Summary of the Play
The play begins with a typical early weekday morning in the life of the Younger family. The household prepares for work and for school. Some of the talk is about a check which they expect to receive the next day. It is from the insurance policy of Mr. Walter Younger, Sr., who has died. Each member of the family has his or her own ideas about how to use the money.
Two gentleman friends of Beneatha visit her: Joseph Asagai, and George Murchison. Ruth is pregnant and may want an abortion. Walter drinks heavily and argues with Murchison about the latter’s pretensions, in Walter’s opinion, as well as with Beneatha about her plans for medical school and with his wife and mother about his desire to open a liquor store with some of the money Mrs. Younger will receive.
Mama places a down payment on a house. She has always wanted her own home, with a garden in the back. Ruth is happy and decides not to have the abortion, but Walter is upset because he wants money for his liquor enterprise.
A few weeks later, Beneatha stops seeing George Murchison because he does not understand her ideals, hopes, or dreams. Walter is in danger of losing his job because when drunk, he does not show up for work. The Youngers’ neighbor, Mrs. Johnson, visits to tell them that more black families’ homes have recently been bombed in white neighborhoods. The neighborhood the Youngers plan to move to is all-white.
Walter, constantly drunk, gets Mama worried, and she agrees to give him money for his liquor store.
A week later, the family gets an unexpected visit. A white man representing a neighborhood organization from the area the Youngers plan to move to has come to talk to them. His name is Karl Lindner. He tells them that the residents of the area, Clybourne Park, want to pay them not to move in. Walter throws the man out of the house.
Bobo, Walter’s friend visits. He tells them that the money Walter gave him for the liquor store, as well as more money meant for Beneatha’s education, is gone because the man Bobo gave it to hold has disappeared with it. The family is thrown into an uproar at hearing this bad news.
Asagai visits Beneatha and reminds her that her future does not depend solely on her mother paying for medical school; he asks her to go to Africa with him when she becomes a doctor. Mrs. Younger prepares to forget about the move. Walter says he will accept the offer of money not to move from Mr. Lindner.
Mr. Lindner comes to enact the deal. But in the process of talking to Mr. Lindner, there is a transformation in Walter, and remembering what his father had to go through to provide for his family, and how the rest of the family struggles to survive and to fulfill their aspirations, he changes his mind and tells Mr. Lindner they will not accept his offer.
The play ends as the family starts the move to Clybourne Park. It will not be easy for them to live there because of the prejudice they will face, but they decide to move forward in spite of it.
Robert Nemiroff’s critique of the pertinence of Ms. Hansberry’s writing to the universals indicative of all great literature:
If we ever reach a time when the racial madness that afflicts America is at last truly behind us—as obviously we must if we are to survive in a world composed four-fifths of people of color—then I believe A Raisin in the Sun will remain no less pertinent. For at the deepest level it is not a specific situation but the human condition, human aspiration and human relationships—the persistence of dreams, of bonds and conflicts between men and women, parents and children, old ways and new, and the endless struggle against human oppression, whatever the forms it may take, and for individual fulfillment, recognition, and liberation—that are at the heart of such plays. It is not surprising therefore that in each generation we recognize ourselves in them anew.
The Life and Work of Lorraine Hansberry
Lorraine Hansberry was born in 1930, and was the first African-American woman to win the Best American Play award from the New York Drama Critics Circle. She was the fifth woman and the youngest American to ever have done so. She was given this award for her play, A Raisin in the Sun, which was written when she was in her twenties, and was first performed on Broadway in 1959.
Lorraine Hansberry started writing when she was a young woman. When she was 22 years old, she declared to her later-to-be husband, Robert Nemiroff:
I am a writer. I am going to write!
Her husband then later became her literary executor (the person in charge of handling her writing) after her early death due to cancer, when she was 34 years old.
When she was a college student, she wrote a piece for her school magazine which foretold the driving concerns which would form the basis for A Raisin in the Sun:
What is it exactly that we Negroes want to see on the screen? The answer is simple reality. We want to see film about a people who live and work like everybody else, but who currently must battle fierce oppression to do so.
Even so, when she had completed writing A Raisin in the Sun, Ms. Hansberry could not quite believe what she had accomplished. As described in her autobiographical work To Be Young, Gifted and Black:
...I had turned the last page out of the typewriter and pressed all the sheets neatly together in a pile, and gone and stretched out face down on the living room floor. I had finished a play; a play I had no reason to think or not think would ever be done; a play that I was sure no one would quite understand...
Where did Lorraine Hansberry get the impetus to carry forward her vision through her writing? As Robert Nemiroff related it, she “had herself as a child been almost killed in such a real-life story”4 as the one depicted in her play.
In addition to these works, Ms. Hansberry also wrote another play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, a novel Les Blancs, and Lorraine Hansberry: The Collected Last Plays, in addition to numerous magazine and newspaper articles, and other work in progress, left unfinished when she died. No matter how famous Ms. Hansberry became, though, and no matter how much she achieved during her brief lifetime, she never forgot her commitment to carrying forward her ideals to the young people who would follow her.
When she died, her ex-husband inscribed these lines from her Brustein play on her tombstone:
I care. I care about it all. It takes too much energy not to care…the why of why we are here is an intrigue for adolescents; the how is what must command the living.
Into what milieu was Lorraine Hansberry born? What was America like when she was growing up? What experiences would she have had as a student? What was this country like when she reached adulthood?
In order to understand the historical background of A Raisin in the Sun, it is necessary to understand the impact of the United States Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education school desegregation decision. That law changed the previous “separate but equal” status of education in the South.
“Separate but equal” meant that until the 1954 ruling, black children and White children were separated into different schools. There were no exceptions to this segregationist policy. Also, public facilities such as parks, theaters, etc., had sections and utilities segregated by race. This was because of what were known as “Jim Crow laws,” which were not real laws, but local statutes which everyone followed.
Until the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling and other civil rights activity in the 1950s, it was very dangerous for people of different races to be friends. Works of literature from that time, such as Strange Fruit by Lillian Smith, depict the outrageous injustice of that time.
In addition, any black person who challenged these Jim Crow statutes in any way was subject to abuse, arrest, or lynching (being hung by a lawless mob). Heroes such as the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mrs. Rosa Parks, however, challenged these Jim Crow laws and “separate but equal” protocols through boycotts, marches, and other nonviolent means, which often originated in black churches.
At the time Ms. Hansberry wrote A Raisin in the Sun, then, the country was being forced for the first time to truly put into practice Abraham Lincoln’s words in reference to the Civil War freeing the slaves about a century before:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that “all men are created equal.”
Even after the school desegregation ruling, however, it took quite some time for the schools in the South to be integrated. Children who tried to go to schools previously off-limits to them were harassed, humiliated, had rocks thrown at them, were set upon by dogs, and otherwise threatened and persecuted. Churches with predominantly black congregations were bombed, and church members, including children, were killed. Families who moved into previously all-white neighborhoods had crosses burned on their front lawns by the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups, and were subject to being terrorized in many other ways.
This situation occurred mainly in the South, but the North was not that much better off when it came to these kinds of injustices; they were just more subtle. It has been said that one of Lorraine Hansberry’s purposes in writing A Raisin in the Sun was to show that things were not much better in the North in the 1950s than they were in the South.
Jewell Handy Gresham-Nemiroff said this of Hansberry’s vision:
...She had to possess a powerful cosmic sense of the magnitude of human struggle in the modern world waged by ordinary men and women. Such battles against themselves and others, against wretchedness, and against fate she believed to be of comparable worth as dramatic material to the woes of ancient kings and queens in whom grave flaws of character led to disaster.
Original Theatrical Presentations
This play was originally produced and presented in 1959. It played for many years and was a spectacular hit on Broadway. The general reaction among critics was uniformly adulatory, with the work being compared to the best of major American playwrights such as Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill. Audiences also made the play very popular, and whatever form the work appeared in (stage, film, television), it was widely applauded and enjoyed. After Ms. Hansberry’s death, her ex-husband rewrote the play and staged it in musical form, with the title, Raisin. Like its predecessor, the musical was a terrific success, starting its run in the 1970s.
The play appeared in other media: a 1961 film, with a slightly altered structure than the original 1959 play’s, and a teleplay in 1989.
Master List of Characters
Mrs. Lena Younger (Mama)—Matriarch of the family. She has strong values and ideas about how to run her family; these sometimes conflict with those of her grown children.
Walter Lee (Brother)— Mrs. Younger’s eldest child. He wants to start his own liquor business, against his family’s wishes.
0Beneatha—Walter Lee’s younger sister. She plans to go to medical school after college and has ideals many people find difficult to understand.
Ruth Younger—Walter Lee’s wife, who wants a tranquil home, but who experiences difficulty in communicating with her husband. Pregnant, she is considering having an abortion.
Travis Younger—Walter and Ruth’s son. Both his parents want him to aim for a life with more advantages than they have been able to provide.
Joseph Asagai—One of Beneatha’s gentleman friends; a fellow student at her school who is originally from Africa. In the midst of crisis, he shows Beneatha an unexpected side of his personality.
George Murchison—Another friend of Beneatha’s. Because he is rich, the family urges Beneatha to marry him, but she is not so sure this is what she wants.
Karl Lindner—A white man representing a new-neighbor committee, who wants to make a humiliating “deal” with the Younger family.
Bobo—One of the men Walter wants to start a liquor business with; he delivers some shocking news to the family.
Mrs. Johnson—Nosy neighbor of the Youngers, who cannot help hinting that there might be dire consequences if the family moves to the new neighborhood.
Walter Younger Senior—Deceased husband of Mrs. Younger. How the money from his insurance policy will be used is a source of conflict for the Younger family.
Estimated Reading Time
The play is about 150 pages long. It should, therefore, take an average student five or six hours to read.
It is suggested that the reading of the play be broken down into the following sittings:
1 hour: Act I, Scene 1
1 hour: Act I, Scene 2
1 hour: Act II, Scene 1
45 minutes: Act II, Scene 2
45 minutes: Act II, Scene 3
1 hour: Act III Scene 1
This is a total of five-and-a-half hours total reading time; students should set aside more time than that for class assignments and studying of various aspects of the play as indicated by their coursework.
This MAXnotes study guide is based on the 1987 Penguin edition, A Raisin in the Sun: The Complete Original Version.
Summary (Identities & Issues in Literature)
A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry’s most celebrated play, is a realistic portrait of a working-class black family struggling to achieve the American Dream of careers and home ownership while gripped by the reality of their lives as African Americans who must survive in a racist society.
Hansberry based her play on her knowledge of life in Chicago’s black ghetto and the families to whom her father, a successful real estate broker, rented low-income housing. The action takes place in the cramped, roach-infested apartment of the Youngers, where three generations of the family have resided for years. With the death of her husband, Lena (Mama) becomes the head of the family. She has the right to decide how...
(The entire section is 538 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Walter Younger, Sr., known as Big Walter, has died, leaving his widow, Lena, with a life insurance policy worth ten thousand dollars. Lena wants to use the money as a down payment on a house in the suburbs so that her family can leave their crowded and shabby Chicago apartment. Lena’s son, Walter, disgusted with his job as a rich white man’s chauffeur, wants to invest the insurance money in a liquor store with two partners, Willy and Bobo. Beneatha, Walter’s younger sister, a college student, wants to use part of the money to pay for medical school.
The family argues over how to spend the insurance money. Walter tells his sister to forget about medical school and become a nurse or get married like other women. He...
(The entire section is 805 words.)
Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
A Raisin in the Sun is a moving drama about securing one’s dignity within a system that discriminates against, even enslaves, its racial minorities. Crowded into a tenement apartment, Lena (“Mama”) Younger and her adult children—a son, Walter Lee, Jr. (husband of Ruth and father of Travis) and a daughter, Beneatha—await the arrival of a ten-thousand-dollar insurance payment on Walter, Sr., in the expectation that dreams long deferred might be realized. As the children lay claims to the money—Walter for buying into a liquor store, Beneatha for her medical school tuition—Mama acts on the family’s need for a place to hold them together, purchasing a home in a white neighborhood.
(The entire section is 800 words.)
Summary and Analysis
Act I, Scene 1: Summary and Analysis
Mrs. Lena Younger (Mama): a woman in her sixties, employed as a domestic worker, mother of Walter and Beneatha, grandmother to Travis
Walter Lee (Brother): a man of 35, employed as a chauffeur, married to Ruth, brother of Beneatha, father to Travis
Beneatha: a 20-year-old young lady, college student, sister to Walter Lee, planning to go to medical school after college
Ruth: a woman in her early thirties, employed as a domestic worker, married to Walter, mother to Travis, sister-in-law to Beneatha
Travis: a boy about 10 years old, son of Walter and Ruth, grandson of Mrs. Lena Younger
The play opens on a typical early morning...
(The entire section is 1834 words.)
Act I, Scene 2: Summary and Analysis
Joseph Asagai: a Nigerian friend of Beneatha’s who has just returned from a trip to Canada
Scene 2 opens on the following morning. The family, on this Saturday, is involved in housecleaning. The phone rings, and it is Willie Harris, Walter’s friend. They talk about the liquor store they want to start while Mrs. Younger stares at her son in disapproval. The next hone call is for Beneatha, from her school friend Joseph Asagai, who has just returned from studying in Canada.
Ruth comes home and we learn she is pregnant (which would account for why she dropped to the floor at the end of the last scene; she had not been feeling well, as some women do not at...
(The entire section is 1286 words.)
Act II, Scene 1: Summary and Analysis
George Murchison: wealthy, college-educated gentleman friend of Beneatha
As the scene opens, Ruth is again ironing later in the same day. Beneatha comes out of her room in Nigerian dress, which Asagai gave her, and puts on the records of African music. Ruth admires the African garb and enjoys the music with Beneatha.
Walter comes home drunk. He gets into an exaggerated display of singing along with the record and chanting African chants. Some of his fervor is shown by his dancing on top of the kitchen table. Beneatha joins him in song and chant, although she is apprehensive about the cause of his energy—alcohol.
In the midst of this wild scene,...
(The entire section is 1293 words.)
Act II, Scene 2: Summary and Analysis
Mrs. Johnson: neighbor of the Youngers, noted previously for her frugality
The scene begins on a Friday night, three weeks after the previous scene. Packing crates are all over the room. Beneatha and George Murchison are sitting on the couch, talking. He wants to kiss her, but she wants to talk about her hopes and dreams instead. He becomes too demanding, and she tells him to leave, as Mrs. Younger comes home. Beneatha tells her mother that Murchison is a fool, and her mother tells her not to waste her time with him then. Beneatha thanks her mother for understanding her this time. When Ruth enters the room, she is asked if Walter is drunk again, and Ruth answers that he...
(The entire section is 1139 words.)
Act II, Scene 3: Summary and Analysis
Karl Lindner: a white man representing a resident organization from Clybourne Park
Bobo: another friend of Walter’s with whom he has business
It is moving day one week later. Ruth and Beneatha are packing. Ruth happily tells Beneatha of the change that has come over Walter; they are getting along better and Ruth is very happy. The doorbell rings and a white man they have never seen before is there. He comes in to their apartment, and Ruth, Beneatha, and Walter talk to him since Mama is not at home.
His name is Karl Lindner and he is from the Clybourne Park Improvement Association. He specifically represents their New Neighbors...
(The entire section is 832 words.)
Act III: Summary and Analysis
As the act begins, Joseph Asagai has come over to help with the packing. Beneatha, upset about the lost money, tells him what has happened. She speaks, very dejectedly of the dreams she had of being a doctor, and of having her aspirations dashed. Her friend, however, is incredulous at the level of her despair. He speaks to her about not giving up her idealism, and not insisting life be perfect in order to accomplish what she wants. He reminds her that it was not her money to begin with, and that lost money does not have to mean an end to medical school. Yet Beneatha is still filled with self-pity.
Finally, almost as if to wake her up, he starts yelling about the conditions in the part of the world...
(The entire section is 1632 words.)