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A Raisin in the Sun (finals)
Terms in this set (18)
A RAISIN IN THE SUN INTRODUCTION
In A Nutshell
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.
WHY SHOULD I CARE?
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.
Summary -- go to Schmoop
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.
Walter Lee Young
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.
LENA YOUNGER (MAMA)
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.
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.
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.
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.
Asagai really works the Nigerian thing to get ahead with Beneatha. Knowing that Beneatha has a longing for identity and roots, he tells her all about Africa and gives her African records and a robe. If Asagai had his way, she'd be a straight-up African woman, instead of an African-American one. He even goes so far as to suggest her straightened hair is a sign that she is "assimilated" into white American culture.
Eventually, Asagai proposes to Beneatha and asks her to come back to Nigeria with him. In the play's final scene, Beneatha is seriously considering his proposal. We never find out if these two lovebirds run off into the African sunset together, but we hope it works out for them.
Asagai's main function as a character seems to be to inject the play with symbolism. Basically, Asagi is Africa. He represents one extreme of the American debate on assimilation. His presence in the play forces the audience (and Beneatha) to ask what it truly means to be an African American. How can blacks live in America yet retain some of their unique cultural identity? Is it possible?
For more on assimilation and Asagi, himself, check out "Characters: Beneatha Younger." Also, take a glance at "Characters: George Murchison" for the total opposite point of view on assimilation.
George is Asagi's competition for the affections of the lovely Beneatha. He's really good looking and his family has tons of money. None of this impresses Beneatha, however. George really doesn't stand a chance against the much more socially-engaged Joseph Asagi. Murchison gets bored when Beneatha wants to talk about politics, and he believes that the point of higher education is to get a good job - definitely not what Beneatha believes.
In the great debate on assimilation that runs through the play, George represents the total opposite point of view of Asagai. Whereas Asagai thinks that black Americans should be more in touch with their African roots, George thinks it's a sentimental waste of time. His family is really well off and are perfectly happy to assimilate into white America. Of course, Beneatha totally disagrees, and this becomes yet another strike against George in her book. Looks like Bachelor Number Two is going to get the ax.
Mr. Lindner seems like a nice enough dude at first. He says he represents a kind of "welcoming committee" from Clybourne Park, the predominately white neighborhood where the Youngers are planning to move. Lindner is really polite at first and implies that if people of different races would just sit down and talk to each other a lot of problems could be resolved.
Unfortunately, Lindner's committee doesn't plan to "welcome" the Youngers at all. Mr. Lindner's idea of resolving the "problem" of a black family moving into the neighborhood is to try and bribe the Youngers. He and his fellow homeowners have gotten enough money together to buy the house that Mama bought for more than what she paid for it. Basically, Mr. Lindner and the other white homeowners are trying to do everything they can to keep black families out of their neighborhood.
As the only white character in the play, Mr. Lindner represents the white majority that controlled the country. He also represents the racism of the white majority that segregated America (officially and unofficially) and helped to perpetuate the cycle of poverty which many African-American families had been caught in since the time of slavery.
Bobo is Walter's buddy. Just like Walter, he gets ripped off by Willy Harris in the great liquor store catastrophe. Poor Bobo only gets one extremely short scene so we never learn much about him. He pretty much just shows up, gives Walter the bad news, gets throttled by Walter, then shuffles off.
We think Mrs. Johnson is totally hilarious. She's like the nosey neighbor in almost every sitcom that ever aired. Much like Kramer on Seinfeld, she has a real skill at getting free food out of her neighbors, the Youngers. She's only onstage for a few minutes and she manages to bum some coffee and a piece of pie. Pretty slick, Mrs. Johnson.
While the Youngers' nosey neighbor definitely provides some comic relief, she also brings a darker tone to the play. She carries with her a newspaper that reports that a black family, living in a white neighborhood, has recently been bombed out of their house. This news totally raises the stakes of the Youngers' upcoming move and adds a lot of tension to the play as a whole.
Even though Mrs. Johnson seems friendly on the outside, she also seems to kind of resent the Youngers. She insinuates that they think they are "too good" to live in the mostly black neighborhood anymore. Mrs. Johnson almost seems to enjoy sharing the information that a black family was bombed by racist whites.
When she leaves the paper in the Youngers' apartment on her way out, it's almost like Mrs. Johnson is implying that, if the Youngers find trouble in their neighborhood, then they're only getting what they deserve. Essentially, Mrs. Johnson represents the feelings of resentment that some blacks felt when others started to climb the socio-economic ladder.
Willy never shows up onstage, but he plays a significant role in the Youngers' story. And by "significant," we mean, "very, very negative." After convincing Walter that investing in the liquor store is a great idea, Willy takes Walter's money and runs. It is because of the thieving Willy Harris that Walter's dream is deferred.
The Value and Purpose of Dreams
A Raisin in the Sun is essentially about dreams, as the main characters struggle to deal with the oppressive circumstances that rule their lives. The title of the play references a conjecture that Langston Hughes famously posed in a poem he wrote about dreams that were forgotten or put off. He wonders whether those dreams shrivel up "like a raisin in the sun." Every member of the Younger family has a separate, individual dream—Beneatha wants to become a doctor, for example, and Walter wants to have money so that he can afford things for his family. The Youngers struggle to attain these dreams throughout the play, and much of their happiness and depression is directly related to their attainment of, or failure to attain, these dreams. By the end of the play, they learn that the dream of a house is the most important dream because it unites the family.
The Need to Fight Racial Discrimination
The character of Mr. Lindner makes the theme of racial discrimination prominent in the plot as an issue that the Youngers cannot avoid. The governing body of the Youngers' new neighborhood, the Clybourne Park Improvement Association, sends Mr. Lindner to persuade them not to move into the all-white Clybourne Park neighborhood. Mr. Lindner and the people he represents can only see the color of the Younger family's skin, and his offer to bribe the -Youngers to keep them from moving threatens to tear apart the Younger family and the values for which it stands. Ultimately, the Youngers respond to this discrimination with defiance and strength. The play powerfully demonstrates that the way to deal with discrimination is to stand up to it and reassert one's dignity in the face of it rather than allow it to pass unchecked.
The Importance of Family
The Youngers struggle socially and economically throughout the play but unite in the end to realize their dream of buying a house. Mama strongly believes in the importance of family, and she tries to teach this value to her family as she struggles to keep them together and functioning. Walter and Beneatha learn this lesson about family at the end of the play, when Walter must deal with the loss of the stolen insurance money and Beneatha denies Walter as a brother. Even facing such trauma, they come together to reject Mr. Lindner's racist overtures. They are still strong individuals, but they are now individuals who function as part of a family. When they begin to put the family and the family's wishes before their own, they merge their individual dreams with the family's overarching dream.
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