STUDY QUESTIONS ON BALDWIN'S "SONNY'S BLUES"

Written and adapted from various sources
by
Dr. Tina L. Hanlon

Associate Professor of English
Ferrum College


1. Who is the main character in "Sonny's Blues," Sonny or the narrator? Or are they equally important? What are the differences in their points of view? How would the style of narration be different if Sonny told the story? How do the challenges that the two face complement each other?

2. The narrator describes his shock at his brother's arrest as "a great block of ice" that settled in his belly and "kept melting there slowly all day long." Does the process of melting apply to the narrator's transformation through the story? What other images of water appear? What is the function of the imagery of fire and water in the last scene?

3. What do the references to different types of music mean throughout the story? How do they prepare us for the final scene? What does the word "blues" mean in the title?

4. How does his meeting with Sonny's old school friend affect the narrator? What issues does it raise that are developed later in the story?

5. What does darkness mean in the paragraph that begins, "This was the last time I ever saw my mother alive"? Where else do images of darkness occur?

6. How is the mother's relationship with her husband like the narrator's with Sonny? How does the story trace the narrator's growing understanding of his mother's warning that he "may not be able to stop nothing from happening" to Sonny despite his intentions to watch over Sonny?

7. When Sonny insists that "people ought to do what they want to do" and the narrator says that isn't always possible, what contrast between the brothers is revealed? Does the story suggest that one is more right than the other?

8. What other ways of coping with pain are illustrated in this story besides Sonny's use of heroin? What do you think of Sonny's explanation for drug use?

9. In his letter early in the story, Sonny mentions the death of the narrator's daughter Gracie, but we do not learn the details until much later. What is the function of this episode?

10. What is the purpose of Mama's telling of the death of "Daddy's brother"?

11. Isobel's family tolerates Sonny only because he is the narrator's brother, but in the jazz club, the narrator is welcome only because he is Sonny's brother. How do they each react to these situations? Does the narrator want to "belong" in the club?

11. The bass player Creole has an important role in the final scene, as almost a spiritual teacher. How is he a foil or contrast to the narrator?

12. What conception of the nature and function of art does the last scene develop?

13. What is the connection between biblical allusion to the "cup of trembling" in the last line and the glass of Scotch and milk?

14. What themes does "Sonny's Blues" have in common other stories we have read (and The Glass Menagerie), especially in the characters' family relationships?

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