Posted in Reading

“There isn’t any other tale to tell”: Polyphony and Epiphany in “Sonny’s Blues”

James Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues” depicts the life of a young jazz musician and addict, as seen through the eyes of his older brother. The inciting incident—what prompts the older brother to tell Sonny’s story—is a police report in the newspaper, citing Sonny’s arrest the night before. Reading that brief story, one that reduces his brother to someone who “peddle[s] and us[es] heroin” (813), leads the older-brother-narrator to meditate on the events that led to Sonny’s incarceration. The news of his arrest—albeit a brief item in the paper—plays a critical role in the opening paragraph, providing not only the inciting incident but also a counterpoint for the improvisation that breathes life into Sonny’s character. Despite the narrator’s initial dislike of Sonny’s music, the structure of his own storytelling mimics the composition of jazz, underscoring the kinship of his nonlinear, polyphonic story and the piano playing of his brother.

In the second paragraph of the story, the narrator recounts how he thought about Sonny all day “while [he] taught [his] classes algebra” (813). Placing the narrator in the classroom gives Baldwin the opportunity both to show how the students remind the narrator of Sonny as a youth and how the narrator’s occupation further differentiates him from his younger brother. Unlike the algebra that the narrator teaches, Sonny’s music and his life are disjointed.

As the narrator continues to reflect on his brother’s disjointed life, his thoughts are punctuated with the sound of the school bell and a boy “whistling a tune, at once very complicated and very simple” (814). Those noises create the offbeat rhythms of syncopation, signature sounds of jazz. The story’s syncopation builds as it takes an unexpected turn when the narrator encounters an old neighborhood friend of Sonny’s, another heroin addict who engages him in a conversation about Sonny’s arrest. That dialogue between the narrator and the junkie leads the narrator’s story back to the newspaper report, while the juke box at a nearby bar “blast[s] away with something black and bouncy” (816).

Along with the story’s syncopation, its polyphony—another defining characteristic of jazz—builds, adding to the story’s voices the words of Sonny, himself, first in the pages of his letter and later in his face-to-face conversations with the narrator. Sonny’s return to New York after the war prompts the narrator to think back on the story of his father witnessing the death of his own brother, a young guitarist run over by a drunken carload of white men. That story, told to the narrator by his mother, introduces not only the voice of his mother but also his father’s voice, indirectly—as well as the scream of the dying brother, the narrator’s uncle, and the guitar strings “flying” (825) as the car rolls over him.

The sounds of the uncle’s gruesome death aren’t the only notes of tragedy sung as the story’s polyphony builds. The narrator’s two-year-old daughter, Grace—whose death makes Sonny’s trouble real—dies from polio: “[T]he reason she hadn’t screamed was that she couldn’t get her breath. And when she did scream, it was the worst sound, Isabel [the narrator’s wife] says, that she’d ever heard in all her life, and she still hears it sometimes in her dreams” (833).

Such tragedies leave little wonder why Sonny or anyone else might turn to music or drugs, or both, as a way, in Sonny’s words, “to keep from shaking to pieces” (837). The link between heroin and jazz is one that Baldwin first makes implicitly, when Sonny mentions Bird (Charlie Parker) to the narrator, who has no idea who Parker is (828). Though Sonny doesn’t refer to Parker’s heroin use, his addiction—as legendary as his musical genius and inextricably tied to it—is likely in the forefront of the minds of many readers who see the parallels between Parker and Sonny.

That implicit connection between music and heroin becomes explicit later in the story when Sonny reflects on the singing voice of the tambourine player at the street revival: “‘When she was singing before,’ said Sonny, abruptly, ‘her voice reminded me for a minute of what heroin feels like sometimes—when it’s in your veins. It makes you feel sort of warm and cool at the same time. And distant—and sure’” (836).

In the last pages of the story, the narrator accompanies Sonny to a jazz club downtown, where he listens to him perform. Finally, with that performance, Sonny’s piano and his bandmates’ bass, trumpet, and drums join the polyphonic voices of the narrative. For the narrator, the quartet’s jazz remains a foreign language. In the narrator’s words, “I had the feeling that something had happened, something I hadn’t heard” (843). Yet despite the alien quality of what he hears, the narrator experiences an epiphany in the night club—not about the particular notes he hears, but rather about their aim:

He [Creole] and his boys up there were keeping it new, at the risk of ruin, destruction, madness, and death, in order to find new ways to make us listen. For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell. (843)

With those words, the narrator begins to make meaning—not of Sonny’s particular jazz stylings but of his striving to tell old stories in new ways. The climax of Sonny’s set is also the epiphany of the narrator’s own polyphonic, syncopated, narrative. As the narrator observes of Creole, Sonny’s bandleader, he “seemed to be saying, listen. Now these are Sonny’s blues” (843). And as Baldwin’s readers listen, they may say: These are his brother’s blues, too.

Work Cited

Baldwin, James. “Sonny’s Blues.” The Norton Field Guide to Writing with Readings and Handbook. 4th ed., by Richard Bullock, Maureen Daly Goggin, and Francine Weinberg, 2016, pp. 813-44.

Posted in Reading, Teaching, Writing

But “On Closer Examination,” Do We See That She’s Really Dead?: Literary Analysis as Conversation and “Everything That Rises Must Converge”

Duck-Rabbit /

Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein assert that the most effective writing about literature takes the form of a conversation, whether it’s a dialogue with a published literary critic, a classmate, a hypothetical reader, or the literary text, itself. Graff and Birkenstein observe that what distinguishes literary analysis from other types of academic writing–which are also forms of conversation–are the subject’s lack of an explicit thesis (poems and stories show rather than tell) and the central role of conflict (problems move stories forward).

A close reading of Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Everything that Rises Must Converge” offers a case in point for Graff and Birkenstein’s guide for literary analysis, which itself–intentionally or not–may raise questions in readers’ minds about what happens to Julian’s mother.

The title story of O’Connor’s posthumous collection Everything that Rises Must Converge chronicles the conflict between Julian, a recent college graduate who embraces the changes brought on by the Civil Rights movement and his mother, who clings to the racial hierarchy of the old South and refuses to travel alone on desegregated buses.

One evening as Julian accompanies his mother en route to her reducing class at the Y, he takes a seat beside a black man–an act that Julian perceives as a lesson for his mother–and witnesses her annoyance increase when she realizes that the large black woman who has boarded the bus with her young son, Carver, is wearing the same purple and green hat that she wears, as Julian sees it, “like a banner of her imaginary dignity” (277).

Later, as the two mothers and sons exit the bus, Julian’s mother rummages in her purse for a coin to give to Carver, an act that Julian anticipates will fuel the ire of Carver’s mother, believing that she will see the gesture as yet-more-condescension-by-the-bigoted-white-woman. When Julian’s mother offers the little boy a penny, Carver’s mother’s frustration and anger escalate, prompting her to swing her purse at Julian’s mother and knock her to the sidewalk. Julian helps his mother to her feet, but she remains mobile only briefly. Delusional, she asks Julian to tell her grandfather and her childhood nurse–both long dead–to come get her, and she  collapses on the sidewalk.

Reading O’Connor’s story closely reveals that Julian, though on the right side of history, doesn’t place himself there through compassion but instead through “an evil urge to break [his mother’s] spirit” (277).

After reading Graff and Birkenstein in conjunction with O’Connor, what lingers in this reader’s mind aren’t the interpretive possibilities that the story invites but rather the one that Graff and Birkenstein seemingly ignore or dismiss. When they write that the “mother’s death [. . .] could be seen as evidence that we are supposed to disapprove of her” (195), they acknowledge the open-endedness of her character but not of the story’s conclusion, itself. The underlying assumption that Julian’s mother is dead precludes the ambiguity that Graff and Birkenstein illustrate with the duck-rabbit drawing. Is Julian’s mother (a) dead (duck), or has she suffered (and survived) a massive debilitating stroke?

O’Connor writes that one of Julian’s mother’s eyes came “unmoored” and the other “closed” (291), but she doesn’t state that she died. The fact that Graff and Birkenstein refer to her death serves as a reminder–apparently an unwitting one–that we as readers need to keep our own eyes open.

Works Cited

Graff, Gerald and Cathy Birkenstein. “‘On Closer Examination’: Entering Conversations about Literature.” “They Say/I Say”: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing. Ed. Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein. 3rd ed. New York: Norton, 2014. 184-201. Print.

O’Connor, Flannery. “Everything that Rises Must Converge.” “They Say/I Say”: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing. Ed. Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein. 3rd ed. New York: Norton, 2014. 272-91. Print.




Posted in Reading, Teaching, Writing

Telling Stories Too Painful to Tell: Meditations on Point of View in Carlos Fuentes’ “Pain”

In Carlos Fuentes’ “Pain,” Juan Zamora recounts his country’s tradition of “evangelists,” telling Jim Rowlands, his med-school colleague and lover, how old men with typewriters—or “evangelists,” as they were called—would sit in the doorways of Mexico City, dictating the letters of illiterates who wanted to write to their loved ones:

How do they know the scribes are reliable?

They don’t. They have to have faith.

Carlos Fuentes' Crystal Frontier (1997)
Carlos Fuentes’ Crystal Frontier (1997) /

Confidence, Juan.

Right. (362-63)

That brief exchange between Juan and Jim encapsulates one of the defining characteristics of point of view in Fuentes story, specifically the potentially unreliable narrator. Just as the illiterates cannot know if the old men are typing their stories accurately, we as readers cannot know if Fuentes’ narrator offers a reliable portrayal of Juan Zamora. We have to have what Juan calls faith, or Jim calls confidence.

But what if we have neither?

What if we’re simply left with a heightened awareness of the limitations of a story told by someone other than the person who lived it? With the first sentence of “Pain,” Fuentes calls attention to the narrator: “Juan Zamora asked me to tell this story while he kept his back turned” (354). The narrator reminds us repeatedly that he speaks for a man whose back is turned to us because his story is too painful or shameful to tell himself : “So Juan will not offer you a view of his face” (354); “Juan Zamora has his back to you” (354). Though Fuentes’ approach risks distancing readers from the story, we are drawn in nevertheless because of the truths Fuentes conveys about the inherent difficulty of telling stories that we cannot tell ourselves.

For Juan Zamora, “pain’ is a synonym for “shame”—it’s a “peculiarity of Mexican speech,” the narrator tells us (354)—and one of the sources of his pain or shame is the fictional past that he creates. Rather than telling his American host family the truth, that he was the son of an honorable but penniless administrative lawyer, he claims that he traveled to Cornell to study medicine as the scion of a wealthy Mexican family, owners of lands, haciendas, and oil wells. It pains Juan as well that he denies the hypocrisy of the patriarch of his host family, Tarleton Wingate, a prosperous business man who negotiates contracts between weapons factory owners and the US government, a man who embraces Juan while contributing to the suffering in Latin America that they witness together on the nightly news: “He [Juan] doesn’t understand if they [the Tarletons] are pained when terrible pictures of the war in El Salvador appear” (356).

Though Juan’s love affair with Jim doesn’t pain him—in fact the narrator observes that their first encounter marks the first time he “faces us, he turns to look at us, pulls off his mask” (360)—the reality that the affair will end is part of Juan’s story that he cannot face. Conversations about his past prompt considerations of the future. He and Jim cannot simply live in the present, and Jim’s future will take him to Seattle, where “his marriage [has] been arranged since God knows when, since before he knew Juan” (364).

After their break-up, Juan returns to Mexico where his story resumes four years later. At the encouragement of their daughter, Becky, the Wingates agree to surprise Juan with a visit, but it’s the Wingates who are surprised when the address they are led to is not a hacienda but a modest apartment building. While her parents wait in the taxi, Becky speaks with Juan’s mother (Juan is away at work, at a hospital), imploring her not to tell Juan of the visit that reveals his lie about his past.

The fact that Juan isn’t supposed to know that the Wingates visited his apartment but the narrator does know prompts us to ask, did Juan’s mother break her promise? If not, what explains the narrator’s knowledge of their visit? Is the narrator reliable after all?

The question of the narrator’s reliability echoes the one Jim asks about the “evangelists”: “How do they know the scribes are reliable?” (362). By calling into question the narrator’s reliability and emphasizing his role as mediator, Fuentes seems determined to distance us from Juan’s story. But while Fuentes’ approach underscores the story’s artifice, it also conveys the cathartic power of storytelling, enabling Juan to turn “his face toward us” (367). Whether the narrator accurately recounts the events of Juan’s life, he conveys the enduring truth of the difficulty of telling stories too painful to tell.

Work Cited

Fuentes, Carlos. “Pain.” The Story and Its Writer. Ed. Ann Charters. Compact 9th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 354-67. Print.

For more on Fuentes’ fiction, see his Paris Review interview: Fuentes, Carlos. The Art of Fiction No. 68: Interview with Alfred MacAdam and Charles E. Ruas. the, The Paris Review, Winter 1981. n.d. Web. 23 Sept. 2014.