Prompt: Sonny’s Blues begins “in medias res”. What does Baldwin achieve by beginning the story as he does? How does the order in which events are related later in the story affect your experience of reading it and interpreting its meaning?
James Baldwin begins the short story Sonny’s Blues with the narrator, an African-American man in 1950s New York City riding the subway to the school where he teaches, reading in a newspaper that his estranged younger brother has been arrested for selling and using heroin. The narrator, who remains unnamed throughout the story, “couldn’t believe it” (par. 1). In the first paragraph, the narrator repeats three times that he read the news and two times that he stared at the news. He states three times that he couldn’t believe the news.
The news absolutely shocks the narrator. His emotional reaction is so overwhelming that he feels extreme physical sensations in his body. He describes how:
a great block of ice got settled in my belly and kept melting there slowly all day long…it kept melting, sending trickles of ice water up and down my veins, but it never got less; sometimes it hardened and seemed to expand until I felt my guts were going to come spilling out or that I was going to choke or scream (par. 2).
At the same time, though, the narrator admits that he cannot doubt the news either. The reality of Sonny’s drug use is something he had kept “outside me for a long time”. He “hadn’t wanted to know”. He “had had suspicions” but “didn’t name them” (par. 4).
Because Baldwin begins his story at the very moment that our protagonist receives this shocking and terrible news about his younger brother, the reader partly feels the narrator’s sense of surprise and horror. The reader does not feel as deeply rattled as the narrator, though, because we don’t know Sonny, not yet. We don’t have the familiarity and shared history with Sonny that the narrator does. We don’t love Sonny as the narrator does.
The first thing we ever learn about Sonny is that he has been arrested for “peddling and using heroin” (par. 3). Our first experience of Sonny is his brother’s anguish at this unfortunate turn of events in his life. Because his brother is anguished we are able to glean that Sonny is a person who is worth loving, who is worth worrying about. He is not an irredeemable villain. The narrator tells us “Sonny was wild, but he wasn’t crazy…he’d always been a good boy, he hadn’t ever turned hard or evil or disrespectful” (par. 4). So Sonny isn’t a bad person. However, the fact that the narrator doesn’t doubt the terrible news, doesn’t think it must all be some mistake, tells us that Sonny has probably been struggling with some demons. Part of the reason the news is so shocking to the narrator is that he has been hiding from the truth about his brother. This shows the reader that something has been obviously wrong in Sonny’s life. Unlike the narrator, the reader has no emotional investment in Sonny’s wellbeing and so no reason to avoid the truth of Sonny’s addiction.
Beginning in the middle of a scene, at the very moment that the narrator reads the news about Sonny in the paper, also gives the reader a sense of the estrangement between the narrator and Sonny. Instead of finding out directly from Sonny or Sonny’s possible friends or lovers that Sonny is in trouble, the narrator discovers the news by chance in the paper. Even though they live in the same city there is some sort of rift between the brothers that keeps them from regularly communicating or seeing each other. As the reader processes the first few paragraphs of the story, she begins to wonder what kind of person this Sonny is if he is “a good boy” but also in this serious trouble. She begins to wonder what happened between these two brothers that they are no longer involved in each other’s lives. And she begins to wonder what kind of person the narrator is. He has described Sonny but told us nothing of himself. We meet him in the middle of a very vulnerable moment. We see his fear for his brother and his desire for the truth about his brother not to be true. We know he is a schoolteacher. We are left wondering how he will handle this news.