Three generations of women are represented in A Raisin in the Sun. Lena, who is in her early thirties, becomes the default head of the household upon the passing of her husband, Walter Sr. Raised in the South during an era where blacks' very lives were in danger because of the prevalence of lynching, Lena moved to the North with the hopes of leading a better life. The move up North was significant in that she had hopes of a better life for herself. Although Lena is ahead of her times in some respects, her dreams and aspirations are largely linked to her family's well-being, rather than to her own. Scholar Claudia Tate attributes Lena's low expectations for her individual self to gender conditioning - a term used to describe the expectation that a woman's goals and dreams be linked to her family alone. Lena tolerates her husband's womanizing and remains loyal to him even though they suffer under the same impoverished conditions throughout their marriage.
Walter's wife, Ruth, is in her early thirties. She is different from Lena in that she vocalizes her frustrations with her spouse, Walter. Ultimately, however, she seeks to please him, talking positively about the business to Lena on his behalf, encouraging Beneatha not to antagonize her brother so much, and being willing to work several jobs so that the family can afford to move into the new house.
Beneatha, a young feminist college student, is the least tolerant of society's unequal treatment and expectations of women. Beneatha constantly challenges Walter's chauvinism, and has no time for shallow men like George Murchison, who do not respect her ideas. Through these three women, Hansberry skillfully illustrates how women's ideas about their identity have changed over time.
"What defines a man?" is a critical question that Hansberry struggles with throughout the entire play. In many ways, the most debilitating affronts Walter faces are those which relate to his identity as a man, whether it be in his role as father, husband, or son. Being a father to Travis appears to be the role that Walter values the most. He sincerely wants to be perceived as honorable in his son's eyes. Knowing the family has little money to spare, Walter gives Travis a dollar when he asks for fifty cents. Walter chooses the liquor store investment not just to make more money for himself, but also to be better able to provide for his wife and family. He wants to be able to give Ruth pearls and a Cadillac convertible; he wants to be able to send his son to the college of his choice. As a son, he wants to walk in his father's footsteps and provide for his mother in her old age. Walter is framed by the examples of his father and son. At first, Walter is willing to degrade himself in order to obtain these goals, but he faces a critical turning point when he reconsiders Mr. Lindner's offer. Ultimately, he chooses the honorable path so that he can stand before his son Travis with pride. A Raisin in the Sun is not just about race; class tensions are a prominent issue throughout the play. George Murchison is Beneatha's well-to-do boyfriend. Although he is educated and wealthy, Beneatha is still trying to sort out her feelings about him. Her sister-in-law, Ruth, does not understand Beneatha's ambivalence: he is good-looking, and able to provide well for Beneatha. However, Beneatha is planning to be a doctor, and is not dependent on "marrying well" for her financial security. Hansberry also hints that marriage into the Murchison family is not very probable. Beneatha says, "Oh, Mama- The Murchisons are honest-to-God-real-live-rich colored people, and the only people in the world who are more snobbish than rich white people are rich colored people. I thought everybody knew that I've met Mrs. Murchison. She's a scene!" Beneatha is sensitive to the reality that even though the two families are black, they are deeply divided. Beneatha suggests that class distinctions are more pronounced amongst African-Americans than between African-Americans and whites. Despite their degree of wealth or education, blacks in America were discriminated against. Wealthy African-Americans had limitations on schools, housing, and occupations just like their poor counterparts. Mrs. Murchison's 'snobbishness' is emblematic of a desperate yet futile attempt to be seen as different from poor blacks and thus gain acceptance by whites. However, radical legislative and social change proves to be the only substantive solution to America's problem. The Youngers are a poor African-American family living on the South Side of Chicago. An opportunity to escape from poverty comes in the form of a $10,000 life insurance check that the matriarch of the family (Lena Younger or Mama) receives upon her husband's death. Lena's children, Walter and Beneatha, each have their plans for the money. The oldest son, Walter (a man of 35 with a wife and a young son), wishes to invest in a liquor store. The younger sister, Beneatha, currently a college student, wants to use the money for medical school. Lena has plans as well for the money: she wants to buy a house for the family and finance Beneatha's medical school.
The environmental pressures are high: five people live in a tiny one-bedroom apartment, two families share a single bathroom, and the building is run-down and roach-infested. These pressures increase when Walter's wife, Ruth, finds out that she is pregnant for the second time, and begins seriously contemplating abortion. Yet even in an environment where a request for fifty cents becomes a family conflict, there is room for ideas and dreams.
Beneatha Younger is the source of the many of the new ideas and philosophies that infiltrate the family's home. Currently in college, she is constantly challenging the notions of culture, race, gender, and religion that her family has grown up with. She is dating two men who represent very different aspects of African-American culture. George Murchison, the first, is a wealthy African-American classmate of Beneatha's. Through his character, Hansberry is able to illustrate many of the class tensions that exist within the African-American culture. Asagai is her second boyfriend, a college student who is from Nigeria. Through Asagai, Beneatha is able to learn more about her African heritage. He gives her Nigerian robes and music, encourages her idealistic aspirations, and near the end of the play invites her to return to Nigeria with him to practice medicine there.
Walter Younger truly encapsulates the American dream. He has a genuine entrepreneurial spirit and desire to progress. Walter doesn't want to challenge the present system as Beneatha does. Instead, he wishes to progress up the social ladder into a higher class. He is unsatisfied with his job as a chauffeur, and wants a big house, a nice car, pearls for his wife, and an office job. In short, he desires the bourgeoisie lifestyle. Walter's idolization of wealth and power actually creates a deep hunger within him for change, but as long as obstacles like racism keep him stagnated, his hopes and dreams fester. After several events, Mama realizes the significance of his plans even though she morally objects to the idea of a liquor store.
After having made the down payment on a house in a predominantly white neighborhood, Lena gives her oldest son responsibility over the rest of the insurance money, asking him to put away a significant portion for his sister's medical school education. To the contrary, Walter decides to invest all the money in the liquor store business with two men of questionable character. The plan falls through when Willy, one of the "investors", runs away with all of the money.
The family is entirely dependent on the money: they already have made plans to move, and are in the midst of packing up their things. Devastated, Walter seriously considers taking an offer from Mr. Lindner, a representative from the white neighborhood, that would pay the Youngers extra not to move into their neighborhood. The option is immoral in the family's eyes, and prioritizes money over human dignity. Walter is determined to make the deal despite his scruples, but at the last moment Walter is unable to make the transaction under the innocent gaze of his son, Travis. In the end, the family decides to move. Even though the road ahead will be difficult, they know that they have made an honorable choice.