A Raisin in the Sun by Vivian Lorraine Hansberry
A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry is a play that displays housing discrimination in Chicago during the 1950s. Housing discrimination was partially an effect of the Great Migration. This was an event during the 1950s that resulted in about six million African Americans “migrating” from the south to the north, Midwest, and West regions of the United States. This caused the population of black people in major northern cities to increase rapidly. They are then only able to live in certain neighbourhoods, which keeps their communities segregated.
According to Lorraine Hansberry’s stage directions at the beginning of the play, the action occurs sometime between the end of World War II and the 1950’s. The play is set in an urban ghetto and deals with the problems encountered by a poor black family as it tries to cope with the realities of life on Chicago’s South Side. It reveals the devastating effects of poverty and oppression on the African American family. Even before the play begins, Hansberry’s stage directions, both in tone and substance, suggest the extent of that devastation. The furnishings in the Younger family’s apartment, she says, are “tired,” and the “once loved couch upholstery” has to “fight to show itself from under acres of dollies and couch covers.” The very environment in which the Youngers live mirrors the struggle for survival that is waged daily in this household.
As the play progresses, the frustration born of this poverty and oppression mounts. The anger and hostility that it spawns begin to erode the foundations of the family structure. This erosion begins early in the play, exhibiting itself in the strained relations between Walter Lee and his wife Ruth as they argue over the disposition of money coming from insurance on Walter’s father. Walter Lee wants to use the money to purchase a liquor store. He is convinced that such a business venture will be his ticket out of the ghetto. His marriage threatens to collapse under the constant bickering. Ruth, having just discovered that she is pregnant, contemplates abortion to avoid bringing a new life into this hostile, poverty-ridden environment.
As the family anticipates the arrival of the insurance check, the tension grows and Walter becomes more agitated. He is resentful of his sister, whose medical-school expenses, he thinks, will consume money that he might otherwise use to finance his liquor store. When the check finally arrives and he finds that Mama Younger has used part of the money to make a down payment on a new house and plans to use the rest for Beneatha’s medical-school expenses, Walter explodes, spending his days driving around town and his nights brooding in the local bar.
When Mama begins to understand the depth of damage to Walter Lee’s feelings and manhood, she turns over the rest of the money to him to do with as he pleases. She makes one request, however: that he put aside the money for Beneatha’s education. Still pursuing his dream, however, Walter gives Willie, one of his friends, the money to purchase the liquor store for him. Willie absconds with the money, dashing Walter Lee’s hopes and dreams as well as those of the entire Younger family.
In an effort to recover his losses, Walter Lee decides to accept the money that has been offered earlier by their prospective white neighbors as a bribe to keep the Younger family out of an all-white neighborhood. In the last scene of the play, however, under the watchful eye of his son, Walter finds the courage to reject the offer. The family takes its leave of its ghetto apartment and heads for its new home and anticipated better life.
Form and Content
Written just as the Civil Rights movement began to get underway, this play (and the motion picture made from it in 1960) made an important statement regarding race relations. Lorraine Hansberry, coming as she did from an affluent African American family, had experienced discrimination in her own childhood when her father moved the family out of the Chicago ghetto to a home in Englewood, Illinois. She also had strong opinions about the position of black women in American society, who are represented to a great extent by the character of Beneatha in this play.
Additionally, Langston Hughes’s poem “A Dream Deferred” must be considered seminal in understanding the play. In it the poet asks, “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?. . . or does it explode?” and Hansberry has successfully dramatized various human reactions to such deferment. The time in the play spans only a few weeks, but the dreams held by each of the characters have roots that reach far back. As the play begins, Lena is expecting a check of $10,000 as beneficiary of her husband’s life insurance, and each character sees that money as the key that will unlock the future.
Most volatile about getting control of the money is Walter Lee, who wants to invest (with two other men) in a liquor store and become an independent businessman. He represents the dream that is ready to explode. In the first scene, he makes his attitude very clear when he asks his wife Ruth to persuade his mother to give him the money, and he becomes very upset with her when she insists that it is Lena’s money to do with as she likes.
Walter Lee’s frustration with his life causes him to project his predicament on his wife, as a representative of all black women. As he puts it, “Man say I got to change my life. I’m choking to death, baby! And his woman say—your eggs is getting cold!”
Lena Younger, knowing that she and her husband never realized their dreams, has accepted life as God has willed it. In the words of the poem, she has “crusted and sugared over—like a syrupy sweet.” Because of the insurance money, however, she believes that she has been given a second chance at her dream of improving the lives of everyone in her family by moving out of the ghetto. Furthermore, because she is very religious, she disapproves of the idea of a liquor store for her son. Representing the older black woman who heads the family, Lena is a loving but quietly controlling matriarch.
The early-morning scene that opens the play illustrates clearly the physical conditions in which the Youngers live. The apartment is clean but very crowded; Travis sleeps on a couch in the living room, and the family shares a bathroom with other tenants in the building. Quite soon, Ruth reveals that she is pregnant, and her con-sideration of an abortion strengthens Lena’s resolve regarding the use of the money.
Beneatha’s dream of becoming a doctor is quite concrete; she has had it since adolescence. Unlike her brother, she does not solicit her mother’s financial assistance. Representing the newly emancipated black woman (in the image of the playwright), Beneatha gives the impression that she will not marry for security or surrender her free-thinking ideas. At one point, Lena actually slaps Beneatha and insists that she affirm her belief in God, but it is clear that the young woman acquiesces only out of respect for her mother. She will march to the beat of her own drummer.
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
The plant that Mama keeps near the apartment’s sole window is barely surviving because it lacks adequate nourishment. Sound like anyone else we know? Yet she is completely dedicated to the plant and lovingly tends it every single day in the hopes that it will one day be able to flourish. Gosh. Sound like her behavior towards anyone else? This is by far the play’s most overt symbol; the plant acts as a metaphor for the family.
Hansberry writes about sunlight and how the old apartment has so little of it. The first thing Ruth asks about in Act Two, Scene One is whether or not the new house will have a lot of sunlight. Sunlight is a familiar symbol for hope and life, since all human life depends on warmth and energy from the sun.
Cockroaches, rats and other lovely creatures.
These creatures heavily reinforce the Younger family’s undesirable living situation.
Where It All Goes Down
The Youngers’ apartment in the slums of Chicago’s Southside, 1950s
Hansberry welcomes us into the tiny apartment of the Younger family. This place is really cramped, especially with five people living in it. On stage we see the kitchen, which is so small that it’s more like a closet. Most of the play’s action goes down in the living room, which also serves as the dining room and Travis’s makeshift bedroom.
There’s access to two bedrooms on opposite sides of the apartment (one room shared by Mama and Beneatha, the other by Walter and Ruth). The bathroom is out in the hall; the Youngers are forced to share it with their neighbors, the Johnsons. So, yeah, you get the point – this place is small!
The incredibly close quarters of the Youngers’ apartment definitely adds to the high tensions that run throughout the play. It’s a wonder the family doesn’t fight more than they already do, considering how on top of each other they’re forced to live.
The tininess of the apartment definitely has a major effect on the action of the play early on. When Ruth finds out she’s pregnant, she seriously considers having an abortion. If the baby is born, there just won’t be anywhere for it to sleep. This thought is just too much for Mama, however. When she realizes what her daughter-in-law is considering, she marches straight out and purchases a new setting for her family to live in – the house in Clybourne Park.
Be sure to look at set design pictures in order to better visualize the space. To see how professional Scene Designers have brought the Younger apartment to life onstage, look online. (Or better yet, attend a theatre production.) Here’s an example.
The neighborhood which the Youngers live in is particularly significant because, during the 1950s, it was primarily a poor neighborhood inhabited mainly by African Americans. Many blacks ended up in Chicago’s Southside after migrating from the South, looking for work and seeking to escape racial discrimination.
Things were definitely better in the North on a lot of levels, but blacks still faced many challenges because of their race. As A Raisin in the Sun shows, white society made it very hard for African Americans to escape the cramped, vermin-infested apartment buildings of Chicago’s Southside. There may not have been any law officially segregating the city, but unofficial segregation was still going on.
The exact year is never specified, but the play takes place in the 1950s. Probably, the most significant thing to think about as far as the time period goes is the status of race issues. A lot of progress had been made by this point in American history, but as A Raisin in the Sun shows, there was still a long, long way to go.
The 1950s was a sort of turning point in America, the decade that brought the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. During much of the 1950s, the South was segregated by racist Jim Crow laws. And, as we point out in our entry on the Southside, many African Americans faced unofficial racial barriers in the North. The racial tensions of the time period definitely fuel the conflicts of the play.
Beneatha’s character, in particular, is grounded in the time period, as she deals with very timely socio-political issues. In a way, though, she is totally ahead of her time. We have no doubt that if Beneatha was still in the US around in the 1960s she would definitely be marching with Dr. King. Beneatha is also head of her time with the idea that African Americans should be more in touch their African roots. This became a major movement among black Americans later on in the ’60s. With the character of Beneatha, Hansberry predicted (and possibly helped to spark) some major movements in American history.
Family Drama, Realism, African-American Literature
A Raisin in the Sun was part of a broader movement to portray the lives of ordinary, working-class African-Americans. The genre of Realism captures ordinary life, and A Raisin in the Sun definitely fits this description. Dreams of buying a house, making some money in business, and going to medical school are dreams shared by millions of working-class Americans. And if you can’t figure out why this play is a Family Drama, then we seriously screwed up our job.
Take a story’s temperature by studying its tone. Is it hopeful? Cynical? Snarky? Playful?
Alternates between Ironic and Somber
Life is rough for the Younger family, and Hansberry’s use of somber tone is appropriate to that. At the same time, however, she injects a heavy dose of irony and sarcasm. Did you notice how Hansberry writes “Drily” in a lot of the line directions? (Wait, is that just “dryly” spelled a different way? Yes, it is.) The Youngers have a bite in how they talk; there’s a fun tongue-in-cheek kind of feel, especially in Walter and Beneatha’s sibling chats.
One of the single most ironic moments in the play, however, might be when Mr. Lindner explains that the people he represents have worked hard to achieve their dreams. In that single scene, the characters don’t notice the irony so much as the audience does. It’s Hansberry at her finest – exposing how the American Dream can ring hollow for black Americans.