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A Raisin in the Sun is a three-act play set entirely in the Younger family’s Chicago tenement apartment. As the play opens, Walter Younger, Sr., referred to as “Big Walter,” has recently died, leaving his widow, Lena, a life insurance policy worth $10,000.
Lena wants to use the money as a down payment on a house in the suburbs so that her family can leave its crowded, shabby apartment. Lena’s son, Walter, wants to invest the money in a liquor store so that he can quit his job as a rich white man’s chauffeur and become his boss. Beneatha, Walter’s younger sister, a college student, wants to use part of the money to pay for her medical school tuition. Ruth, Walter’s pregnant wife, sides with Lena.
The debate over how to spend the insurance money threatens to destroy the Younger family. Walter insults his sister by telling her to forget about medical school and become a nurse or get married like other women. Lena expresses misgivings about Walter’s plan to invest in the liquor business, and he, in turn, accuses his mother of destroying his dream of becoming a successful businessman and providing for his family.
When Lena refuses to give Walter the $10,000 that he needs for his investment, he stops working and starts drinking heavily. Ruth considers having an abortion because she does not want to add another family member to the Youngers’ crowded apartment. Watching her family unravel, Lena attempts a compromise that she hopes will satisfy everyone. She puts $3,500 down on a single-family home in Clybourne Park, an all-white suburban neighborhood, and hands Walter the rest of the money, ordering him to deposit $3,000 in a bank account earmarked for Beneatha’s medical school tuition and allowing him to invest the remaining $3,500 as he sees fit. (Carter, 130)
Initially, Lena’s compromise appeases all parties, but disaster strikes the Youngers a few weeks later, as the family is packing for its move to Clybourne Park. Walter’s friend, Bobo, arrives and informs Walter that their partner in the liquor store business has taken Walter’s money—including Beneatha’s tuition money and skipped town. Humiliated, Walter announces that the family will recoup some of its lost money by selling its house to the Clybourne Park Improvement Association, whose representative, Mr. Linder, has made an offer to buy the Youngers’ property at a profit to keep a black family from integrating an all-white neighborhood.
At the end of act 2, as the Youngers glumly await Mr. Linder’s arrival to close the deal, the family is once again at the point of disintegration. Beneatha calls Walter a “toothless rat” for losing the family’s money and capitulating Mr. Linder. Lena chastises Beneatha and offers sympathetic words for her son, but Walter seems a defeated man. When Linder arrives, however, Walter undergoes a dramatic change.
Standing behind his son, Travis, whom Lena has ordered to be present when the sale of the home is made, Walter calmly explains to Linder that his family has decided to occupy its new home. Walter speaks eloquently of his father’s hard work and his family’s pride. He introduces Beneatha as a future doctor and proudly introduces Travis as the sixth generation of Youngers in the United States. (Abramson, 150) In the short final act, the moving men have arrived, and the Youngers are proudly departing for Clybourne Park, optimistically looking forward to living in their new home.
Lorraine Hansberry’s play introduces young readers to crucial issues in the African American community: the fragmentation of the family, the black male’s quest for manhood, and the problems associated with integration. Lena is the prototypical African American matriarch who struggles to hold her family together in the face of poverty and discrimination. Although Walter’s eloquent speech to Mr. Linder at the end of act 2 saves the Youngers from disgrace, Lena is the play’s moral center, urging the members of her extended family to end their quarreling, accept their responsibilities, and love one another.
Walter’s quest for manhood is another key theme in Hansberry’s drama. Walter wants to replace Big Walter as the head of the Younger family, but he is barely able to support the Youngers on his chauffeur’s wages. He also shows himself to be irresponsible with money, and he has a tendency to walk away or turn to drink when family problems arise. Although he frequently falters along the way, Walter demonstrates by the end of the play that he can replace his deceased father as the head of the family. In the play’s final scene, Lena tells Ruth that Walter “finally come into his manhood today… like a rainbow after the rain.” (Schlueter, 55) Hansberry wants the audience to believe that Walter’s change is both significant and permanent: He has become a man.
Equally absorbing is Hansberry’s dramatization of Beneatha’s quest for womanhood. She is a young woman attempting to break away from the pattern set by the other Younger women, Lena and Ruth. They are wives, mothers, and maids; Beneatha is in college and aspires to become a physician, a virtually unattainable occupation for African American women of the 1950s.
During the play, she is pursued by two suitors who try to steer her in their own directions: George Murchison, the son of a wealthy African American businessman, and Joseph Asagai, a Nigerian student studying in the United States. (Meyer, 1731) Beneatha rejects the option of becoming the well-to-do wife of George, and, although she is fascinated by the lost African culture that Asagai represents, she will probably remain independent and go in her own direction.
Hansberry’s play gives young adult readers insights into the African American community at the beginning of the Civil Rights movement. At the time of the play, the doors of opportunity, if not open, are at least unlocked for African Americans. Walter can dream of becoming an entrepreneur.
Beneatha can hope to become a doctor. Lena can purchase a house in the suburbs. Nevertheless, as the bitter arguments among Lena, Walter, and Beneatha suggest, the age of new opportunities creates problems in the Younger family, problems that reflect the tensions in the African American community at the commencement of the Civil Rights movement. (Schlueter, 55) Moreover, Hansberry suggests that many of the old prejudices persist, as evidenced by Mr. Linder’s attempt to keep an African American family out of his neighborhood.
The play’s title comes from a poem by Langston Hughes entitled “Harlem”: “What happens to a dream deferred?/ Does it dry up/ Like a raisin in the sun?/ Maybe it just sags/ Like a heavy load./ Or does it explode?” The Younger family’s dream of breaking out of poverty and enjoying the fruits of American society has been deferred for many years.
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Big Walter’s insurance policy presents an opportunity for the Youngers’ dream to become a reality. Through the Youngers, Hansberry asks how African Americans will deal with the opportunities confronting them in the post-World War II years. (Riley, 211) Will those deferred dreams dry up? Will they explode in frustration and anger? In A Raisin in the Sun, the playwright seems to suggest that those deferred dreams, at last, can be fulfilled, although the struggle to fulfill them will be difficult.
A Raisin in the Sun deals with two problems: the discords of a family with high hopes, and the social injustice of segregation. The two Younger children, Beneatha and Walter, are both determined to improve their station in life. Walter, however, struggles only with dreams of success, while Beneatha realistically takes college courses that will lead to her becoming a doctor. In one way, both are fighting the oppression of racism, but it is Beneatha who seems cool to understand that the oppression will be conquered only through hard work. Wise enough to know that the family will survive only through wise management, Lena Younger uses her insurance money to buy a house.
She has bought it, however, in a segregated area, and though she is willing to face that battle when it comes, the ominous appearance of Lindner, who wants to buy out the Youngers to avoid their moving it to Clybourne Park, threatens future difficulties. (Schlueter, 51)
Yet racial segregation is not the major theme of the play. The major theme is that families must remain united; when family members act selfishly, as Walter does when he takes his mother’s money and invests it in a fly-by-night scheme to buy a liquor store, the family may disintegrate. This very nearly happens to the Youngers. At the last minute, however, Walter realizes what he is doing and abruptly rejects Lindner’s offer (though he had threatened to accept it). (Carter, 128) The unity of the family is saved. The problem of moving into a white neighborhood lies in the future. For the present, the Youngers have proven that in unity lies strength. (Meyer, 1730)
Lorraine Hansberry uses few innovative dramatic devices in A Raisin in the Sun. Her play rests on tried-and-true methods of domestic drama, with loud and emotional confrontations, as well as clear individual portraits. The setting remains the same throughout the play—the Youngers’ apartment in Chicago’s ghetto. Ruth, a calm young woman who is rapidly growing old in her life with Walter, provides a contrast with her husband, who is emotional and unreasonable. Mama herself is a counter to her two children, both of whom are high-strung and self-willed. Mama remains solid and hard-thinking when dealing with difficult problems, although she is clearly too indulgent with Walter and Beneatha. (Abramson, 152)
One device is used openly: the symbol of Mama’s plant. The poor, fragile houseplant is Mama’s symbol of the future, of her house-to-be, where she will have a garden of her own. The plant, at the end of the play, is almost forgotten by Mama when she leaves, but she returns to take it with her. Diction also is a dramatic device that Hansberry uses to reveal her characters. Joseph Asagai speaks in an inflated language that promises great and wonderful things, but he has also a bit of the fraud in him. Beneatha, who is a college student, speaks with an educated diction; in stage directions, however, Hansberry directs the actress to keep in mind the family’s Southern origins. Walter uses the language of the ghetto but is contemptuous of the subservient language he must use as a chauffeur when addressing his employers.
Lorraine Hansberry was very fortunate: Her first major full-length play, A Raisin in the Sun, not only was produced on Broadway but also was a smashing success. Hansberry’s portrait of an average black family, its sorrows and struggles, is a mainstream play, in that it avoids rage and denunciations. It is a down-to-earth presentation of the everyday problems of a black family.
Its principal characters are mostly white, yet it is a more argumentative play than A Raisin in the Sun. Although technically a family play, its conflicts are more shrill than reasonable. The rest of Hansberry’s output falls under the heading of posthumous works. The play contains several set speeches, which tend to slow the pace. It is a far less polished dramatic vehicle than her other two full-length plays. The play contains excerpts from her letters, journals, and speeches, as well as from plays finished and unfinished. It presents her ideas on her black heritage and on black life in America.
Abramson, Doris. Negro Playwrights in the American Theater: 1925–1959. New York: Columbia University Press, (1969): 148-153.
Carter, Steven R. Hansberry’s Drama: Commitment amid Complexity. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, (1991): 124-132.
The Bedford Introduction to Literature: Reading-Thinking-Writing. 5th Edition. Publisher: Bedford, New York, U.S.A. (1999): pp. 1730-31.
Riley, Clayton. “Lorraine Hansberry: A Melody in a Different Key.” Freedomways 19, no. 4 (1979): 205–212.
Schlueter, June, ed. Modern American Drama: The Female Canon. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, (1990): 45-57.