Penalty of Death-Analysis

“I think people ought to do what they want to do, what else are they alive for. (49)” This thought is what is reflected in both “Sonnys Blues” by James Baldwin and “Pauls Case” by Willa Cather. Both Baldwin and Cather illustrate the problem of a young man growing up and taking on the responsibility of finding out who they are and what they want out of life. In these stories the theme is most prevalent, developing the story and helping the reader form their own opinions on how they feel about their own individuality. No matter how hard someone tries to decide someones life, it is up to the individual to decide what kind of life they want to live.


In “Sonnys Blues” Sonny was the youngest child in his family and after his parents died when he was young his big brother made a promise that he would look after him. Unfortunately, Sonny chooses the wrong path at first and gets involved in drugs and has to go to a rehabilitation center to get better. After he gets out his brother asks him “What do you want to do?”(47), to which Sonny replies “Im going to be a musician. (47)” Sonnys brother doubts his aspirations from the beginning and even tells himself that “(he) never played the role of the older brother quite so seriously before (47).” Sonnys brother is a teacher and you can tell by his instincts how much he want to teach Sonny things about life in general. By playing the “roles” of parent, big brother, and teacher, Sonnys brother constantly stresses how he wants his brother to turn out. In the end Sonnys brother should have listened to himself when he told his mother that “(Sonny is) a good boy and hes got good sense (45)” so that he would of trusted Sonny more to make his own decisions.
In “Pauls Case” Paul was the only child in his family and because his mother died he has only his fathers influence on his life. We join Paul in the story while he is getting in trouble, much like how Sonny was in trouble at first. Much like “Sonnys Blues” Paul sees himself facing his teachers and they are questioning him as to why he was misbehaving. At one point a teacher inquires about a remark that Paul had made, Paul replied, “I didnt mean to be polite or impolite either. I guess its a sort of way I have about saying things regardless. (401)” The teacher influences in the stories feel dissatisfied with their influences on the boys, but they are not taking into account that they cannot force these boys to grow up faster than they want to grow up themselves. They can only hope to point them in the right direction.

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“Sonnys Blues” sets the story in Harlem, New York. The city of Harlem does a lot to develop how the theme of the story influences Sonny. Sonny grew up around drug dealers in what would be thought of as the typical low-income slum of the city. Sonny does experience the life of his peers, getting involved in drugs and going to the rehab center. Sonny did not let this affect the outcome of the rest of his life, he learned from his mistakes, thought about what he did while he was in rehabilitation and decided on a better path for his life.


Paul attended Pittsburgh High School and where he lived had made him already decide on a better life for himself. He was very conscious of his surroundings and didnt like the life on “Cordelia Street.” Every time he came home “he experienced the physical depression, the loathing of respectable beds, of common food, of a house penetrated by kitchen odors,” he hated Cordelia Street. Paul in his story seems to think about his life more than Sonny, this is evident whenever he steps foot onto Cordelia street. “The nearer he approached the house, the more absolutely unequal Paul felt to the sight of it all; his ugly sleeping chamber; the cold bathroom with the grimy zinc tub, the cracked mirror(405).” He wanted a different life, and had always planned escape Cordelia Street and achieves the life he wanted.


Sonny decided that he wanted to be a musician, and the distraction of his brother was not going to stop him in his quest to be one. Once he had a piano to practice on he did everything possible to reach his goal of performing in a jazz band.
But I thought Id never hear the end of that piano. At first, Isabel would write me, saying how nice it was that Sonny was so serious about his music and how, as soon as he came in from school, or wherever he had been when he was supposed to be at school, he went straight to that piano and stayed there until suppertime. And, after supper, he went back to that piano and stayed there until everybody went to bed. He was at the piano all day Saturday and all day Sunday. Then he bought a record player and started playing records. Hed play one record over and over again, all day long sometimes, and hed improvise along with it on the piano. Or hed play one section of the record, one chord, on change, on progression, and then hed do it on the piano. Then back to the record. Then back to the piano. (50-51)
Sonny tried so hard to be a musician and at the end of the story he was living the kind of life he wanted to live and more importantly made his brother realize that Sonny did learn what his brother had taught him about life and how to succeed.


Paul was a bit younger and had different circumstances that stopped him from completely reaching his goals. With the money he went to New York and stayed in a hotel and dined extravagantly and basically lived like he had always seen how the sopranos that came to Carnegie Hall lived. Paul had went to school and told his classmates of how well he knew these members of the stock company and when his classmates were obviously bored with the stories, he would tell his wild dreams of how he was “going to travel for a while; going to Naples, to Venice, to Egypt (408).” At the end of the story with Pauls quest to “find himself” coming to an end with himself sleeping on railroad tracks, he is awakened by an approaching train. Right when the train was about to hit him he jumps and flashing “through his brain, clearer than ever before, the blue Adriatic water, the yellow of Algerian sands (414-415)” this signified that he had experienced his fantasy of living the life that he wanted.


Overall, both stories reflect how people have their lives influenced from different sources. In “Sonny’s Blues” Sonny was influenced by his brother, Harlem, and his love for music. In “Paul’s Case” his father, his teachers, Cordelia Street, and his love for the good life influenced Paul. Ultimately, both boys made the right choice in deciding what kind of life they wanted for themselves and limited the influence from other places.