Discuss place and how James Baldwin uses elements

of setting to convey Sonny?s Blues? larger message or theme.

Discuss place and how James Baldwin uses elements of setting to convey Sonny’s Blues’ larger message or theme.

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Establishing and maintaining a certain identity mostly depends on the setting. The setting allows us to analyze someone at a deeper level. Considering the time, place and the circumstances around under which they respond allows us to explore them and determine their identity. In the short story “Sonny’s Blues”, James Baldwin conveys the message of how one goes about establishing and maintaining their identity on different levels by using elements of setting. The author uses elements of setting several times to convey the message but some of the prominent uses are the military service, life in Harlem and especially the use of darkness. The military service plays an important role in the evolving of the narrator’s identity as it helps him gain respect and be recognized by the neighborhood, something that Sonny yearns for. Growing up in Harlem is the most important setting because the brothers endured several hardships in Harlem, which allowed them to establish and maintain a certain identity. The use of darkness is important because darkness signifies drugs and violence therefore if someone were seen in the dark, would be given an apathetic identity.

The time spend in the military service helps the narrator establish personal characteristics which enable him to understand the world around him and be more successful in life. Being in the military has given him the recognition to be a teacher and the parents entrust him with their children. Also it allows the narrator to understand his brother and eventually help him with his struggle. Sonny understands this notion and yearns to enlist in the Navy; he was ready to lie about his age. He thought, “if I say I’m old enough, they’ll believe me”, this signifies how eager Sonny was to have the understanding and acceptance that his older brother had. After Sonny returned from the Navy, the narrator still imaged him as someone who “carried himself, loose and dreamlike all the time”. He thought that Sonny had lost all prospects of reality and unfortunately his thoughts came out to be true. The narrators’ time spent in the military allowed him to make that judgment, therefore the setting of the military service established such an identity for the narrator, which made him successful in life and allowed him to help others as well. Also Sonny wanted to enlist in the army so it would take him away from the “killing streets” of Harlem and give him the opportunity to get a college education on the GI Bill.

Living in Harlem established suppressed and fearful identities for the two brothers. For most of their lives they lived in a black and poor neighborhood of Harlem where there was abundance of potential but they’re threatened by the drugs and violence of the urban ghetto. Growing up in such an environment encouraged the narrator to become more understanding of the surroundings, he suspected his own students to “be popping off needles every time they went to the head,” and comes to the conclusion that “maybe it did more for then than algebra could”. After living in such a neighborhood for your entire life the narrator required some kind of understanding that would make everything around him rational. Therefore, his identity changes as he tries to understand the cruel way of life in Harlem. Just like growing up in Harlem established identity for the narrator, so does the notion of darkness in this story.

The author of the story uses darkness to establish identities in different characters. The word darkness is used frequently in the story; it represents the drugs and violence in the neighborhood. The teenagers who become aware of “the low ceiling of their actual possibilities,” begin to discover “the darkness of their lives”. When the teenagers realize that there is a limit to their success in life they get hooked on drugs because they lose all hope. Here the imagery of darkness gives the teenagers an apathetic identity. Also the death of Sonny’s uncle on the dark road stays with his father for the rest of his life. The darkness of the road represents the hurt and bitterness in the characteristics of his father. After that night Sonny’s father had established a new identity one that was filled with optimism and distrust. What the teenagers and Sonny’s uncle have in common is that both evolved, which resulted in them establishing new identities, because of the surrounding meaning the setting.

The use of elements of setting allows us to look deeper into a person; it allows us to observe their personal characteristics because setting is the time, place and different circumstances. It is an aspect that allows us to be more understanding. Therefore in the story the author uses three prominent elements of setting: the military service, growing up in Harlem and the use of darkness. After going to the military service the narrator is shown as having an identity of being more understanding, so the setting of the military service establishes a new identity for the narrator. The setting of growing up in Harlem also gave the narrator an identity of being more understanding and the use of darkness in the story represents drugs and violence and gives the characters an apathetic identity. Therefore, the author uses elements of setting to evolve the characters and allow them to establish new identities.


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