The Effects of Light in Sonny’s Blues, a Short Story by James Baldwin
Light transforms, destroys, and elevates experiences and thoughts throughout ‘Sonny’s Blues’, by James Baldwin. Sonny and his brother, the narrator, grew up in the ‘dark’ atmosphere of Harlem and its housing projects and deteriorating, drug-ridden streets. The process of growing up, of losing their parents, and of living amidst both light and darkness had shaped both the narrator and Sonny. Baldwin uses light, and its counter, darkness, to present the challenges and hopes of the adult and boyhood days of the protagonists. If there is one line that summarizes the point that Baldwin conveys through this imagery, it is, “All that hatred and misery and love. It’s a wonder it doesn't blow the avenue apart” (pg 639). Through Sonny and his brother, we can see that light and dark can be put together, like hatred and love. Light and dark reflect the basic human experience; they are primeval aspects of the world that have always contrasted, but in this story, Baldwin brings them together.
The narrator’s childhood in Harlem was an experience that influenced him to be a teacher, and gave Sonny to have the desire to get as far away from his hometown as possible; this can be seen through the use of light and darkness. In the first passage, everything surrounding the boys while growing up is darkness. Their lives only lead into the darkness. The movies are a literal darkness that helps them escape their lives for a few hours, but in the end only make the literal darkness of life in Harlem even deeper. This same views on life in Harlem were echoed in the Narrator’s childhood, “And when light fills the room, the child is filled with darkness…moved a little closer to the darkness outside…what the old folks have been talking about” (pg 623). Through the passage, and this quote, we see that the general view is that light -like the movies mentioned in the first passage- only deludes a child, drawing him away from the harsh reality that will be his life, which “old folks” have experienced already. In response to this, the narrator tries to remove himself mentally from his environment by becoming a math teacher, by getting married, and even by cutting off his brother for a few years. He believes that if he ignores his inside, he can escape the darkness; but instead, he brings more darkness in. Sonny scares the narrator because he fluctuates between “bright and open” (pg 613) and “all the light in his face..gone out” (pg 614). Sonny is connected to his lights and darknesses through drugs, and then through music; these are both parts of Sonny’s life that the narrator cannot understand or accept for the majority of the story.
The narrator’s view of light and dark culminates in the second passage, and after that point. It is an epiphany for the narrator, and for Sonny. The narrator fears for Sonny, for his “perishing inflame”, for his inner fire to take over and burn him out, like what almost happened with his heroin addictions. He comes to understand that light and darkness exist together in the real world, with different drawbacks and benefits, just as they both exist within Sonny. The narrator begins by being downright petrified of the light, and when Sonny and his fellow musicians cross into the light, it is like a barrier is broken in his mind that allows the narrator to finally understand. He finally saw Sonny happy, and saw him grinning. He saw Sonny as a god, a creator of his own world. Despite all of the darkness that Sonny has inside of him, and in his past, he is able to embrace the light and not be afraid. Sonny was “so touched he could have cried” in this moment and he “put his hand to his heart”; it is the culmination of two emotional responses, crying is combined with love for what he does. Even the keys of the piano are light and dark and lie next to each other. The piano is beautiful and real and emotional with all of its lights and darknesses, the same goes for Sonny’s music, and the same goes for his and the narrator’s lives.
The symbol of light develops as the brothers begin to understand each other and themselves more. Sonny began by “…trying to climb out of some deep, real deep, and funky hole and just saw the sun up there, outside.” (pg 618). The narrator began by seeing “the darkness growing against the windowpanes” (pg 622) during his childhood. In the two passages, we see that the narrator originally saw darkness everywhere, but through Sonny’s music and true emotion, the narrator begins to understand that light will not cause anyone to “perish”. Rather, some light- and some pure optimism- is part of life.
The use of light and darkness draws to a conclusion on the final page; Sonny’s music was “burning”, and yet “trouble stretched above [them], longer than the sky”. The final line portrays Sonny as “glowing”. A man who clearly had much darkness in his life, and who will probably have similar darknesses in his future, still has the potential and talent to “glow”. Dark and light are the struggles of life that are depicted in “Sonny’s Blues”; from this we see that light can be too extreme, and darkness can be the reality that must be accepted. They exist together and balance each other: one cannot live in pure light, as Sonny tried through his music, heroin, and desire to transcend; one cannot live in deep darkness, as the narrator tried through stifling his emotions. Sonny certainly did have his darknesses, and the narrato had his lights.
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