frail apartment in Harlem and endure the environment. The narrator is cognizant that he has an obligation to rescue Sonny from the portals of darkness, particularly his heroin addiction, but he is hesitant and skeptical of when he should act upon that decision.
Additionally, the narrator’s daughter, Grace, is seen as the ultimate act of grace since her death motivated him to become more devoted towards assisting his younger brother. The mother of the narrator pleads with him to make amends with Sonny by simply replying to his letter. Over time, the narrator becomes greatly distressed by his failure in fulfilling his brotherly obligation to Sonny. An urgent request is spoken to the narrator by his dying mother, “You got to hold onto your brother,” she said, “and don’t let him fall, no matter what it looks like is happening to him and no matter how evil you gets with him…” (Baldwin 84).
He eventually writes a letter back to Sonny in order to seek his forgiveness for refusing to be there for him during his time of trouble. Forgiveness is a biblical theme in the narrative, since it relates to a scripture in the Bible, written in Matthew 6:14, where an individual must forgive men their trespasses or their heavenly father will not forgive them. The narrator has finally accepted his responsibility of being his brother’s keeper. Apparently, the narrator’s life hits rock bottom, which compels him to soften his heart and reach out to his lost younger brother.
After the narrator hears and grieves about his mother’s death, Sonny aspires to become a musician. The narrator mentions a glass that is sitting on top of a piano that Sonny is playing in front of an audience, and the glass “glowed and shook over my brother’s head like the very cup of trembling” (Baldwin 100). The “cup of trembling” refers to verse burrowed from the bible, which is Isaiah 51:17, and it enlightens the suffering and fear that overwhelmed the people of Jerusalem. God vows to aid the people of Jerusalem, although they had sinned.
His people were in error, yet a merciful and forgiving God “pleadeth the cause of his people, Behold, I have taken out of thine hand the cup of trembling, even the dregs of the cup of my fury; thou shalt no more drink it again” (Isaiah 51:22). He removes His cup of fury and begins to redeem His people from their inequities. Similarly, Sonny suffered God’s fury the same way as the people of Jerusalem by drinking from the “cup of trembling,” to illustrate the suffering and agony that he endured for a long time and to draw him much closer to his redemption.
The bible verses, Isaiah 51:17-22, also implies that Sonny was victorious in conquering his addiction to drugs and is able to remain a successful musician. Marlene Mosher makes the assertion that the narrator will not “attempt to ‘control’ Sonny’s behavior and will no longer show his disapproval when Sonny falls short of the elder brother’s expectations” (Mosher 59). Sonny is delivered and is awarded his freedom. Brotherly love is another biblical theme that Baldwin utilizes within the narrative.
The narrator’s mother asks him to protect Sonny and to serve as his brother’s keeper by stating, “You may not be able to stop nothing from happening. But you got to let him know you’s there” (85). The vibrancy between the two brothers echoes the strained relationship between Cain and Abel in the Bible. After the brutal murder of Abel, Cain asks God whether he is supposed to be his brother’s keeper. In the same context, the narrator is present with a similar conflict.
The narrator fails to obey his mother’s command to take care of Sonny by turning his back on him and failing to respond to his brother while he is in prison. In the opening paragraph, the narrator states, “I read about it [Sonny’s arrest] in the paper, in the subway, on my way to work” (Baldwin 74). According to James Tackach’s excerpt, “The Biblical Foundation of James Baldwin’s Sonny’s Blues,” “If the narrator had to rely on a newspaper report to become aware of Sonny’s trouble, then he could not have been keeping his promise to his mother to care for his younger brother” (Tackach 114).
Although narrator refused to call his younger brother after his arrest, there is a strong reconciliation with Sonny near the end of the story where the narrator accepted Sonny’s invitation to attend a piano recital. A biblical theme of bondage takes place in the story as the narrator glimpses out of the living room window of his house at a street corner in Harlem. A religious revival of two women in black and a man are singing Tis the old ship of Zion. He believes that “not a soul under the sound of their voices was hearing this song for the first time, not one of them had been rescued” from their oppression. (Baldwin 92).
Although the lovely music was playing in the background, nobody was truly touched by the music and it did not make any significant changes in their lives as they “didn’t believe in the holiness of the three sisters and the brother” (Baldwin 92). Sonny and his older brother both lived a troubled life in the city of Harlem since it is a place that is infested with drugs, alcohol, poverty, crime, and incarceration. Sonny is physically behind bars due to his sale of heroin, and he feels devastated and longs for his freedom; the narrator feels imprisoned in his home in Harlem, and he refers to it as a place where individuals must struggle to flee.
Sonny and his brother are both feeling trapped in their circumstances and in desperation to escape the horrors of Harlem, and as much as they desire to depart from Harlem, it seems as though they are going to remain there for a long time. Sonny strongly relates to the prodigal son, which is a biblical theme, and it relates to the scripture in the book of Luke, since he has lived a life of sin by doing careless activities and then decides to return to living a life free of drugs.
James Tackach relates Sonny’s circumstance to the parable, asserting that “the prodigal son in Luke’s gospel said to his older son about his reckless younger sibling applies to his Baldwin’s narrator and to Sonny: ‘for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found’ (Luke 15:31-32). The narrator bought Sonny the drink that now glows above Sonny like the cup of trembling, and the drink becomes a symbol of the special protection that the narrator will extend to Sonny as Sonny struggles to confront the darkness around him” (Tackach 117).
The narrator acknowledges that he must do everything in his ability to rescue his prodigal younger brother in order to redeem himself and his relationship with Sonny. A conversation is held between the two brothers after Sonny is released from prison, and the narrator accepts his sacred responsibility of being his brother’s keeper by offering him to reside in his household. As a result, Sonny is secure and commences the redemptive process. In Sonny’s Blues, a musical theme that is discussed throughout the story is the blues.
The title, powerfully suggests that Sonny plays bebop, a new form of jazz. Charlie Parker is Sonny’s musical hero, who broke out of the customary contracts of jazz in order to generate a liberated form of the musical expression. For an instrumentalist like Sonny, the freedom of expression was an excellent opportunity to live freely and create a musical piece that was entirely original. Drugs were seen as a heavy temptation for great musicians in that era. Sonny’s musical hero, Charlie Parker, died as a result of a drug overdose and it motivates Sonny to want to play the piano.
The narrator declares, “Yet, there was no battle in his face now, I heard what he had gone through, and would continue to go through until he came to rest in earth” (Baldwin 100). Music is a form of Sonny’s salvation and it liberates him from his destructive behavior, such as his addiction to heroin, and he feels that he is able to fully experience real redemption through the music. The title, Sonny’s Blues, does not solely relate to a specific genre of music, but it relates to Sonny’s story of agony and affliction in addition to his triumph and redemption.