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Symbolism In James Baldwin's Sonny's Blues

1244 words - 5 pages

Symbolism in James Baldwin's Sonny's Blues
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Several passages found throughout "Sonny's Blues" indicate that as a whole, the neighborhood of Harlem is in the turmoil of a battle between good and evil. The narrator describes Sonny's close encounters with the evil manifested in drugs and crime, as well as his assertive attempts at distancing himself from the darker side. The streets and communities of Harlem are described as being a harsh environment which claims the lives of many who have struggled against the constant enticement of emotional escape through drugs, and financial escape through crime. Sonny's parents, just like the others in Harlem, have attempted to distance their children from the dark sides of their community, but inevitably, they are all aware that one day each child will face a decisionb for the first time. Each child will eventually join the ranks of all the other members of society fighting a war against evil at the personal level so cleanly brought to life by James Baldwin. Amongst all the chaos, the reader is introduced to Sonny's special secret weapon against the pressures of life: Jazz. Baldwin presents jazz as being a two-edged sword capable of expressing emotions like no other method, but also a presenting grave danger to each individual who bears it. Throughout the the story, the reader follows Sonny's past and present skirmishes with evil, his triumphs, and his defeats. By using metaphorical factors such as drugs and jazz in a war-symbolizing setting, Baldwin has put the focus of good and evil to work at the heart of "Sonny's Blues."

At several points in the story, Baldwin emphasizes the quickness at which Harlem residents fall to the pull of evil. The children of Harlem are described as often turning "hard or evil or disrespectful, the way kids can, so quick, so quick, especially in Harlem" (Baldwin, 71). These children can be compared directly to soldiers in a war. Thoughts of uniform packs and gruff speech come to mind; even the shadow-filled courtyard through which teachers pass "quickly, as though he or she couldn't wait to get out" (72) can be imagined as a setting of a quiet war in progress. The students are all at risk for the same fate which befell Sonny's uncle. The hit-and-run incident which killed him was one of the expected casualties of the war unfolding around Sonny. Everyone knows an individual could fall at any given moment, but as was described in the livingroom scene remembered from many years ago, the hardships are not openly spoken of. Therein lies the critical error of insufficient emotional expression, which will be described later by the section dealing with jazz. As it pertains to the war scene, the lack of emotional expression is also demonstrated when Sonny's brother glimpses a barmaid going about her life at work. Sonny's brother, also the narrator of the story, watches "her face as she laughingly responded to something someone said to her, still keeping time to the...

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