Character Development Resulting from Setting

It is easy to assume that one’s community offers its occupants the same opportunities, as it’s physical attributes are familiar and accessible to each. This statement is negated in the story Sonny’s Blues, by James Baldwin which details how the urban community of Harlem contained cultural conflict leading to the degradation of social interactions and interpretations amongst its residents. In Sonny’s Blues, the challenging and unsettled setting accurately reflects the development of Sonny’s character

Sonny’s ability to socialize and relate to his community diminished as he found the struggles faced by its occupants had destroyed them. Using the narrator, Baldwin describes the behavior of the boys at school saying,

I listened to the boys outside, downstairs, shouting and cursing and laughing. Their laughter struck me for perhaps the first time. It was not the joyous laughter which – God knows why—one associates with children. It was mocking and insular, its intent to denigrate. It was disenchanted, and in this, also, lay the authority of their curses. (Baldwin, 1957, p. 123)

This statement provides insight into the communication of children in the community as they had hardened themselves at a young age because of their suffering. Sonny’s hatred led to developed feelings of institutionalization within his school, his community and his own mind. Peering out of a window at a church group Sonny states, “All that hatred down there,” he said, “all that hatred and misery and love. It’s a wonder it doesn’t blow the avenue apart” (Baldwin, 1957, p. 145), meaning the feelings that are supposed to characterize a community as unique are the same ones that are tearing it apart. Describing the streets of Harlem, Baldwin states, “You can’t talk it and you can’t make love with it, and when you finally try to get with it and play it, you realize nobody’s listening. So you’ve got to listen. You got to find a way to listen” (Baldwin, 1957, p. 143), meaning the streets are lonely as no one listens. Sonny found that the trouble lies within people; instead of developing a relationship with individuals, he began to relate to jazz music.

Sonny’s physical environment possessed cultural conflict, hindering his ability to relate to his brother. The narrator judges Sonny’s passion towards jazz music saying that “Being an addict is ultimately tied up with Sonny being a jazz musician and his disrupted adolescence in Harlem” (Kowalska, 2015, p. 2). The brother’s differences exceed a generation gap, “It represents a cultural chasm. The narrator’s inability to understand Sonny’s choice of a musical leader shows his alienation from a mood of the post-war bebop sub-culture” (Reilly, 1970, p. 57), furthering the idea that culture and experiences divide inhabitants of the same physical environment. To establish acceptance in Harlem, the narrator found himself developing characteristics of a white person. He lost touch with his African-American culture and was further embarrassed by it, proven as he lacked knowledge of the famous jazz musician, Charlie Parker, and is scornful of his heritage subsequently witnessing a barmaid dancing to something “black and bouncy” (Baldwin, 1957, p. 125). Resulting from cultural differences in his environment Sonny struggled to develop a relationship with his brother.

Sonny’s suffering was made evident through the description of physical attributes characterized by the setting. Housing projects were metaphorically described as “rocks in the middle of a boiling sea” (Baldwin, 1957, p. 128), ironically these large structures intended to positively change housing at the time became known as the center of misery. Character reflections were made evident as residents of these structures were associated with the evils possessed within. Though Sonny faced a term of incarceration, Harlem’s ghetto was repeatedly referred to as a prison. “The beat-looking grass lying around isn’t enough to make their lives green, the hedges will never hold out the streets and they know it” (Baldwin, 1957, p. 129), uses symbolism to describe the inferior housing projects as parodic, saying that even though they contain large windows, no one wants to look out. The narrator fortunate enough to escape the ghetto, had a misconceived notion of Sonny, who wasn’t as lucky.

Sonny’s character development in the story Sonny’s Blues is an outcome resulting from the story’s trying setting. The mental-destruction acquired because of Harlem’s cruel environment impaired interactions among members of the community, leading Sonny to formulate a relationship with music as opposed to people. Cultural conflict impaired Sonny’s ability to possess positive relations with others, including his own brother. The setting held physical characteristics that were symbolically representative of Sonny’s struggles and sorrow. The result of Sonny’s struggles lead him on a path of self-discovery.




Baldwin, J. (1957). Sonny’s Blues. Retrieved from


Kowalska, E. (2015). ‘Troubled reading: “Sonny’s blues” and empathy,’ Literator, 36(1), Art. #1148, 6 pages.


Reilly, J. M. (1970). “Sonny’s Blues”: James Baldwin’s Image of Black Community. Negro American Literature Forum, 4(2), 56–60. Retrieved from