For Teachers and Students (14): Discussion Questions for Sonny’s Blues (James Baldwin)

JB

  • Why do you think the story starts in the subway? What could the subway symbolize? (Also think about where “Sonny’s Blues” ends and what this could symbolize)
  • Read the second paragraph carefully and examine the imagery of ice and water. What could such imagery symbolize?
  • What could teaching algebra suggest about the narrator’s character? (Also think about Sonny’s interest in music and how this would form a contrast to the narrator’s teaching algebra)
  • Why do you think the narrator uses images of light and darkness at the very beginning of the story?
  • Read the fourth and fifth paragraphs and examine the social context for young people in the story.
  • Comment on the imagery of darkness in the fifth paragraph.
  • Discuss the narrator’s description of young students’ laughter in the sixth paragraph.
  • What does the boy who whistle (as depicted in the seventh paragraph) signify?
  • Comment on the narrator’s interaction with Sonny’s old school friend. What do we learn about the narrator out of this interaction?
  • What does the old school friend tell us about the social context for young people?
  • What is the function of the barmaid in the story?
  • After leaving Sonny’s old school friend, the narrator says: “I went on down the steps”. Discuss the significance of this in light of the images of light and darkness used in the story.
  • What could be the reason why the name of the narrator is never revealed in the story?
  • When did the narrator decide to send a letter to Sonny? Why?
  • What does Sonny’s letter reveal about his character? What does it reveal about the theme(s) of the story?
  • What is the function of the narrator’s description of the streets of their childhood and the housing project in which he and his family live? What do these descriptions tell us about the fates of the generations? Why does the housing project look like “a parody of the good, clean, faceless life”?
  • What is the significance of the narrator’s uncle’s death in the story?
  • Can you find any parallelism between the following people: the narrator’s father, the uncle, the narrator and Sonny? If yes, what is revealed in such parallel structures?
  • What is the importance of the narrator’s mother’s last words? Does the narrator understand his mother?
  • What does Louis Armstrong represent in the story? What does Charlie Parker represent in the story? Discuss Sonny’s character in relation to his choice of Charlie Parker?
  • Why does Sonny insist on playing the piano? What does it mean to him? What does it mean to the narrator and why?
  • Comment on Sonny’s following remark. “I hear you. But you never hear anything I say.”
  • What could be the reason for Sonny’s drug addiction?
  • Comment on the following: “…Sonny was at that piano playing for his life.”
  • Comment on the following: “He [Sonny] was a man by then, of course, but I [the narrator] wasn’t willing to see it… I didn’t like his friends, and his music seemed to be merely an excuse for the life he led. It sounded just weird and disordered.”
  • What does the name Grace signify? What is the importance of Grace’s death in the story?
  • What do the revival meeting on the street and the woman’s singing represent in the story? (Also think about the function of the barmaid at the beginning of the story)
  • What does Sonny’s notebook with green cover symbolize?
  • What connection does Sonny establish between music and human condition? What do music and art mean to Sonny?
  • What is the function of Creole in the story? What does he represent?
  • Comment on the connection between the cup of trembling and the glass of Scotch and milk at the end of the story.
  • Discuss the impact of music on the narrator as depicted in the last episode of the story.
  • Discuss what music symbolizes in the last episode of the story.
  • What does the story tell us about black heritage in relation to music?
  • Discuss the significance of the title of the story.
  • What theme(s) does Baldwin’s story have in common with Joyce Carol Oates’s “Where are you going, where have you been?”

© Ali Nihat Eken, İstanbul, December 2007

One thought on “For Teachers and Students (14): Discussion Questions for Sonny’s Blues (James Baldwin)

  1. Hi, I was aske to prepare an opral presentation based on “Sonny’s Blues” and I woul like if it is possible for you to send me the possible answers to these questions. I think I may have some answers but I’m not reaaly sure about others. Thanks!

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