Study Questions for "Sonny's Blues" (James Baldwin)


  1. The 4th and 5th paragraphs of this story connect the narrator's young students (and implicitly his brother, Sonny) to feelings of hopelessness and rage as it describes them struggling against a "low ceiling of possibilities."  How does this notion of limited possibilities and lack of hope help us to understand Sonny's choices in the story? 




  1. What role does music play in identifying responses to those limited possibilities?  Consider the references to music throughout the story and consider how they expose the narrator's inability to relate to and understand his own brother until the story's end, when the narrator visits Sonny at his club. 





  1. How do the narrator's comments on classical music and Louis Armstrong (56-57) show how distant he is from the values of his own community and from Sonny's experience?  Do other scenes in the story use music to expose the conflicts central to the story?  Examples: the little boy whistling (47), the uncle guitar player (54-55), the references to Charlie "Bird" Parker (57), the old fashioned revival meeting (61-64), Sonny at the nightclub (65-68).






  1. What event causes the narrator to write to his brother in prison?  How is this connected to his promise to his mother to catch Sonny if he falls?  How do these events define what is necessary before one person can truly understand another?






  1.   What is the significance of the "cup of trembling" that ends the story?  (See Isaiah 51:17-52 & Zechariah 12 for the relevant biblical allusions.) 






  1. Consider the story's structure.  Why does Baldwin begin the story after Sonn'ís arrest, then use flashbacks to reveal the earlier events?  How does this structure (including the narrator's memory of his promise to his mother)  affect our understanding of the narrator and his values?