The play A Raisin in the Sun was written in 1959 by an African-American writer, Lorrain Hansberry. The great success was that it became the first play written by an African-American woman and staged on Broadway. A Raisin in the Sun takes place in the Chicago slums and revolves around what is to be done with a ten-thousand dollar life insurance check belonging to the Younger family. Hansberry unveils life grievances of a black family using symbols of shabby apartments and “Eat Your Eggs”, the theme of hunger, loosing hopes and dreams. Thesis Unique symbols help Hansberry to unveil the themes of loosing hopes and hunger, and set the tone of the play.
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Using symbols of shabby furnishings, a plant and money, Hansberry sets the tone of the play and unveils life grievances faced by the main characters. The furnishings symbolize the shabbiness, drabness, and desperation of the ghetto. The furnishings, which are described as “tired” from having had to sustain the living of too many people for too many years, suggest the weariness of the inhabitants of this Southside of Chicago apartment where roaches and rodents share the family’s living space. The furnishings suggest two things: the struggle and deferred dreams. Like the furniture that sags, so does a little plant belonging to Mama. The feeble plant growing doggedly in a pot on the window sill represents the suffering and disillusionment that Mama and other poor blacks experience when they find themselves entrenched in deplorable living conditions. Throughout much of the play, Mama tends to this withering plant that suffers because the apartment has only one, small window, through which comes a minimal amount of sunlight. That little plant is the symbol of hope for a family determined to escape the squalor and violence of the ghetto (White Supremacy, 1999). Linked to the plant is the garden that Mama envisions whenever she thinks of the new house and money. The symbol of money (lack of money) is used to portray hardship and social inequalities. “Money is life. Once upon a time freedom used to be life—now it’s money. I guess the world really do change” (Hansberry, p. 32). The Youngers struggle to find an exit from the ghetto but fail because they do not have enough money to prove their personal identity and become free from oppression and segregation (Abell, p. 430).
The theme of hunger is often associated with ghetto living. Hansberry uses food to symbolize the emotional or spiritual deprivation that results when dreams are thwarted. One of the early scenes centers around Ruth insisting that Walter Lee eat his eggs. Each time Walter Lee attempts to talk to his wife about his dreams of becoming an entrepreneur, she tries to circumvent the issue by offering him eggs. When Walter Lee complains, for example, that black men are yoked to a race of narrow-minded women, Ruth disinterestedly tells him that he should eat his eggs and be quiet. Later, when Walter Lee comes home inebriated because Mama will not give him money to invest in a liquor store, Ruth offers him hot milk. Lashing out at her, Walter Lee demands to know why Ruth keeps trying to feed him. Ruth despondently replies, “What else can I give you, Walter Lee Younger?” (Hansberry, p. 74). Ruth cannot satisfy her husband’s yearnings to excel, so she tries to satiate him with food. Hansberry again uses food to suggest yearning or emotional hunger in the nickname given to Beneatha by the African intellectual, Asagai. He refers to Beneatha as “Alaiyo,” translating into “One for whom Bread – Food – is Not enough” (Hansberry, p. 52). Hansberry demonstrates that even the poorest of people hunger and thirst for a dignified existence, one in which they are validated as human beings and full citizens in America (Abell, p. 430).
Loosing hopes and false dreams shape the feeling of racial inequalities and oppression. Even more representative of Hansberry’s disappointment with stereotyping is Walter Lee’s plan to shuffle and grin in order to get money from Lindner. Walter Lee, once he loses the family’s inheritance, decides that he will give Lindner what white America expects from blacks: subservience and buffoonery. Hansberry pokes fun at whites who mutilate black speech (White Supremacy, 1999). Walter Lee tells his family that he will put on a grand performance by crawling on the floor when Lindner arrives and by saying to him, ” Captain, Mistuh, Bossman… A-hee-hee-hee!… just gi’ ussen de money, fo’ God’s sake” (Hansberry, p. 124). These references point to Hansberry’s outrage over racial stereotyping that stems from ignorance about blacks. These themes guide readers through emotional and ironical situations and support plot development (Harrison, p. 567).
In sum, Hansberry skillfully portrays racism and poverty, oppression and inequalities faced by many black people of her time. YUsing unique themes, she underlines that these are problems that seriously affect the quality of life for African Americans. The tone of the play is shaped by the development of such symbols as shabby furniture and the plant, the theme of hunger and oppression range from disappointment to outrage.
- Abell, J.L. African/American: Lorraine Hansberry’s Les Blancs and the American Civil Rights Movement. African American Review 35 (2001): 459.
- Hansberry, L. “A Raisin in the Sun,” in A Raisin in the Sun and The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window. New York: New American Library, 1966, pp. 11-130.
- Harrison, P. C. The Crisis of Black Theatre Identity. African American Review 31 (1997): 567-569.
- White Supremacy and the Critical Reception of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. 1999.