“Sonny’s Blues”: The Modern Prodigal Son
by Tangela Nichols

“The Parable of the Prodigal Son” is the well-known Bible story of a wayward son’s return home and his father’s unconditional love and forgiveness.  In the story, the father tries to convey to his older son that even though his younger brother has sinned and disappointed the family, he is family and should be forgiven.  James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” though unintentional, parallels the fable in his portrayal of a troubled youth’s flight from and return home and his older brother’s effort to understand him.  Though both stories are similar in theme, “Sonny’s Blues” illustrates the moral message of forgiveness more effectively because of the time frame in which the story was written and the complexity of the characters.

Due to the time frame in which these stories were written, the effect of the environment on the characters of the Prodigal Son and Sonny is vastly different.  In the parable, the reader is to assume that the family is well off because the younger son asks his father for his inheritance early.  In modern society, most parents can’t provide their children with an early inheritance or provide them with an inheritance at all.  The story also doesn’t explain why the younger son wants to leave home.  In “Sonny’s Blues,” the younger son is trying desperately to escape a life of drugs that seems to be an inevitable outcome in his Harlem neighborhood.  The only “inheritance” he is waiting for is any excuse to leave.  A similarity in both stories is that both younger sons fail and return home.  In the parable, the Prodigal Son spends his inheritance on sinful living and ends up working in a swine field.  In “Sonny’s Blues,” Sonny becomes addicted to heroin and is sentenced to prison, the fate he wanted to avoid.

The relationship between the siblings in the two stories is similar as well.  In both stories, the older brothers are more responsible and obey their parents while the younger brothers are allowed to explore the world.  They are dissimilar, however, in the way they relate to their younger brothers.  In the parable, the older brother is upset when he finds out that his father has killed the fatted calf upon his brother’s return.  Instead of rejoicing in the safe return of his brother, he is more concerned that he has always been obedient but his father killed the fatted calf for his sinful brother.  In “Sonny’s Blues,” at the request of his mother, the older brother’s primary concern is the welfare and future of Sonny.  While he disagrees with the ambitions of Sonny, the older brother struggles to understand those ambitions.

Jesus told “The Parable of the Prodigal Son” to illustrate repentance and forgiveness.  The story lacks the impact to motivate society as that of a modern-day short story because of the simplistic quality and the era in which it was told.  The characters are not fully developed, and the story leaves the reader wondering if the older brother ever forgives his younger brother.  In “Sonny’s Blues,” James Baldwin delves into the background of the characters so that the reader grasps what motivates them.  The moral message of “Sonny’s Blues” is more evident because the reader can follow the path of forgiveness along with Sonny’s brother.