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Compare/Contrast - Clean Well Lighted Place And Sonny'S Blues

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Category: English

Autor: anton 30 May 2011

Words: 1196 | Pages: 5

Conflicts Within and Amongst Protagonists

“A Clean Well-Lighted Place” by Ernest Hemingway and “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin are interestingly tied together with their protagonists. Both are faced with various obstacles in their lives which are the main focus of each story, however, neither of the stories are written in the perspective of the central character. Nor are the struggles they face ever mentioned outright; instead, they become more defined as each story progresses. The protagonist in “A Clean Well-Lighted Place”, an elderly man, seems to have a comfortable life, one that the character of a young waiter finds enviable in some ways, and yet, in the week prior to the setting of the story, he tried to commit suicide. In “Sonny’s Blues”, the protagonist, Sonny, in an attempt to escape his childhood in Harlem, finds the creative outlet of being a jazz pianist, and unfortunately gets sucked into drugs in the process. Although the elderly man in “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” and Sonny in “Sonny’s Blues” face very different challenges in their lives, the manner in which they combat their struggles with themselves, with family members, and with society is similar in principle.

Both Sonny and the old man are primarily in conflict with themselves. Their respective outlooks on life have caused them to be in the situations they are in. Sonny is torn between the love he feels for his family and his passion for playing jazz piano. Initially, he attempts to appease both loves, which leads to neither of them being fulfilled. Only when he feels abandoned by his family does he choose to ignore one of his loves entirely and pursue his dream of being a jazz pianist. However, he is never fully able to detach himself completely from his family and there always an uncertainty in his mind of what would have happened if he had acted differently. He retracts into himself rather than confront the issue head on as shown in the following passage “Sonny just moves back, inside himself, where he can’t be reached”(Baldwin, 418). The inner demons the old man faces are very different from those of Sonny. The old man struggles with his memories of his past life and his life now. In the past, he had a wife, he was young, his life had more meaning, and he had something to live for. Now, he has a niece who takes care of him for propriety’s sake and the only thing that serves as an anchor to his past life is the thought of having a clean, well-lighted place that he can come back to. Like Sonny, at one point, the old man feels like the memories of his past have won over the other side of him, which is the point when he pushed into attempting suicide. So while their internal struggles are very different, the manner in which the two characters deal with their presence, particularly when they are in imbalance, are very similar.

In addition to their inner struggles, both characters face direct conflicts with certain family members and with others that are close to them. Sonny and his brother are most notably at odds with each other throughout Sonny’s life. Sonny’s brother feels like Sonny is wasting his life away and feels a certain amount of irritation towards Sonny for not making more of his life. Sonny, in response to this, simply detaches himself from his brother, finding this course of action preferable to outwardly showing anger and yelling at his brother. The conflict between the old man and his niece is less clearly defined. His young niece can most likely understand the old man’s perspective no more than the young waiter at the clean well-lighted place can. The only mention of the niece’s interest in the life of her uncle is when she prevents from committing suicide, however, it can be inferred that she did not take any further measures than that because the old man is still showing suicidal tendencies by drinking away his sorrows into the night. The old man’s response to his niece is similar to Sonny’s response to his elder brother in that they detach themselves from them. The protagonists are misunderstood by their own family members and interestingly react the same way to this conflict.

The elderly man and Sonny are understood even less by society than they are by their family members making them both outcasts of society. Their beliefs and actions go against the norm and the comfort level of the people they encounter, making them both misunderstood by those around them. Thus, both characters face a struggle between their own beliefs and what society wants them to conform to. Sonny grew up in Harlem where the societal norm for most of Harlem’s youth was to drop out of school at a young age, join local gangs, and to turn to drugs and alcohol. This destructive cycle was described by Sonny’s elder brother in the following passage “the boys…found themselves smothering in these houses, came down into the streets for light and air and found themselves encircled by disaster. Some escaped the trap, most didn’t”(Baldwin, 416). Sonny escapes the trap by playing jazz piano, breaking free of the cookie cutter mold. Similarly, the elderly man in “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” does not do the things society expects 80 year old men to do. Hemingway uses the character of the young waiter to portray society’s view of the old man. The young waiter is bothered by the fact that the old man stays and drinks for so long every night and doesn’t understand why the old man has any reason to not be perfectly content with his life. The young waiter’s, and in turn society’s view of the old man is in the following excerpt “‘Why didn’t you let him stay and drink?’…‘I want him to go home to bed.’ ‘What is an hour?’ ‘More to me than to him’”(Hemingway, 298). The young waiter harbors some resent towards the old man and is unable to understand the reasons behind his actions. Both the old man and Sonny ignore society by doing what they want to do which in some ways, estranges them even more from society.

Conflicts of nearly every variety are present in the lives of the two main characters of these short stories. More interesting than the conflicts themselves, however, is the manner in which the characters respond to the conflicts. The two characters are as different outwardly as possible, one is an elderly, Caucasian, man who lives with his niece and the other is a young, African-American, man who doesn’t really have a home. But while their appearances are polar opposites, their feelings and perspectives on life, and in turn, the manner in which they deal with hardships, are not so different at all.

Works Cited

Baldwin, James. "Sonny's Blues." The Oxford Book of American Short Stories. Ed. Joyce C. Oates. New York, New York: Oxford UP, 1992. 409-439.

Hemingway, Ernest. "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place." The Oxford Book of American Short Stories. Ed. Joyce C. Oates. New York, New York: Oxford UP, 1992. 295-300.

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