Existentialism is a doctrine that emphasizes on human existence and the centrality of human choice. It lays great emphasis on the isolation, as well as the uniqueness of an individual in a hostile environment. 20thcentury philosophers coined the term, who stressed humanity’s freedom of choice to live a meaningful life despite the existential obstacles in the environment. They also exalted the need for humanity to take responsibility for the consequences of their actions. In existentialism, human beings are self created; they chose their own characteristics. Additionally, people are viewed as different in nature from the physical world because they make for themselves the world they want to live in. This freedom comes with responsibilities (Cooper 55) and it makes people to interact with others and probably run into conflicts. In this manner, existentialism acquires a moral dimension whereby a consequence of an act takes priority over ethical norms.
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The notion of existentialism has a lot of influence in “Sonny’s Blues”. The book reflects various issues regarding human condition. The theme of the book revolves around racism, and the plot is woven around the events in the life of an African American family in which one of the family members gets assimilated in to the white society but still has to contend with racism. The author thus, presents an existential world where suffering is almost inevitable. The narrator gets assimilated in to the white society in order to escape racism and live an intrinsically meaningful life. He does not however succeed as his uncle is killed by drunken white kids.
The choices that Sonny made in his life are existential. He had a difficult childhood. His parents died when he was fifteen. His brother asks him what he wants to become and he says he wants to be a jazz musician and play the piano. This, in existentialism is probably what he could have done to make his life better. The narrator does not think being a jazz musician is a good idea but he does not object. After a lot of arguments about Sonny’s career and school, they reach a compromise whereby Sonny is to live in Isabel’s house and play the piano whenever he wants provided he goes to school (Baldwin, 497). At Isabel’s house, Sonny plays the piano frequently though he does not attend school. Instead, he goes to Greenwich Village to play jazz with his friend and he also deals drugs. Afterwards, he leaves Isabel’s house, drops out of school, and then joins the Navy. After they got back from the war, Sonny and his brother do not see each other often and each time they do, they fight. Throughout Sonny’s life, he is faced with obstacles such as poverty and violence in the neighborhood. These obstacles made him chose to deal drugs. These choices are existential because he makes them in an attempt to give his life meaning. Sonny dislikes his brother because he feels he denied him the only thing that made his life worth living. His life is jazz music but his brother does not allow him to play. Through jazz, he is able to communicate and to express himself and it also gives him a sense of identity. Dealing drugs was a way of dealing with his problems and was a result of hopelessness. Without jazz, he felt his existence was not authentic.
After Sonny is released, he asks the narrator to go watch him play in Greenwich Village to which he agrees. It is then that he tells the narrator about his heroin addiction. He said that it made him feel in control, which to him is a necessity. At the Greenwich Village, Sonny plays the music and is enchanted by it. Playing the piano makes him feel in control and it makes his suffering worthwhile. Throughout his life, he had been struggling in an absurd world that according to him had no inherent meaning. But playing jazz gave him meaning for his existence. Through playing jazz, he is intrinsically satisfied and assured that his existence is for a purpose and the purpose is to play jazz.
The outline of Sonny and the narrator’s lives bring about the philosophy of existentialism. Baldwin brings about the existential angst of the human condition through Sonny and the narrator. Sonny experiences feelings of negativity that arise from his individual freedom and the consequent responsibility. Sonny was forced to live in Isabel’s house and to go back to school but was allowed to play the piano. He experienced his freedom and chose to drop out of school and the consequence of this is that he has to move out of Isabel’s house. He did this because even though he enjoyed playing the piano in Isabel’s house, he did not like going to school or to living in that house. According to existentialism theory, humanity’s freedom in search of a meaningful life is stressed. Everyone is responsible for making their life what he would want it to be. Sonny’s decision may have been a step towards making his life more meaningful. He felt that living in Isabel’s house and going to school did not make his life meaningful as playing jazz did. By dropping out of school, he was able to play jazz.
Existentialism has played a significant part in the story Sonny’s blues. In the story, we see Sonny struggling to stop dealing drugs in order to live a sincere life. In his letter to the narrator, he says that he felt like a man who was trying to climb out of a deep hole. (Baldwin 494). Further, he tells the narrator that he left Harlem so as to escape drugs and the violence that was there. On their way to the narrator’s home, he vividly remembers the killings that occurred on the streets when he was a child. He also tries to explain to the narrator the reason why he was addicted to drugs in an attempt to make him understand (Baldwin 495). This is because drugs were just another way of making him forget his troubles and feel worthy. By playing music, he rediscovers himself and enhances a rebirth of the relationship between him and his brother.
In existentialism, everyone has the freedom to make their own gives choices and live their lives the way they want. However, they must be ready to face the consequences of their actions. Sonny and the narrator face the consequences of the choices that they made in a quest to make their lives meaningful. Sonny faces the consequences of dealing drugs. He is arrested and detained for seven months. After he dropped out of school, he had to leave Isabel’s house and therefore, he could no longer play the piano in the house. In addition, because of moving out of school, the relationship between him and his brother worsens. After coming back from the war, the constantly fought whenever they saw each other.
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In addition, freedom in existentialism allows one to interact with others and to do what they like. This leads to a person’s freedom conflicting with that of the others (Marino 97). In the book “Sonny’s Blues”, the freedom of Sonny and that of the narrator lead to conflicts. Sonny wanted to be a jazz musician. He did not want to go to school or live in Isabel’s house. The narrator did not want Sonny to be a jazz musician or a pianist. However, he allowed him to play the piano on condition that he would live in Isabel’s house and go to school. Through this, the narrator interfered with Sonny’s freedom. This lead to conflicts between the two and they avoided seeing each other.
Existentialism has largely influenced the writings of Baldwin especially in the book “Sonny’s Blues”. The characters are driven by the need to live meaningful lives. They undergo various obstacles but are determined to succeed. They assert their individuality and freedom whereby although they are brothers, they both live very different lives. Sonny follows his conscience until he makes his life what he wants it to be without being individualistic.
Thus in regard to existentialism, it is crucial that a person has a defined goals and ambitions in life, which he/she spends every ounce of energy at his/her disposal to achieve. This is the only way that one can have a purpose for living. This endeavor not only gives direction to life, but also helps one to contribute positively to the society and to those around him. When one reaches the apex achievement of these set goals and ambitions, then it will be rewarding to gratify oneself for this feat. This is where the notion of freedom should be applicable in life. Contrary to popular belief, freedom is not living one’s life without a purpose; existentialism shuns purposeless freedom.
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