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A Raisin in the Sun (finals)

Key Concepts:

Terms in this set (18)

A Raisin in the Sun, written by Lorraine Hansberry and produced on stage in 1959, marks a watershed moment in American theater. On the face of it, A Raisin in the Sun was not destined for success. With only one white cast member, an inexperienced director, and an untried playwright, Hansberry had difficulty finding financial backing for the play at a time when theater audiences were overwhelmingly white. It was an immediate success, however, and after several tours, it opened on Broadway, making it the first-ever Broadway play written by an African-American woman.

What makes Hansberry's writing remarkable is not only her accuracy in capturing the racial dynamics of her time, but her foresight in predicting the direction black culture would take in subsequent years. The play's setting covers a pivotal time period for race relations in America - after WWII and before 1959. When Americans fought in World War II, they were fighting to uphold equality for all...which exposed the hypocrisy of the very unequal conditions for blacks back home. Americans were only beginning to address these inequalities at the time Hansberry was writing, and she did a great job at capturing the mood of her time through only one family.

As discussed in the "What's Up with the Epigraph?" section, the Younger family's fulfillment/non-fulfillment of their dreams mirrors how black Americans as a whole had gained some concessions while still being oppressed in other respects. A character like Beneatha, however, is way ahead of her time. The play opened in 1959, remember, which is before all the feminists started demanding their rights, and before black Americans began embracing Africa as part of their identity. Beneatha embodies both movements before they ever existed.

One last note: A Raisin in the Sun is part of broader shift in black art towards depicting working-class, ordinary African-Africans. Previously, black intellectuals did not use literature, art, or the stage to portray working-class African-Americans for fear they would perpetuate undesirable stereotypes. Both poet Langston Hughes and Lorraine Hansberry thought this was ridiculous; they felt that writing about lower class African-Americans would actually debunk the stereotypes. By focusing on the dreams and aspirations of one particular working-class black family, moreover, Hansberry was able to show audiences the universality of black aspirations while also demonstrating that their race posed a significant barrier to achieving those goals.
I=536
They=93
We=157
You=794
Dream(s)=14

Don't worry, Shmoopster, we are not taking you to Algebra class. We are not even going to make you play a rousing game of Boggle. We are instead going to turn you into detectives. Follow us, as we take you into A Raisin in the Sun's attic, where every single word from the play is stored, carefully wrapped, and inventoried. That's right, folks, we have tallied every word that appears in A Raisin in the Sun, and what you see above is a list of some of the biggest stars, the most noteworthy words.

Why would we do this? Well, we know this is a play about dreams (see "What's Up with the Title"), dreams that are put on hold or made impossible by society. We know it is a play about fighting to make dreams come true. And that seems like a pretty good reason to care about this play. After all, we humans are expert dreamers. But we want to know what exactly this play is trying to tell us about the art of dreaming. So let's take a gander.

The first thing we notice in our tally is how infrequently the words "dream" or "dreams" actually appear. Only fourteen times. This perplexes our detective minds, because we thought dreams were the star of the show. It looks like there are other things (and words) that get in the way.

We notice how often the word "I" shows up - 536 times. This makes sense to us - dreams can't happen without an "I" involved. But "I" doesn't hold a candle to the word "you," which surfaces a whopping 794 times, earning a gold medal in word count. "We" and "they" appear a good deal too, but not nearly as much as "I" and "you." From this, we can deduce that individual choices must matter a lot when it comes to dreaming.

So what does all of this tallying tell us? That individual choices can make or break dreams. In A Raisin in the Sun, Walter destroys the family dream by losing their money, but then restores the dream again by standing up to Karl and deciding the family should remain in their new neighborhood. So dreaming is a complicated and frustrating art, but it can lead to incredible victories. If we need a lesson on dreaming and on being brave enough to dream, a great first stop on the literary highway is A Raisin in the Sun.
A Raisin in the Sun portrays a few weeks in the life of the Youngers, an African-American family living on the South Side of Chicago in the 1950s. When the play opens, the Youngers are about to receive an insurance check for $10,000. This money comes from the deceased Mr. Younger's life insurance policy. Each of the adult members of the family has an idea as to what he or she would like to do with this money. The matriarch of the family, Mama, wants to buy a house to fulfill a dream she shared with her husband. Mama's son, Walter Lee, would rather use the money to invest in a liquor store with his friends. He believes that the investment will solve the family's financial problems forever. Walter's wife, Ruth, agrees with Mama, however, and hopes that she and Walter can provide more space and opportunity for their son, Travis. Finally, Beneatha, Walter's sister and Mama's daughter, wants to use the money for her medical school tuition. She also wishes that her family members were not so interested in joining the white world. Beneatha instead tries to find her identity by looking back to the past and to Africa.



As the play progresses, the Youngers clash over their competing dreams. Ruth discovers that she is pregnant but fears that if she has the child, she will put more financial pressure on her family members. When Walter says nothing to Ruth's admission that she is considering abortion, Mama puts a down payment on a house for the whole family. She believes that a bigger, brighter dwelling will help them all. This house is in Clybourne Park, an entirely white neighborhood. When the Youngers' future neighbors find out that the Youngers are moving in, they send Mr. Lindner, from the Clybourne Park Improvement Association, to offer the Youngers money in return for staying away. The Youngers refuse the deal, even after Walter loses the rest of the money ($6,500) to his friend Willy Harris, who persuades Walter to invest in the liquor store and then runs off with his cash.

In the meantime, Beneatha rejects her suitor, George Murchison, whom she believes to be shallow and blind to the problems of race. Subsequently, she receives a marriage proposal from her Nigerian boyfriend, Joseph Asagai, who wants Beneatha to get a medical degree and move to Africa with him (Beneatha does not make her choice before the end of the play). The Youngers eventually move out of the apartment, fulfilling the family's long-held dream. Their future seems uncertain and slightly dangerous, but they are optimistic and determined to live a better life. They believe that they can succeed if they stick together as a family and resolve to defer their dreams no longer.
Character Analysis
Walter Younger can be really hard to get along with. For most of the first act, he's nasty to just about every other character in the play. He picks fights with his sister, Beneatha. He says all kinds of mean things to Ruth, his wife, and is even short with his long-suffering mother, Lena.

All this nastiness seems to come from the fact that Walter is totally disgusted with his life. Working as a chauffeur for a rich white man has got him totally dissatisfied. There's no room for advancement, and he hates having to suck up to his boss all the time. Basically, Walter feels like less of a man, because he's in his thirties and can still barely provide for his family.

The only time Walter seems to get excited in the early sections of the play is when there's talk of the $10,000 life insurance check (Walter's father has died) that's soon to come in the mail. Walter plans to use the money to invest in a liquor store with his "buddy," Willy Harris. He sees this investment as an opportunity to be his own boss and to finally provide for his family the way he feels he should.

Everybody tries to warn Walter against investing in the liquor store. Ruth tells her husband that he shouldn't trust Willy Harris. And Lena, a devout Christian, thinks it is sinful to sell liquor. Lena even flat out refuses to give the money to Walter at first; the insurance policy is in her name, so she has control over it.

Instead of giving her son the money for the liquor store, Walter's mother takes a portion and puts a down payment on a house in a white neighborhood. This sends Walter into the depths of despair. He goes on a three-day drinking binge and refuses to go to work.

Eventually, Lena gives in and lets Walter have a big chunk of what's left to invest however he sees fit. She also trusts her son to put some of the money in a bank account so that Beneatha can go to medical school. Walter doesn't do this, however, and just hands it all over to Willy Harris for the liquor store.

At this point in the play, we get a glimpse of who Walter would be if he was happier with his work life. He's friendly to his sister, hugs his mother, and even takes his wife out on a date, where they get super-frisky and hold hands. The Walter that we see here is a loveable, friendly, family man. We get to this section and we're like, "Wow, I guess he's not such a jerk."

Unfortunately, this just doesn't last. Everybody's doubts about the liquor store investment are proven right when Willy takes off with all the money. Things get really bad here. Earlier, Mr. Lindner, a white man from the new neighborhood, tried to pay the Youngers not to move into their new house. Back when Walter was on top, he proudly kicked Mr. Lindner out and told him that they didn't need his money.

Now, though, Walter is desperate. He sinks to a new low and calls Mr. Lindner back, saying that he'll accept the money. Walter tells his family that he's prepared to bow down to "The Man" to get the money. This is really Walter's lowest point in the whole play. He's prepared to totally shame himself for the money.

In the end, though, Walter is redeemed when he eventually refuses to take the money from Mr. Lindner. When the white man returns, Lena forces Walter to talk to him in front of Travis, Walter's young son. Walter just can't bring himself to act so shamefully in front of Travis. In the end, Walter finds his self-respect and leads his family on to their new house.

Although Walter makes the worst mistakes out of any other character in the play, he also undergoes the greatest transformation. His journey takes him from total jerk, obsessed with get-rich-quick schemes, to a man worthy of respect. In Walter Younger, Lorraine Hansberry shows how poverty and racism can twist and depress people, turning them against those that they most love. Of course, with Walter, the playwright also shows us how these social barriers can be overcome through personal determination and staying true to one's own beliefs.
Character Analysis
Lena Younger, a.k.a. Mama, totally rocks our world. She's a down-to-earth, hard-working black woman who doesn't suffer fools. Mama has dedicated her life to her children and struggles to instill her values in them - with mixed results. One of Lena's most poignant moments might be when she admits to Ruth that sometimes her children frighten her. This is one of those sad and beautiful moments that make her character seem truly human.

Throughout the play, Lena struggles to connect with her children, Beneatha and Walter. She's extremely worried about Walter's obsession with money and is totally disapproving of Beneatha's lack of faith in God. Mama even goes so far as to slap Beneatha in the face when the girl says that God doesn't exist.

Except for the face-slap moment, Mama is mostly kind and patient with her family. Her nurturing personality is symbolized by the way she treats her houseplant. Though it is wilting, Mama loves it unconditionally. Just like her family, Lena's plant lacks the necessary resources to flourish. Rather than giving up, however, Mama does all she can for it and has faith that one day it will truly thrive.

Mama's faith is put to the test near the end of the play when she entrusts Walter with the $6,500 that's left from the insurance check. At first, it seems like her trust was totally misplaced when Walter loses all of the money. However, Lena's faith is redeemed when her son refuses to accept the bribe from Mr. Lindner. In the last moments of the play, we see Mama taking pride in her children. Like her plant, they're far from perfect, but still there's hope for them yet.
Character Analysis
Joseph Asagai, Beneatha's Nigerian boyfriend, calls her "Alaiyo," which means something like "One for Whom Bread - Food - is Not Enough." Beneatha is very touched by this, because it shows that he really understands her. She wants more than to just get by; she wants to find ways to truly express herself. The other Youngers tease her about her journey of self-expression, but Beneatha remains determined to broaden her mind

Unlike the rest of her family, Beneatha looks beyond her immediate situation in an effort to understand herself as a member of a greater whole. As she becomes more educated, it becomes increasingly hard for Beneatha to relate to the rest of her family. Sometimes she can be a bit condescending and seems to forget that her family members (especially her mother) all work very hard to help put her through school. However, this character flaw only serves to make her seem all the more understandable and human. Ultimately, Beneatha is a kind and generous person, who seeks to become a doctor out of a desire to help people.

Beneatha's college education has helped to make her progressive, independent, and a total feminist. She brings politics into the apartment and is constantly talking about issues of civil rights. Over the course of the play we see her wrestle with her identity as an African-American woman. Asagai criticizes her, saying that she's "assimilated," meaning that she tries to hide her African-ness by acting white. He uses her hair as an example. Asagai can't understand why she and most other black women in America straighten their hair instead of leaving it naturally curly.

Asagai urges Beneatha to embrace her African roots. Over the course of the play we see her explore her identity, when she takes a cue from Asagai and lets her hair go natural. She also tries on the Nigerian robes he brings her and dances around to African music. Although Beneatha's family has been in America for several generations, and Beneatha has never been to Africa, Asagai insists that once in Africa, she will feel as though she has been away for only one day. Historically, this attitude gained some popularity among black Americans as they felt that no matter how long they had been in America, they could never truly call it home.

On the total other end of the assimilation debate is Beneatha's other (rich) boyfriend George. He's a black American as well, but sees absolutely no reason to honor their African heritage. George sees himself as an American first and foremost and thinks that blacks who spend a lot of time worrying about Africa are wasting their time. Unsurprisingly, Beneatha seems to not be into George at all by the end of the play. When we leave Beneatha at the play's conclusion, she is even considering marrying Asagai and practicing medicine in Africa. We never get to find out what ultimately happens to Beneatha, but we here at Shmoop hope somehow she finds that thing she's looking for.
Character Analysis
Ruth is in some ways like a typical housewife of the 1950s. She makes breakfast, cleans the house, supports her husband, and keeps her own desires to herself. Unlike the stereotypical 1950s housewives, though, she also goes out into the world and works her butt off. Not only does she struggle to maintain her own household, but she goes out to work in the households of rich white people as well. The Youngers' financial difficulties make it impossible for Ruth to just work in her own home. As a character, then, Ruth exposes the difficulties of being a working-class mother.

All this financial stress is proving to be big trouble for Ruth's marriage. Her husband Walter is incredibly dissatisfied with his life, and he constantly takes it out on her. Ruth is far from a doormat and tells her husband off when he starts acting like a jerk. However, it is clear in the play that the turmoil in her marriage is taking a real toll on Ruth. She often seems irritable, depressed, and at times sinks into despair.

This all comes to a head for Ruth, when she finds out she is pregnant and considers an abortion. In the '50s, an abortion would have been a) illegal and b) dangerous. But according to Mama: "When the world gets ugly enough - a woman will do anything for her family. The part that's already living" (1.2.235). Though Ruth hates the idea of aborting her child, she feels it's the best decision for her financially-strapped family.

In the end, though, Ruth chooses to keep her child. She finds hope in the fact that the Younger family will soon be moving out of their cramped, roach-infested apartment and into a new house. She'll still have to work to help pay the mortgage, and they'll all have to deal with the racist backlash of living in a white neighborhood. Yes, times will still be tough for Ruth, but with her family around her she feels ready for to face the struggle.
Character Analysis
By far the youngest member of his family (stage directions describe him as ten or eleven years old), Travis represents the future of the Younger family. Hansberry drops some not-too-subtle symbolism on us when we hear that one of Travis's favorite pastimes is playing with rats. This symbolism definitely doesn't slip by Lena and Ruth. It kind of sucks when your "future" is hanging out with vermin. Mama and Ruth understand that if they stay living in their crappy apartment, Travis is destined to always settle for less than he deserves. Symbolically, the Younger family will never escape the slums.

Travis plays a symbolic role again in the last scene of the play. When Walter, Travis's father, is planning to take the money from Mr. Lindner to not move into the white neighborhood, Mama insists that Travis stay and watch his father give in to "The Man." Travis's eyes are just too innocent, though, and Walter can't bring himself to do it in front of his son. If Travis saw this, Walter would always feel like a giant tool and a bad father. And symbolically the future of the Younger family would always be one of shame.

Is Travis starting to sound like less of a person and more of a symbol to you? Yeah, us too. The youngest Younger never really gets fleshed out as a character. For the most part, he's a kind, innocent, and good-hearted child, who hasn't yet been corrupted by the big, bad world. Still, though, he plays an important part in the play. Without Travis serving as his father's good angel in the final scene, the play's conclusion would go from bittersweet to tragic real, real fast.