A Struggle for Light: Examining Windows in “Sonny’s Blues”
There is a worn-out old saying about how when a door closes, there will always be a window to crawl through instead. But what if the window has bars on it? Or what if it is too high for someone to reach without anyone to give them a boost, and no one seems to be around? Or what if there are others around, but they’re all scrambling to get outside and not everyone can quite squeeze through the opening? This analogy is reminiscent of what blacks were going through in 1957 – the year in which James Baldwin wrote “Sonny’s Blues.” Windows appear as a motif throughout the short story, appearing in nearly every scene. Windows, even while shedding light on reality, provide a view into the unattainable; both of these functions drain the hope from the disadvantaged people of Harlem. There is one exception though, in the character of Sonny himself, who creates his own hope – his own light – even among darkness. The windows in “Sonny’s Blues” let in light, which helps to illuminate several realities for the characters in the story. Interestingly enough, this illumination begins with darkness. At one point the narrator recalls the Sunday evenings of his childhood, where guests from church would gather in the living room with his parents. The “darkness growing against the windowpanes” (Mays 82) is a reminder to the children, including the young narrator, that their world is one of imminent darkness. The blackness of the night envelopes them just as the blackness of their skin and the murkiness of their neighborhood does; it constantly threatens them, knocking at the window like a tree branch on a stormy night. By the time the narrator grows up, however, he is quite used to the darkness of his life and the tenebrous windows take on a new meaning: denial.
The story opens in a subway, where windows are rendered useless in the tunnels, as the narrator reads the newspaper and learns of his brother’s arrest for heroin. Denial is actually a comforting possibility in the shadowy underground, and it takes the narrator quite a while to believe the news. The narrator had been avoiding the truth for a while before the story begins, pushing it out into the darkness where he didn’t have to look at it. He’d “kept it outside… for a long time.” (Mays 74) For people privileged enough to live outside of Harlem, looking through a window might be a pleasant experience. But for residents of Harlem, it is only a reminder of the violent, dingy neighborhoods they were born into. The people in the story escape their underprivileged realities by ignoring the windows, instead turning to entertainment as a distraction. As Baldwin says, “the darkness of the movies… blinded them to that other darkness” (Mays 75). In the housing project the narrator lives in, there are huge windows in the houses. But no one “bothers” with them, instead opting to “watch the TV screen” (Mays 80). Television and the movies show something different from reality, a welcome break from the gloomy view outside. The illuminating power of windows in “Sonny’s Blues” is shown no better than in the scene in which the narrator remembers talking to his mother for the last time. In the scene, he finds out many shocking things – his father had a brother who was killed, his father cried often to his mother behind closed doors, etc. He learns all this from his mother, who is sitting in the window, the light shining on her black dress, a spotlight for darkness the narrator did not even know existed. “This was the first time,” he said, “I ever saw my mother look old” (Mays 83). At the same time as the narrator is enlightened about his father, his mother stares off into the streets, dreamily, humming a church song, as though looking for something more. The mother is not the only one to look through the windows to find something unattainable. When Sonny returns to New York, he and the narrator take a cab to their neighborhood. Sonny requests that they drive through the park so he can see the city he hadn’t seen for quite some time. As they both stare through the windows, the narrator realizes that in order for anyone to “escape the trap” of Harlem as he did – he had gotten himself a respectable job as an algebra teacher – they must lose something of themselves. Nobody gets out whole and complete. He realizes he and Sonny are looking out the windows for “the part of [them]selves which had been left behind” (Mays 80). Another poignant scene in which the narrator is looking for something impossible to grasp through a window is when the narrator observes a revival meeting. They begin singing “‘Tis the old ship of Zion… it has rescued many a thousand” (Mays 92). But, as the narrator points out, not one of the people listening to the hymn had been rescued. It has an effect on people nonetheless. Sonny compares the woman’s singing voice to a drug (Mays 93). The views from certain windows could be like a drug sometimes.
Another time in the story a window is compared to a lodestone (Mays 96), which is a magnetic rock. Even though the people in the story know things are likely impossible, they cannot stay away from those thoughts. At this point, it ought to be noted that windows are not the only interior feature that represents the unattainable in this story. On the very first page, Baldwin sets up the idea of rooms as barriers. The opportunities of young boys in Harlem are deterred by the “low ceiling of their actual possibilities” (Mays 74). So, while they are trapped in cramped, low-ceilinged rooms, all they have is a window to look out of to see just what it is they are missing out on. The interesting thing is that windows are mentioned almost everywhere in the story except in the scenes where Sonny is playing the piano. Sonny’s name is no accident. It is a homophone for “sunny.” There is something sunny about his personality; it seems that with his passion for the piano, he is the only one doing what he wants to do with his life (even though his brother is the one with an admirable career). Sonny has created his own sun with music, and when he is playing the piano he doesn’t need any light from the outside world.
One could argue that Sonny is as desperate to crawl through those metaphorical windows as anyone else in the story. After all, he writes in his letter that he “feels like a man who’s been trying to climb of some deep, real deep and funky hole and just saw the sun up there, outside. I got to get outside” (Mays 78). But it is important to remember that this is when he has been arrested and can’t be a part of the jazz scene again until he returns from rehabilitation. He only longs for an open window when he doesn’t have access to his piano. After all, the only time a window is opened in the story, it is opened by Sonny, and he slams it immediately closed again; it let in the stench of garbage cans (Mays 88). Even though he might have had an opportunity to open a metaphorical window to a better life – he was smart, after all – Sonny is content with finding happiness in a darker world of drugs and nightclubs and jazz. Unlike his brother, Sonny is aphotic, growing in spite of darkness rather than trying to slip through a crack into the light. The narrator experiences this beauty in darkness Sonny has found for a brief moment when he listens to Sonny play in the nightclub. He thinks for a moment he might be able to “cease lamenting,” but then remembers that “the world waits outside” (Mays 100). Sonny’s passion is a rare one, and most do not love something so much that their passion can single-handedly bring them joy that is otherwise hindered by their place in society. The modern world might seem very different from the one in 1957, but not everything has changed. Even today, the underprivileged people of this world might try only briefly to claw their way through a window that may or may not exist for them, struggling for light before settling for darkness.
Source: Mays, Kelly J. The Norton Introduction to Literature. W. W. Norton and Company, Inc, 2006. Print.
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