Atmosphere of “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin

Pages: 3
Words: 869


James Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues” makes a reader thoughtful of the major issues many people have to face in their lives. Family, challenges, failure, recovery, and every person’s stamina are addressed in this literary piece. Due to the limits of the form, the author has to choose every word carefully, and Baldwin manages to convey his idea in every paragraph and the author’s every word. This close reading paper includes an analysis of a short paragraph describing the narrator’s feelings after classes. Baldwin creates an atmosphere of exhaustion and a desire to escape within a short section at the story’s beginning.

Accumulation to Introduce the Atmosphere of Weariness

The extract in question starts with accumulation, which creates an atmosphere of suffocation. The narrator emphasizes the idea of complete exhaustion: “When the last bell rang, the last class ended” (Baldwin 18). The teacher could hardly wait and was happy when he heard the bell. By stressing the idea of the termination of the torture for the educator, the author creates the effect of fatigue.

Simile to Describe Physical States

The writer provides details that depict his physical state, making the description realistic. The narrator compares his condition with a state of a person after sitting in “a steam bath, all dressed up, all afternoon” (Baldwin 18). With his clothes wet, the teacher feels exhausted and worn out. The simile helps the reader to understand the feelings and the physical condition of the narrator. The atmosphere in the classroom is depicted in detail to help the reader understand the motives behind the narrator’s emotions. His physical state (being sweating and fatigued) causes emotional distress and irritation, making him see the darkest side of teaching.

Interruptions to Enhance the Feeling of Exhaustion

The narrator explains his feelings and describes the very reasons for his weariness, focusing on one detail that is actually associated with happiness and joy. The fact that the teacher is irritated as he hears kids’ laughter points to the highest point of exhaustion. The use of an interruption, the exclamation “God knows why,” when referring to people’s views of children’s laughs as something joyous also suggests that the narrator concentrates on negative aspects exclusively (Baldwin 18). The educator uses such words as “mocking and insular… disenchanted” with an “intent to denigrate” when describing students’ laughter (Baldwin 18). These are the words of irritation and even anger, intermingled with bitter memories about the narrator’s own childhood.

Importantly, the description of the torture and an atmosphere of suffocation is interrupted by a short break of joy that serves as an emphasis on the teacher’s tiredness. The narrator depicts a tune whistled by a boy that is “very complicated and very simple… cool and moving” (Baldwin 18). The entire paragraph conveys the idea of peace and pleasure. Although it seems odd and out of place, as the rest of the passage is concerned with noise and aversion, this paragraph enhances this feeling. The author is distracted from unpleasant noise for only a few moments and has painful feelings even more explicitly.

Repetition to Convey the Idea of Fatigue

One of the most apparent literary devices the writer employs in this extract is repetition, which is quite a common tool to convey an idea of tiredness. The author uses a set of verbs connected by the conjunction “and” creating a sequence of monotonous actions: “I stood up and walked over… and looked down” (Baldwin 18). The narrator makes all those actions automatically with little meaning or zeal, moving like a robot and enumerating steps that have been performed.

The use of phrasal verbs enhances the effect of exhaustion created by the monotonous sequence. When describing other teachers, a similar technique is used, and it becomes clear that all educators in the school are tired and need rest. Again, a set of phrasal verbs is utilized when describing actions or rather mechanical movements of other members of the faculty: “passed through…to get out of that courtyard, to get those boys out of their sight and off their minds” (Baldwin 18-19). All teachers of the school are tired and want to leave the place as soon as possible, which is expressed with the help of repetition in the piece under consideration. The narrator’s escape is depicted in a short final sentence of the passage. Three paragraphs of suffocation terminate in a quick solution, which is getting home and talking to a woman.


In conclusion, it is possible to state that the author uses several stylistic devices to convey the idea of exhaustion. Repetition, accumulation, simile, and repetition are the most apparent devices employed. The narrator feels devastated and needs rest after a long working day. In only three paragraphs, Baldwin manages to depict the atmosphere of suffocation and emotional distress. The writer also uses a kind of oxymoron combining such concepts as insult and children’s laughter. The author shows the most unpleasant things related to children’s behavior, making them stand out against the overall atmosphere of weariness. The narrator is absolutely worn-out as he sees the darkest side in everything around him. Even a portion of pleasure and rest (a whistled tune) is short and overtaken by the chaos of students’ misbehavior.

Work Cited

Baldwin, James. “Sonny’s Blues.” The Jazz Fiction Anthology, edited by Sasha Feinstein and David Rife, Indiana UP, 2009, pp. 17-48.