Self-perception and searching for self-identity are frequent themes in the works of authors telling about emigrants, dissidents, and representatives of different social classes. Deep psychological assessments that explain challenging life circumstances are valuable and engaging techniques for describing the reality of people belonging to minorities. The family theme raised in the stories “Sonny’s Blues” by Baldwin and “Three Women of Chuck’s Donuts” by So provides an opportunity to reflect on the characters’ inner experiences. This background offers their individual view of the reality in which they live. In both stories, the representatives of social minorities are represented, and their discourses on life and personal problems are of great importance as tools to convey the daily difficulties and obstacles these people face. The roles of family and loved ones unite these two stories in which the themes of self-perception and the assessment of reality in the context of social stereotypes and pressure intersect in a similar manner.
Characters’ Relationships with Each Other
In both stories, the characters have a close bond with each other, largely due to their social and ethnic backgrounds. For instance, when Baldwin describes the experiences of his main character, an African American schoolteacher, regarding his brother, he quotes the following lines from his brother’s letter: “you don’t know how much I needed from you” (127). Such a sincere appeal testifies to the close connection between the characters and their mutual understanding, despite the time spent in separation. In the story of So, the main characters, conversely, spend all their time together, communicating and interacting on various topics. However, judging by the way they behave, one can notice that, despite periodic irritation and misunderstanding due to the age difference, the girls and mother cannot live without each other. Working the night shift “with the money saved going directly into their college funds” does not cause rejection among girls since they understand the importance of the family business and mutual assistance (So). Therefore, from this perspective, both stories have a similar focus and emphasize the characters’ affection for each other.
At the same time, both stories highlight the differences between the characters. For instance, Sonny, the teacher’s brother in Baldwin’s story, does not understand his brother’s position on the complexities of social interactions and limitations: “I think people ought to do what they want to do” (135). This opinion is open and naïve and shows the simplicity of Sonny, which Baldwin compares to his brother’s more philosophical reasoning. The sisters from the other story often disagree and even quarrel when they talk about their father: “you don’t even like Dad. You never have” (So). However, all these disagreements do not threaten family unity and prove that, despite the differences in views, the characters continue to value each other’s positions.
Although both stories represent characters with different social and ethnic backgrounds, their positions in society are similar. Both the teacher with Sonny and the mother with two girls belong to minority groups and know the challenges that people with distinctive skin color or eye shape have to face. In Baldwin’s story, the main character describes the realities of Harlem and presents its “vivid, killing streets of our childhood” (128). For the man, this district is an octopus entangling people and then spitting them out, bloodless, broken, crippled, unhappy, onto one of its streets. In So’s story, the narrative is inside one 24/7 café, but even in this environment, the reader can observe the mute despair of the girls’ mother. “She fears that her past has finally caught up with her” when she recognizes the visitor as a person similar to her ex-husband, and this despair intersects with her daily work routine (So). Therefore, the narrative environments of both stories complement the overall context of realism.
Characters’ Perception of Themselves
In the face of the current difficulties, the characters in both stories do not separate themselves from their families and perceive themselves as part of individual cultures. So quotes the girls’ father as saying: “Nothing makes me feel more Khmer than the smell of fish sauce and fried dough!” The girls themselves also identify with the Asian background and take their culture naturally. Baldwin’s character, conversely, worries about his social status, but he cannot do anything about social prejudices and attitudes. Through music, the man feels free and understands that the myth of blacks as bondage people can be dispelled due to people like Sonny. Thus, the characters in both stories are closely related to their families, but their perception of themselves in society is distinctive.
In the stories reviewed, the themes of family and social background form the basis of the narrative lines and allow the reader to immerse themselves in unique cultural environments. Baldwin, however, focuses on the protagonist’s more general experiences, while So offers to assess the routine of the Cambodian immigrants. The context of realism presented is complemented by the descriptions of the daily challenges and difficulties the characters face. Despite the identification with individual cultures, So’s a position about social status is less sharp. Baldwin emphasizes the values of freedom and equality and seeks to describe the desire of the main characters to change the prevailing social foundations.
Baldwin, James. Sonny’s Blues. Ernst Klett Sprachen, 2009.
So, Anthony Veasna. “Three Women of Chuck’s Donuts.” The New Yorker, 2020.