Psychoanalytical Criticism of "Sonny's Blues" by James Baldwin: Essay Sample

Published: 2023-05-14
Psychoanalytical Criticism of "Sonny's Blues" by James Baldwin: Essay Sample
Type of paper:  Essay
Categories:  American literature
Pages: 7
Wordcount: 1883 words
16 min read


In the book, "Sonny's Blues", the author has used both darkness and light to symbolize the suffering and redemption of his set up. Light symbolized redemption, as seen at the end of the story and darkness, which is arguably the most prominent symbolizing the suffering of black people. The suffering and conflicts, both internal and external, experienced by Sonny and the narrator is because of the period and place the story is set up. The story is set up in Harlem right at the heart of the civil rights movement. Harlem, the place where the story is set, played a critical role in catapulting the conversation on black identity to the national arena. Freud argued that literary texts are an expression of the author's secret unconscious anxieties and desires (Gross, 2017, p. 80). With this approach, the author's psychological conflicts, unresolved emotions, ambivalences, and guilt are seen in the story. Among the character behavior, his traumas are seen. In this light, this paper seeks to carry out a psychoanalytic criticism of "Sonny's Blues" Blues to determine what the author's conscious mind repressed. In particular, the article will attempt to determine how his stay in Harlem influenced the story.

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A Peep into the Story

"Sonny's Blues" Blues is set in 1950s Harlem. The narrator, an algebra teacher, learns of the arrest of his younger brother, Sonny, for possession and use of heroin while preparing to start his class. The narrator, through flashbacks, tells of his brother's addiction, arrest, and recovery, as well as other tragedies that he has faced, such as the death of his daughter, uncle, and mother. These deaths help in different ways to reconnect with the two brothers. Sonny finds himself as an isolated figure always in a fight with his family. Struggles are both internal and external, including a lack of support for his music. The author in his life also experienced such conflict and isolation. For instance, he was forced by his father to be a preacher in his youth, which was against his will. At the age of four years, he became a preacher in Fireside Pentecost Church. In addition, before he moved to Paris, Baldwin experienced the isolation in Harlem for being gay. These events undoubtedly, and probably unconsciously, affected the behaviors of the characters in the story. These conflicts are present at the end of the story. The narrator finally had a chance to see Sonny perform with the band on stage and eventually get a glimpse of which sonny is. At the same time, drugs are a central part of the story. It is also about music, family, and the desire to overcome struggles.

A Look into the Author's Mind

Psychoanalytic criticism of the story will help in laying bare the author's emotions, conflicts, anxieties, and desires. The narrator depicts the author's side more. In several ways, the character represents the author. Besides, the story is generally a reflection of the author's life. Born in Harlem at a time when the degradation and destruction of the black culture were rampant, Baldwin used the story, consciously and subconsciously, as a form of expression to tell the truth of the African Americans (LeBaron, 202017). Psychoanalysis of the story and its characters, therefore, is a perfect way of digging into the mindset of an African American who lived during the Jim Crows and Civil Rights eras. Mainly, Baldwin's participation in the movement is visible throughout the story. The inequalities faced by African Americans at the time forced them into a life of poverty, sorrow, and anger. For instance, Sonny's uncle was run over by a vehicle full of white men but they never bothered to stop. The oppression and hatred that African Americans faced during this time much angered them, and this anger catalyzed the civil rights movement. At some point, the narrator wonders, "how the sheer pressure from all the hatred doesn't explode, ripping the neighborhood apart" (Baldwin & Kirby, 1970, p. 135) the civil rights movement significantly shaped the historical aspect and setting of the story. Largely, therefore, Baldwin became a voice of the campaign through his works.

Finding His Identity

The struggle of the brothers in the story to find their unique form of expression is a picture of African American life in the 1950s. The author has experienced the oppression of the black, uses his experience to uplift and inspire those like him. The author and his brother go through a similar way to gain self-expression and acceptance. Each one of them peeks into the other's life, and though the narrator does not particularly approve the path taken by Sonny, they finally learn to accept and appreciate each other. In Baldwin's early years, we could see he is struggling to express and recognize himself, for instance, when his father forced him to do what he did not like. Rebelling and choosing a different path for himself was his way of seeking to express and accept himself. Moreover, since gays were discriminated against in Harlem at the time, he admitted himself and moved to Paris, where his lifestyle was more tolerated (Simon, 172017). It This shows that Baldwin might subconsciously be taking the reader through his struggles for using the characters of the two brothers.

The narrator symbolically represents several layers of the African American life that the author might have seen and even experienced; for example, the narrator gets to know of sonny's arrest in an underground train through the paper. The writer presents to the reader, the invisibility in which he and members of his community. Living in Harlem, their lives were either unseen or unacknowledged by the larger society. The struggles Sonny goes through are expressions of what the author had to go through in his quest to find his identity (Simon, 242017). At the end of the story, his music dream seems to be falling in place after going through the darkness of prison and drug addiction, which is taken to represent a fruitful pursuit of his identity. Sonny's departure from the old Jazz music loved by his brother to a new genre also represents his thirst for self-identity. However, he succeeds `to express himself to his brother, who in turn helps the narrator to understand his struggles too.

Living in Darkness

Darkness in the story represents the problematic conditions the narrator he grew up in. While Harlem had been a better place during the Harlem Renaissance, World War II and the Great Depression saw the town sink into poverty and sorrow. The narrator feels that his children are bound to lead the same kind of life that he had because he and his family still live in the same housing projects he had grown up in. The This sentiment is captured when the narrator claims, "he'll know too much too soon, about what is going to happen to him" (Baldwin & Kirby, 1970, p. 131). Even though the narrator tried to turn around his fortune and do the right thing, his situation does not seem to change. Also though he served at the army and completed college to get a respectable job, his family's problem remains unsolved. As he says at the start of the story that he is "trapped in the darkness that roared outside" (Baldwin & Kirby, 1970, p. 122). The difficulty of life faced by African Americans living in Harlem is also represented by the tragedies his family goes through. Since the author experienced this life before, it is no surprise that he paints its darkness, sorrow, and misfortunes both consciously and subconsciously.

A large population of African Americans was trapped in Harlem in the 1950s. The author to represent both social and personal problems in Harlem uses darkness. The This darkness haunts figures in the story, which is something they are aware of once it becomes dark. The author's use of imprisonment, therefore, represents the sense of entrapment that he and thousands of others felt in Harlem. The two brothers consistently struggle to escape get out of this trap without much success. Other than Sonny imprisoned, the author uses the term "trapped" several while describing the neighborhood. Baldwin describes the housing projects in which he and his family live as "rocks in the middle of a boiling sea" to show that despite the challenges they were facing, the neighborhood was almost inescapable (Baldwin & Kirby, 1970, p. 131).

The Redemptive Power of Suffering

The success of presenting the suffering faced by African Americans in Harlem so brilliantly is seen in Baldwin's effort to share his pain. Aspects of the redemptive potential of pain are seen in other characters in the story. At first, the narrator bashes the African culture and has a softer spot for the White culture. His struggles portrayed by his desire to lead a life that resembles the White culture more. For instance, he does not know Charlie Parker, a famous Jazz musician in the African American culture. Still, he easily identifies with singers associated with the white bourgeois culture, such as Louis Armstrong. Selfish This selfish desire to get assimilated and lead a life that he considered more respectable alienates him from his family and community. For example, he has no compassion for his brother after learning of his imprisonment changed his imprisonmentway of living. However, their suffering united them. For example, when their mother died, they became close, but for a moment, and they were able to start communicating. The communication His brother writes him a long later while in prison, the brother says "I'm glad Mama and Daddy are dead and can't see what happened to their son and I swear if I'd known what I was doing, I would never have hurt you so (Baldwin & Kirby, 131).." This is a depiction of the redemptive potential and humanizing power of suffering. Through suffering, one understands the plight of the other better. Suffering creates a sense of genuine compassion and allows people to humanize each other, as evidenced by the thawing of the frosty relationship between the brothers.

Sonny's music connects the two brothers. Through the story, therefore, Baldwin sought to propagate this redemptive power. Baldwin's excellent understanding of sufferings faced by people in Harlem can be attributed to this fact he saw this place, including its people. The This revelation is best viewed at the end of the story as the band performs. In addition, the song that reunites the brothers "Am I Blue" was composed of white artists. , sonny says "I want to play with jazz." Through this, therefore, Baldwin seems to say that to find oneself, one might have to look outside themselves, just as he had.


The motivations, desires, conflicts, and sufferings faced by Baldwin in his characters are shown through the psychoanalytic analysis of the story. The Baldwin's willingness of Baldwin to escape Harlem's pain is prevalent throughout the story. Another present feature is his story helps him in the struggle to find identity and voice. Sonny On the other hand, Sonny's suffering helped shaped his life; he was able to overcome drugs and while in prison to find himself self-confidence and his personality. The two brothers came close and were once again communicating, just like and Baldwin was able to by looking look within and around himhis sonny. Later Therefore the story, through its historical setting, setting became a voice of the civil rights movement.

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Psychoanalytical Criticism of "Sonny's Blues" by James Baldwin: Essay Sample. (2023, May 14). Retrieved from

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