Family Issues in Sonny’s Blues And The Red Convertible
In “Sonny’s Blues,” by James Baldwin and “The Red Convertible,” by Louise Erdrich, both protagonists struggle to overcome certain obstacles in an attempt to understand and help their brothers with their hardships, hoping to form or rebuild a brotherly bond.
Sonny from “Sonny’s Blues” and Henry from “The Red Convertible” are both struggling with an internal conflict that resulted from a trauma they have experienced. The environment they are in may have directly or indirectly caused their struggles. The narrator and his younger brother, Sonny, from “Sonny’s Blues” are African Americans raised in Harlem, a neighborhood full of run-down housing projects, plagued with drugs and poverty. This causes Sonny’s longing to escape the confines and stereotypes of the neighborhood by struggling to find himself and his goal in life. On the ride returning home with Sonny after his release from prison, the narrator considers that maybe he or Sonny have escaped the neighborhood when he stated, “…perhaps, that I had escaped, after all, I was a school teacher; or that Sonny had, he hadn’t lived in Harlem for years” (271). However, Sonny’s ‘escape from Harlem’ was him wounding up in prison for using and peddling heroin. After release, Sonny’s previous experiences in captivity continues to negatively affect him and he attempts to overcome the trauma by doing what he enjoys, which is music. The narrator soon comes to realize “that part of [themselves] had been left behind” (271). Although the narrator seemingly succeeded, he notices the darkness in the community and constantly struggles with his emotions, whereas Sonny, although physically left Harlem, the outcome that resulted from the occurrences there still haunts him. This shows that the narrator and Sonny have yet to really escape their dark realities. On the other hand, Lyman and his older brother, Henry, from “The Red Convertible” grew up on a Native American reservation in North Dakota. Although there are certain restrictions in their environment similar to “Sonny’s Blues”, the effect it had on them is far less prominent. However, something else that did have a significant impact on both characters is Henry’s deployment to Vietnam. Henry’s time in the military resulted in his post-traumatic stress disorder. Lyman talks about how much Henry has changed since his return, “when he came home, though, Henry was very different…Henry was jumpy and mean” (4). Henry, similar to Sonny in a way, internally dealt with all his struggles and kept to himself. He shut out the world and everyone around him, including his younger brother, Lyman, whom he used to be so close to.
Both protagonists attempt to understand their brothers and to form or rekindle a bond with them. To achieve this, both struggles to overcome their own obstacles. Earlier on in “Sonny’s Blues”, there were disagreements and altercations between the narrator and Sonny, which were caused by the narrator’s own actions and attitudes. The narrator’s initial ignorance prevented him from forming a relationship with Sonny because he did not try to understand Sonny despite worrying for Sonny’s future. The narrator also exclaimed how he “had the feeling that [he] didn’t know [Sonny] at all” (279) after their argument about Sonny’s dream of becoming a musician. On the contrary, Lyman from “The Red Convertible” has been trying to understand Henry since the start. He already had a strong brotherly bond with Henry prior to the story’s occurrences. After noticing Henry’s changes after his return from war, Lyman attempts to bring Henry back to his old self and rebuild the brotherhood they previously had. He “thought the car might bring the old Henry back somehow” (5). However, what Lyman fails to realize is that Henry is too far gone to revert back to who he was before and fails to realize the impact Henry’s experiences had on him.
Both brotherly relationships face a significant change by the end of the story where the protagonists are able to overcome their obstacles to an extent. The narrator saw the death of his daughter as a sign to finally be able to carry out his mother’s wishes to be there for Sonny. A while after Sonny’s release from prison, the narrator and Sonny from “Sonny’s Blues” managed to have a meaningful conversation. The narrator gets to hear Sonny’s music and “heard what he had gone through, and would continue to go through” (293). The narrator finally comes to understand Sonny and Sonny managed to overcome his struggles and continues to face them by expressing it all in his music, something he has been hoping to do all along. He also ironically ends up saving the narrator, opening the narrator up to his inner self. And despite being “aware that this was only a moment, that the world waited outside, as hungry as a tiger, and that trouble stretched above [them], longer than the sky” (293), the narrator and Sonny were able to have that moment of connection. On the other hand, Henry was unable to overcome or face his trauma, with death seeming to be the only escape available. The brothers have a last moment together similar to old times, but Lyman then comes to the cruel realization that things will never go back to the way they were when Henry jumped into the Red River, let the current take him far, and said “my boots are filling…in a normal voice” (8). Lyman saves Henry by letting him go because life would no longer be the same for Henry. Similar to “Sonny’s Blues”, Henry saves Lyman in a way. Lyman was too focused on repairing their relationship and went through a lot of distress because of it. By letting himself go, Henry saves himself and gives Lyman a new start.
The protagonists, the narrator from “Sonny’s Blues” and Lyman from “The Red Convertible”, both struggles to overcome certain obstacles and tries to understand and help their brothers, Sonny and Henry respectively, in order to form or rekindle a brotherly relationship. Initially, there was some tension between the narrator and Sonny due to their different perspectives. However, the narrator later opens himself up and lets Sonny in, in an attempt to understand Sonny and form a bond with him. The brothers are able to reach a connection and mutual understanding in the end despite the fact there are probably further turmoil awaiting them. Differently, Lyman and Henry already had a strong relationship which was later harmed after Henry’s return from a traumatic experience. Lyman attempts to repair Henry and the bond they once had, but comes to realize that it was all in vain. He had no choice but to let Henry and a part of himself go, in order to save Henry from further pain, and to save himself.
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