Story Skeleton: Sonny’s Blues
Story structure relates to the psychological appeal of narrative, that which engages readers and builds in them a sense of anticipation—a desire to know what happens next. This blog series is meant to demonstrate the universality of story structure with plot breakdowns of classic novels and short stories.
A Great Block of Ice
By Katie Zdybel
“Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin is a short story masterpiece. Originally published in The Partisan Review in 1957, Baldwin later included it in his only short story collection, Going to Meet the Man, which was published in 1965. At that time, it became more widely read and was revered by critics as an exceptional work of short fiction. It has been sixty-six years since its original publication and it is still frequently anthologized and discussed as a triumph of the short story.
Truly, it’s Baldwin’s mastery of language, his ability to channel the specific pain and transcendence of his characters that makes this piece so powerful. I had the opportunity to study this story with Narrative editor Tom Jenks, who has edited the works of Alice Munro, Ernest Hemingway, Jennifer Egan, Susan Minot, and many other literary giants. Jenks read this short story to our class, line by line, and I think it’s the only time I’ve ever cried in a writing class. Baldwin’s writing is restrained and carefully controlled, which amplifies the emotional impact even more. The story is a study in employing understatement and subtlety in order to carry drama further than high action or melodrama ever could.
In a story that is fueled by brilliant handling of theme and exceptionally beautiful prose, the plot has to rise up to meet theme and prose. If Baldwin leaned too heavily on the elegance of his style and the gut-punch of theme, the story would feel too flimsy, and the reading experience would fall flat. What Baldwin does with plot, here, is to create just the right amount of momentum so that all that careful wrestling of thematic material, all those impactful sentences are set up, spring-loaded, and released at perfect intervals. I think of this story as working like that retro game Mouse Trap, in which you have to assemble a variety of parts—curved chutes, tunnels, tubes, teeter-totters—and then drop a marble and watch it tumble its way, picking up speed through all the slides and trapdoors until it finally plinks, satisfyingly, in the hole at the finish line.
So let’s take a closer look at how Baldwin constructed this story for maximum impact. If we had to apply Hannah Shephard’s pitch test, how might it sound for “Sonny’s Blues”?
When A (inciting incident) happens, B (character) must do C (action) otherwise/before D (catastrophe).
When the narrator (Sonny’s unnamed big brother) reads in the newspaper that Sonny has been arrested for selling and using heroin, he must finally learn how to truly see Sonny—on Sonny’s terms—or lose his last chance at connection with his brother.
Let’s break this down a bit by clarifying the narrative goal.
What is the protagonist actively struggling toward? What question is asked in the beginning that will be answered by the end?
The protagonist is struggling toward thawing out his frozen disconnection with his brother Sonny, which can only be achieved if he opens himself to Sonny’s unique way of living with the difficulties they both share.
The story takes place in Harlem, New York, in the 1950s. The unnamed narrator and his younger brother are in their twenties or thirties in the narrative present, though much of the story reflects back on the difficulties of growing up impoverished and Black in Harlem. That time, much the same as today, was dominated by extreme systemic racism and violence towards Black Americans, particularly young males, and the story at its core is about the constant, pressing weight of this reality on two particular young men.
The story opens in the narrator’s classroom—he’s an algebra teacher—and the starting point of tension, the first juncture in the Mouse Trap game, is loaded when we recognize that his strategy for escaping poverty is to get an education, steer clear of drugs, and keep out of trouble. But, somewhere along the line, probably as a survival tactic, in following this rigid path of safety, the narrator has closed off his heart to his brother, as well as to other men and women who are struggling in his neighbourhood.
Baldwin gives us the effective image of ice inside the narrator’s body in the opening paragraph:
“A great block of ice got settled in my belly and kept melting there slowly all day long, while I taught my classes algebra. It was a special kind of ice. It kept melting, sending trickles of ice water all up and down my veins, but it never got less.”
This imagery is developed throughout the short story, and we come to realize that the narrator has frozen a part of himself, the part that loves his brother and is willing to continue to love his brother even when Sonny does what he considers the most unacceptable thing—falling off the straight and narrow path and turning instead to drugs.
The beauty of the narrator’s slow thawing comes from his gradual ability to see Sonny the way that Sonny wishes to be seen. Sonny is a sensitive, intelligent, and artistic young man, who has been less successful at pushing aside the daily injustices forced upon him. He is, like many sensitive people, painfully receptive to all the suffering around him and incapable of tuning it out. He is so acutely tuned in, in fact, that Sonny’s path is much less about finding a relatively safe and quiet shelter within the storm than it is about learning to work with the suffering around him. He’s a musician, perhaps a very talented one, who loves jazz and communicates far more articulately through the piano than through everyday conversation.
The narrator struggles to see the purpose in Sonny’s love for music (and is even more confounded by jazz as the form Sonny’s love should take), and when Sonny’s musical career intertwines with a crowd that sometimes leans on drug use, the narrator lumps the two forms of escape—music and drug use, or more specifically, jazz and heroin—into one great ball of frustration. He blames Sonny for being weak. The two brothers drift apart for a long period of time.
But a turning point comes when the narrator’s young daughter dies from polio. While very little of the text actually dwells on this event—it is mentioned almost as an aside at first—by the end we come to see that this tragedy initiated the slow thawing needed in order for the two brothers to come together again. The narrator writes to Sonny, who is at that time in jail for the drug charges, to let him know about his daughter’s passing, and a correspondence begins that results in Sonny coming to stay with the narrator and his family after he’s released from jail.
The narrator’s frozen state gradually continues to melt as he labours to understand Sonny’s choices, to observe his life without judgement. Baldwin handles the tensions and misunderstandings between the two brothers with remarkable tenderness. I can read the same chunk of dialogue over and over again and oscillate back and forth each reading between empathizing more with Sonny one time, then with the narrator the next. Baldwin stacks layers of meaning into every spoken line and everything unspoken as well.
The climactic moment occurs after witnessing the two brothers in various interactions—they move apart, the come back together, disconnecting and connecting, and each time, the narrator’s block of ice melts just a touch more.
The climax ultimately addresses the question posed by the inciting incident: can the protagonist truly reconnect with his brother after learning about Sonny's arrest in the newspaper? Throughout their lives, they have struggled to confront the reality that they each cope with the brutally racist system in their own way, and survival within it requires different approaches. The answer to this question emerges as their understanding of each other deepens through open communication and empathy.
They have an extraordinary conversation, and during this scene, Sonny sets the final juncture of the Mouse Trap game in place when he invites his brother to come hear him play music at a bar in Harlem. Sonny knows that his brother is not moved by music in the same way that he is, but he takes a chance. And the narrator agrees to come and listen, at last, to Sonny in Sonny’s own language.
The final scene, in which Sonny shares himself through his music, and the narrator, at long last, hears him, is intensely emotional, one of the most effective final scenes I’ve ever read. It is like each scene, each paragraph, and each sentence before it has been precisely leading up to this final transformation, and we get to revel in a moment of pure artistic perfection. No external problems are solved, and no situational details have changed—both continue to live in an oppressive society—but the relationship between the two brothers now exists on a very different level, and the narrator has released all his control, at least for one song.
Katie's first collection of short stories, titled Equipoise, was shortlisted for the 2018 HarperCollins | UBC Prize for Best New Fiction. She is the recipient of a 2019 and 2021 Canada Council for the Arts award, the Peter Hinchcliffe Short Fiction Award, the Carter V. Cooper Short Fiction award, and was publisher-nominated for a Journey Prize as well as two National Magazine Awards in fiction. Katie is an assistant editor at Narrative Magazine, and has worked on PRISM International’s editorial board. As a manuscript editor, she enjoys working with character, theme, and imagery.