“Sonny’s Blues” by Baldwin vs. “Hills…” by Hemingway
The two stories “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin and “Hills like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway raise the topical issues of humanity, such as racism and abortion, and, more generally, the issues of choice and the right ‘to find one’s way’. Both stories are filled with sadness, showing people’s choices in the uncertainty and cruelty of the world. The stories are rich in stylistic means that help to create the atmosphere and gave subtle hints as to the true meanings of the stories. This paper hypothesizes that while the stories are different, they are united by themes of sadness and the difficult choice the characters have to make.
Thematic Similarity in «Sonny’s Blues» and «Hills like White Elephants»
The stories «Sonny’s Blues» and «Hills like White Elephants» both portray difficult life circumstances in which the characters find themselves and the ways they find an escape from their hardships. Outwardly quite different, the stories are united by themes of suffering and overcoming and show how people’s attitudes to life events may change the way they feel.
The story «Sonny’s Blues» talks about a young Afro-American, named Sonny, convicted of drug selling. His elder brother, initially shocked and deeply frustrated, decides to make efforts to understand Sonny (Baldwin, 1970). What the narrator uncovers is the shocking fact that Sonny’s crime could have been an answer to the treatment he got as an Afro-American. Deep segregation within society pushed Sonny to the crime and the narrator begins to perceive him differently, as a person who suffered a lot and made a wrong choice (Baldwin, 1970). Sonny’s frustration and disappointment with life are aptly portrayed through the music he plays. While on the one hand music serves as a hint to grasp the idea of the story, on the other in music Sonny finds liberation from his past (Walter, 2021). Playing in a band, Sonny experiences freedom to do what he likes and how often he likes and to make his life choices as a fully-fledged member of society irrespective of race. Thus, Sonny’s frustration and loneliness are transformed into a new hope and a new beginning when he becomes a part of a band.
The story “Hills like White Elephants” portrays the tragedy of a young girl. Subtly, Hemingway (1927) paints a picture of a pregnant woman pushed into abortion by her young man and conventions in society. A girl’s dream of a child is inextricably linked with her dream of happiness and measured family life. Initially, she sees abortion as a collapse of the last hope, leading only to the continuation of a meaningless life; however, during the story her mood changes. While at the beginning she seeks the young man’s support and approval, in the end, she begs him to keep silent (Hemingway, 1927). From this, the readers may gather that she is ready to accept the situation, and will not continue the relations with a person who so utterly betrayed her. The story is full of sadness, but in the end, there is a ray of hope that the girl will not throw her life away on somebody who does not appreciate her.
Both stories have an undercurrent of hopelessness and loss that lies deep under the character’s outward calmness and self-composure. The feelings of betrayal, frustration, and sadness are recurrent in the stories; the authors masterfully build an atmosphere of gloom and anguish. However, in both stories at the end, there is a ray of light showing that there will be a new beginning for the characters who have suffered so much.
The Meaning of the Titles
In both stories, the titles are reflective of the deep sadness and doom the characters experience. Thus, the phrase ‘white elephant’ used in the title by Hemingway and many times repeated in the text is in itself very capacious. It is usually used to denote some burdensome property, a gift that a person wants to get rid of, or something that requires constant care but does not bring any benefit. The plot of the story develops in such a way that the word ‘abortion’ itself is never pronounced; instead, only the phrase ‘white elephants’ appears in its various meanings. The style of the great writer, like an underwater part of an iceberg, hides not only the word ‘abortion’ but the fear of a young girl, unaware of the pain of her unborn child.
The title “Sonny’s Blues” has two meanings: on the one hand, blues denote the style of music Sonny plays and, on the other, the word depicts the deep sadness and depression the main character experiences. The title reflects the predominant mood of the story, that of sorrow, despair, and anguish. Thus, both stories have titles that give a hint as to the main ideas of the text and at the same time set the mood of the narration.
The Use of Literary Means
Both stories have metaphors that extend throughout the text. Hemingway masterfully paints hills bleaching in the sun, scorched by the mercilessly scorching sun, the earth and green fields, the shady banks of a small river, and the sliding shadows of clouds. These contrasting frames are full of functional significance. These are the stages of the girl’s state of mind, which is likened to a scorched earth (Fonseka, 2018). At first, the comparison of hills with white elephants is admired by the girl, in the middle this image reappears, but this time there are notes of heartbreaking doubt. In the final part, the white elephants reappear, but the girl’s gaze sees only how they descend into the scorched valley. Along with the dream of a child, the colors of the world and the hope of happiness die for the heroine: they wither together (Fonseka, 2018). Deciding to kill her unborn child turns into the deepest psychological stress, the girl subconsciously knows that she is saying goodbye to the highest value.
In the story “Sonny’s Blues” Baldwin (1970) portrays the menace to Afro-American society through the metaphor of darkness that extends throughout the text. Initially, darkness is associated with the Afro-American way of life, devoid of many rights and freedoms. Baldwin (1970, p.97) writes, “All they knew were two darknesses, the darkness of their lives […] and the darkness of the movies, which had blinded them to that other darkness”. This line suggests that children were eager to watch movies to forget how miserable their own life was, to distract themselves, and find a way of escape.
As the narrative progresses, the readers see that the recurrent theme of darkness serves to support the idea that nothing changes. The narrator suddenly realizes that his children will have the same limited opportunities his younger brother has due to the racial policy within the country. Thus, Baldwin (1970, p. 106) says, “The darkness outside is what the old folks have been talking about. It’s what they’ve come from. It’s what they endure. The child knows that […] if he knows […] what’s happened to them, he’ll know […] about what’s going to happen to him.” This way, the connection of generations is traced and through the recurrent topic of darkness Baldwin asserts that there is no hope of change for younger people. Both stories have a symbolic meaning where the issues raised are hidden beneath the plats of literary means. The wide use of imagery allows readers to feel the atmosphere of the stories and unravel the authors’ ideas behind the scenes.
Structurally, both stories are built like an iceberg, where the main themes such as abortion or segregation are not pronounced but vividly portrayed through stylistic means. Baldwin and Hemingway do not name the topics allowing characters to speak for themselves in vivid dialogues that are in themselves revealing. With the help of recurrent metaphors, the authors seek to impress the importance of issues they raise on the reader through subtle hints and telling details.
The two stories “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin and “Hills like White Elephants” by Earnest Hemingway are structurally and stylistically similar. Both stories are built like an iceberg where leading issues are not pronounced but are hinted at through a wide use of stylistic means. The stories and built around recurrent metaphors that help readers to grasp the meaning and at the same time set the mood of the story, portraying the gloom and sadness the main characters feel. The stories aptly depict relevant topics and leave the readers to think over possible ways to resolve them.
Baldwin, J. (1970). Sonny’s blues. In G. Kirby (Ed.), The Norton Introduction to Literature (12th ed., pp. 93-115). Klett.
Fonseka, E. G (2018). Dissuasion Resulting in Determination: Paradox in “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway. American Research Journal of English and Literature, 4(1), 1-9.
Hemingway, E. (1927). Hills like white elephants.
Walter, P. F. (2021). Intoxicating blackness: Addiction and ambivalent sounds of fugitive life in James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”. MELUS, 46(3), 44-64.