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Compare/contrast -Clean Well Lighted Place and Sonny’s Blues

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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

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