By Lorraine Vivian Hansberry (1930-1965)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2005
Revised in 2012
Type of Work and Year of First Performance
A Raisin in the Sun is a three-act drama focusing on a black family subjected to the emotional stresses of living in a cramped apartment while confronting bigotry and economic hardship. It received wide acclaim, winning the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award, after it was staged at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Broadway in 1959. Random House published it in book form in the same year. In 1961, a film version starring Sidney Poitier as Walter Younger won an award at the Cannes Film Festival in France.
The setting is a cramped apartment in a tenement in the Southside of Chicago in the mid-nineteenth century.
Protagonist: Walter Younger
Antagonist: Walter's Inner Conflicts; Racial Prejudice
Note: All of the characters are blacks except Mr. Lindner
Walter Lee Younger: Thirty-five-year-old chauffeur who longs to improve himself to reap the same rewards that white people enjoy.
Lena Younger (Mama): Stout, God-fearing mother of Walter. She refuses to give up in the face of adversity.
Ruth: Humble, devoted wife of Walter.
Beneatha: Twenty-year-old sister of Walter. An articulate, ambitious college student, she hopes someday to become a physician.
Travis: Son of Walter and Ruth. He is an amiable little boy of 10 or 11.
Mr. Lindner: White man who attempts to prevent the Youngers from moving into his neighborhood.
Joseph Agasai: Cultured, well-spoken Nigerian who courts Beneatha.
George Murchison: Wealthy Chicagoan who also courts Beneatha.
Bobo: Friend of Walter. He and Walter plan to open a liquor store.
Willy: Walter and Bobo's business partner. He runs off with Walter and Bobo's money. (Willy has no speaking part in the play.)
Furniture Mover: Man comes to the Youngers' apartment to move their belongings to their new house.
The tone of the play is serious, objective, and realistic.
Meaning of the Title
The title of the play is a line from Langston Hughes’s 1951 poem, “Harlem (A Dream Deferred).” The poem focuses on the frustration blacks experience when they cannot fulfill their dreams, presumably because of racial discrimination. Following is the complete text of the poem:
Harlem: (A Dream Deferred)
It is mid-twentieth century on a Friday morning in the life of the Youngers, a family of five blacks living in an apartment in Chicago’s Southside. They include Walter and his wife, Ruth; Walter’s mother, Lena; his sister, Beneatha, and his son, Travis. The apartment has three rooms: a combination parlor and kitchen, in which light enters through a single window; a bedroom for Walter and Ruth, and a bedroom for Lena and Beneatha. Travis sleeps on a sofa in the parlor. In the hallway is a bathroom the Youngers share with other tenants.
Ruth Younger, about thirty, rouses her son, Travis, for school. He is a pleasant, bright child of ten or eleven. Then she awakens Walter work. While Travis is in the bathroom, Walter, thirty-five, a chauffeur for a white family, sits down to breakfast but expresses displeasure at having to eat scrambled eggs again. A moment later, he complains that Travis is monopolizing the bathroom and will make him late for work. Ruth says, “It ain’t his fault that he can’t get to bed no earlier nights ’cause he got a bunch of crazy good-for-nothing clowns sitting up running their mouths in what is supposed to be his bedroom after ten o’clock at night—”
Walter replies, “The things I want to talk about with my friends just couldn’t be important in your mind, could they?”
When Travis returns from the bathroom, Walter dashes out to claim it. Travis sits down to breakfast, saying, “Mama, this is Friday. Check coming tomorrow, huh?”
He is referring to a $10,000 check his grandmother is to receive from an insurance policy taken out by her recently deceased husband. When Ruth tells Travis not to think of money, he says he needs fifty cents for school. She says she doesn’t have it. He then asks permission to deliver groceries after school to earn money. Upon returning from the bathroom, Walter overhears the conversation and gives the boy a whole dollar, telling him to use the extra money to take a taxi to school or buy fruit for himself. It is obvious that he does not want his son to grow up in hardship. He is bitter that, at age thirty-five, he remains a lowly chauffeur in a world that opens doors of opportunity to whites but closes them to blacks.
After Travis leaves, Walter talks about going into a partnership with two of his friends to open a liquor store. To make the down payment, he will need a considerable sum, and he is counting on his mother to provide it from the insurance money. His sister Beneatha, wearing a robe, enters the kitchen area. By now, a family down the hall is using the bathroom, and she, too, must wait her turn. Beneatha is an idealistic, ambitious 20-year-old attending college to become a physician. Her enthusiasm for education and modern ideas tends to make her look down on traditional values. When Walter notes that “the check” is expected to arrive on Saturday, she says she has no claim on the money.
“I have never asked anyone around here to do anything for me,” she asserts.
Walter then accuses her of hypocrisy, saying that although she does not request anything, she always readily accepts it when it is offered. Angrily, she asks him whether he wants her to quit college or “just drop dead.”
“I don’t want nothing but for you to stop acting holy ’round here,” Walter says. “Me and Ruth done made some sacrifices for you—why can’t you do something for the family.”
Ruth tells him to keep her out of the argument, but he reminds her that she has been working as a cook “in somebody else’s kitchen for the last three years to help put clothes on her [Beneatha's] back.” Beneatha, he says, should settle for being a nurse or just get married. Beneatha and Walter argue further about the insurance money, and she criticizes him for wanting to use it to open a liquor store. He leaves for work, saying no one understands him.
Lena Younger—called “Mama” by her children—enters. She is a stout, God-fearing woman in her early sixties. Although she has her family’s best interests at heart, she attempts to control them and foist her traditional values on them. On the windowsill is a plant struggling to survive, and she tends it lovingly—almost as if it were a member of her family. When she asks Beneatha what she and Walter were arguing about, Beneatha says it is not important and then checks the bathroom. Finding it free, she goes in.
Mama guesses that the argument was over money, and Ruth confirms the observation. The older woman expresses displeasure with Walter’s scheme to open a liquor store, saying, “We just plain working folks.” Ruth observes that Walter is in a stew about getting ahead—that maybe he needs a chance. But Mama doesn’t like the idea of making money from liquor.
When she notes that Ruth doesn’t look well, Ruth concedes that she feels tired. Then, moments later, she faints. It turns out that she is pregnant. However, worried that Walter will oppose her pregnancy because of the financial hardship of raising another child, she considers having an abortion.
After Walter comes home, the news of Ruth’s pregnancy indeed upsets him, and he does not object when he learns that she is considering an abortion. Instead, he turns to booze to ease his worries—as he has been doing so often to escape his troubles. Mama well knows that abortion would be a bad choice. Not only is it morally wrong; it is also the wedge that could permanently estrange Walter and Ruth.
So, in the weeks after her check for $10,000 arrives in the mail, she decides to spend the money on a house to give the family a proper place to live. Walter and Ruth won’t have to worry about rent. Travis (and his future sibling) will have a yard to play in. There will be space, including a bathroom, for everyone. Having their own house will make the family members proud.
Meanwhile, Beneatha receives the attentions of two suitors—a local man, George Murchison, and a suave, cultured Nigerian college student, Joseph Asagai. Even though Murchison has a car and plenty of money, Beneatha prefers Asagai—in fact, she’s enthralled with him. And he seems quite taken with her as well. They have much in common: Both are intelligent and articulate, and both are proud of their African heritage.
After Mama announces one day that she has bought a house in Clybourne Park, a white neighborhood, everyone is excited—except Walter. His dream of opening a liquor store has been shattered; he now sees only a bleak future. Angry and downcast, he again seeks solace in booze. For three days, he doesn’t even go to work. Instead, he divides his time between wandering aimlessly and spending time at his favorite bar, the Green Hat.
One Friday night, however, Mama tells him she has been treating him unfairly. To make amends, she says, she has decided to use only $3,500 of the insurance money—as a down payment on the house. She gives the rest of it to Walter, saying $3,000 is for Beneatha’s medical education and $3,500 for a checking account with Walter’s name on it. He is to decide how it is to be spent, down to the last penny.
“I’m telling you to be the head of this family from now on like you supposed to be,” she says.
Walter is stunned—and greatly pleased.
“You trust me like that, Mama?
Mama says she has never stopped trusting him. In the next few days, Walter acts like a new man. He and Ruth go out for an evening, seeing a movie and holding hands. There is no longer any talk of an abortion.
Eight days later, a man named Karl Lindner comes to the Youngers’ apartment while the family members—all but Mama, who is out—are packing for the move to the new house. He introduces himself as chairman of the welcoming committee of the Clybourne Park Improvement Association. Although Beneatha is suspicious of him, Walter welcomes him and offers him a beer. Lindner declines the offer. Then, in a roundabout way, he gets to the point of his visit: He wants to buy back the house Mama bought because the residents of Clybourne Park believe “Negro families are happier when they live in their own communities.” He is prepared to buy the house at a financial gain to the Youngers.
They refuse his offer, of course, and usher him out. Nevertheless, he leaves his card behind. When Mama comes home and they tell her about Lindner, they all have a good laugh, then resume packing. Mama, of course, will be taking her plant along with her in hopes that it will thrive in the yard of the new home. Mama will be gardener-in-chief.
Awhile later, one of Walter’s friends, Bobo, stops by. He is a partner in Walter's scheme to open a liquor store. “You right on time,” Walter says cheerily, slapping Bobo’s back. Walter is obviously expecting good news. But Bobo looks worried. When he shifts his eyes to the floor, Walter says, “There ain’t nothing wrong, is there?”
Bobo then delivers devastating news: Their other partner in the liquor-store plan, Willy, has run off with the money that Walter and Bobo gave him to start the business. Every cent is gone. The rest of the Youngers, of course, are not aware that Walter had decided to go through with his plan to invest in a liquor business. But they have not yet heard the worst of the news. After Bobo leaves, Walter confesses that he had entrusted Willy with the entire sum Mama gave him, including Beneatha’s money. Mama then recalls how hard her husband slaved to get ahead in the world, “working like somebody’s old horse.” But Walter, she says, has given it all away in a single day.
An hour later, Joseph Asagai calls on Beneatha. Now bitter and full of cynicism, she tells him what happened to the insurance money and says she has given up on her childhood dream of becoming a doctor. But Asagai encourages her to have faith and hope; she still has what it takes to make her mark in the world. He then asks Beneatha to go with him to Nigeria and be his wife. Beneatha, confused, says, “I must sit down and think. I don’t know what I feel about anything right this minute.” Asagai leaves, asking her to ponder his proposal.
Walter comes into the parlor, finds Lindner’s business card, and telephones him to come over. Lindner had said he was willing to buy back the Youngers’ house in Clybourne Park for more than the price Mama agreed to pay for it. The extra money from Lindner would be Walter’s way of trying to make up for his mistake. He tells Mama, “That white man is going to walk in that door able to write checks for more money than we ever had.”
But Mama will have none of it.
“Son—I come from five generations of people who was slaves and sharecroppers—but ain’t nobody in my family never let nobody pay ’em no money that was a way of telling us we wasn’t fit to walk the earth.”
After further discussion—tense and angry—Walter is made to realize what is important in life. After Lindner arrives, Walter refuses his offer. All is well again. Mama, proud of Walter, tells Ruth, “He finally come into his manhood today, didn’t he? Kind of like a rainbow after the rain.”
Despite the serious economic and social problems her children, daughter-in-law, and grandchild face, Mama continues to have faith in her family and its future. Ever hopeful, she even buys a house for the family in an all-white neighborhood. In turn, the family members learn to trust in themselves.
Primacy of the Family
Success is measured by the quality of family life. Making money and having a prestigious career are important, but not as important as maintaining a happy home undergirded with love.
Although Mama has been the authority figure in the home, she yields her position—and most of her insurance money—to her son to solve a family crisis. Her willingness to accommodate the wishes of others is limited, of course: She will not compromise her moral values.
Evils of Racial Prejudice
Mr. Lindner represents the racially prejudiced segment of society that held sway in America for so long—and continues to be a problem in the U.S. today. When Lindner attempts to buy back the Youngers’ new home, he exhibits the kind of bigotry that confined blacks to segregated schools and neighborhoods and limited their job opportunities.
Money Can't Buy Happiness
Walter believes money is the answer to all of his problems. It will empower him to compete against whites while also instilling him with pride and respectability and yielding material benefits for himself and his family. So he thinks. But he learns the hard way that only one currency can buy happiness: integrity.
The climax of a play or a narrative work such as a short story or a novel can be defined as (1) the turning point at which the conflict begins to resolve itself for better or worse, or as (2) the final and most exciting event in a series of events. The climax of A Raisin in the Sun occurs, according to the first definition, when Bobo informs Walter that Willy has run off with their investment money, apparently destroying Walter's hope of opening a business. According to the second definition, the climax occurs at the same moment or, arguably, when Walter informs Mr. Lindner on the latter's second visit to the Younger home that the family plans to go ahead with its plans to move into their new house.
Mama's Plant: This plant sits on the sill of the only window in the apartment. It symbolizes the following:
Black Americans: The plant struggles to survive with limited exposure to sunlight just as blacks of mid-19th Century America struggle to survive with limited opportunities.
Mama’s Tenacity and Pluck: The plant and Mama endure in adverse circumstances.
Hope: Mama takes the plant with her to the new home, where she expects it—and her family—to thrive.
Fifty Cents, One Dollar: Young Travis asks his mother for 50 cents for a school activity. After his mother says she does not have this meager sum, Walter gives Travis a dollar, telling him to spend the extra on himself. The 50 cents represents the legitimate needs money can buy; the dollar represents the desire for material goods beyond these needs. Money is both a blessing and a curse, depending on how people use it.
New House and Garden: These represent courage, hope, and growth—courage, because the family is willing to confront the prejudice they encounter in a white neighborhood; hope, because they believe the house may help provide a better future for them; growth, because—like the garden Mama plans for the yard of the house—they will be able to see their lives with new opportunities to gain respectability and achieve emotional, moral, and economic growth.
Study Questions and Essay Topics