Study Guide

A Raisin in the Sun

by Lorraine Hansberry

A Raisin in the Sun Summary

Overview

A Raisin in the Sun

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.

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.

A Raisin in the Sun Summary (Society and Self, Critical Representations 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 to use the 10,000 in life insurance money that has come with her husband’s death.

Tensions develop quickly. Mama dreams of using the money to move out of the apartment into a new, large home where her family can breathe the free, clean air outside the ghetto. Her son Walter, seeing himself as the new head of the family, envisions the money as a way to free himself and his family from poverty by investing in a liquor store. Walter’s intellectual sister hopes the windfall may be a way for her to break racist and sexist barriers by getting a college education and becoming a doctor.

As the play unfolds, Hansberry explores issues of African American identity, pride, male-female relationships within the black family, and the problems of segregation. Mama makes a down payment on a house in a white neighborhood. Fearing that her exercise of authority will diminish her son’s sense of masculine self-worth, and in spite of her opposition to buying a liquor store, she reminds Walter of his sister’s right to some of the money for a college education and entrusts him with what is left of the money after the down payment. When he returns despairingly after losing all of it, he considers that the only way to recoup the loss is to humiliate himself and his family by making a deal with the Clybourne Park Association, a group of white homeowners who want to buy back the new home in order to keep their neighborhood white.

In a dramatic conclusion, the disillusioned Walter enacts the dilemma of the modern African American male. Trapped at the bottom of the economic ladder, he must again submit to matriarchal authority. Mama despairs at having to take control and wield the authority she knows is destroying her son’s masculine identity. Walter finally realizes that he cannot accept the degradation he would bring upon himself, his family, and his father’s memory by accepting the association’s offer. Discovering his manhood and his responsibility to his family and his race, he refuses to sell back the house. When the association’s representative appeals to Mama to reverse her son’s decision, she poignantly and pridefully says, “I am afraid you don’t understand. My son said we was going to move and there ain’t nothing left for me to say.” The play closes with the family leaving their cramped apartment for their new home and the challenges that surely await them there.

A Raisin in the Sun Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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 appeals to his mother to give him the money so that he can pursue his dream of entrepreneurship and thereby improve the family’s circumstances, but Lena is skeptical about investing in the liquor business. Beneatha and her mother also argue about religion. Lena maintains that Beneatha needs God’s help to become a doctor, and Beneatha asserts that God has little to do with her educational achievements.

Lena informs Walter that his wife, Ruth, is pregnant and is considering terminating her pregnancy because she does not wish to add another family member to their crowded household. Lena encourages Walter to confront his wife and express his desire to have another child, but Walter storms out of the apartment in anger. As he leaves, Lena calls him a disgrace to his father’s memory.

Beneatha is visited by two suitors, Joseph Asagai and George Murchison. Asagai, who has recently returned from his native Nigeria, brings Beneatha a traditional African gown and headdress and encourages her not to become an assimilationist Negro by forgetting her African heritage. George, the son of a well-to-do African American family, urges Beneatha to divorce herself from her heritage and not to take her studies too seriously.

Soon, Lena announces to her family that she has made a down payment on a single-family home in Clybourne Park, an all-white neighborhood. When he hears the news, Walter is outraged and accuses his mother of destroying his dream of owning his own business. He becomes deeply depressed; for three days, instead of going to work, he spends his time drinking heavily at a local tavern. Seeing her son’s depression, Lena has a change of heart. She informs Walter that she put only thirty-five hundred dollars down on the house, and she gives him the rest, commanding him to deposit three thousand dollars of it in a bank account earmarked for Beneatha’s medical school tuition and allowing him to invest the remainder as he sees fit.

Walter’s mood changes dramatically when his mother gives him the money. He makes peace with his wife, and he excitedly tells his son, Travis, that he will make a business transaction that will make the family wealthy.

As the family members pack for the move to their new suburban home, Karl Linder, a representative of the Clybourne Park Improvement Association, visits and offers to buy the new home from them at a profit; his concern is with keeping a black family from integrating the all-white Clybourne Park neighborhood. Walter boldly expels Linder.

Immediately after Linder’s departure, Walter’s friend Bobo arrives, bringing the grim news that their business partner, Willy, has taken Bobo’s and Walter’s money and left town instead of using it to purchase the liquor store. Walter sadly informs his family that all $6,500 is lost, including the money that Walter was supposed to set aside for Beneatha’s schooling. Lena beats her son for his irresponsible behavior.

Later, as the family unpacks, Walter calls Linder to inform him that they are ready to make a deal with him. Walter explains to his family that he intends to humble himself before Linder and agree to sell the family’s new home for a profit. Hearing Walter’s decision, Beneatha calls her brother a toothless rat.

When Linder arrives, however, Walter undergoes a profound change. Standing behind his son, he informs Linder that his family has decided to move into their new home in Clybourne Park. Walter speaks eloquently of his father’s hard work and his family’s pride. He proudly introduces Beneatha as a future doctor, and he introduces Travis as the sixth generation of Youngers in America. Linder leaves disappointed, and the Youngers begin packing again.

On moving day, Lena commands the moving men, and the Youngers begin carrying boxes out of the apartment. Beneatha announces that Asagai has proposed marriage, and Lena proudly tells Ruth that Walter has finally come into his manhood that day. Finally, Lena leaves her family’s shabby apartment for the last time.

A Raisin in the Sun Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

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.

Another leading black dramatist, Amiri Baraka, wrote of his play Dutchman (1964) that it concerns “the difficulty of becoming a man in America.” The same is true of A Raisin in the Sun, as Walter Lee attempts to define a rightful position for himself. A chauffeur for a well-to-do white, he feels himself restricted not only by class and racial boundaries but also by a mother who will not condone his business venture and a wife who seems not to support his pursuit of the dream. To his mother’s dismay, he equates money with life, having things with being somebody; he tries to live by white values, as exemplified in George Murchison, Beneatha’s assimilationist suitor. Like Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949), Walter looks to material success to satisfy essentially spiritual longings, not understanding that his own dream is flawed by the same class and sexual biases as that of his oppressors.

When Mama realizes what her son’s perceived lack of power is doing to him as a man, she entrusts the remaining insurance money to Walter, who is promptly bilked of it by his partner in the liquor store scheme. In his desperation, he tells the representative of the white community association that they will take money not to move into the neighborhood. When Mama then insists that he sign away his self-respect in front of his son, he chooses instead the dignity due him as the son of a hardworking father and reiterates their choice to move.

Hansberry’s three female characters vary. Beneatha, a mild self-parody of Hansberry when she was ten years younger, seeks identity as an adult by rebelling against the traditional religion of her mother; as a woman by her determination to become a doctor and her refusal to be any man’s sexual plaything; and as a black proud of her race by adopting an Afro hairstyle and being committed to the notion of African independence. Of all Hansberry’s characters, she best displays the author’s womanist, early feminist stance.

Ruth, on the other hand, though overjoyed at the thought of having a home of her own, will continue in a role subordinate to her husband. Pregnant with the baby whom she considered aborting when it appeared that Walter’s love for her had dried up, she is determined to strap the child to her back if necessary to work as a domestic and help meet the mortgage payments.

Lena, with her dignified hat and the lone geranium she nurtures as her piece of the garden promised as a sign of the dream’s attainment, is the continuing source of strength and active endurance who categorically rejects the idea of submission. As Hansberry said of her so eloquently:[Lena] is the black matriarch incarnate; the bulwark of the Negro family since slavery. . . . It is she who rubs the floors of the nation in order to create black diplomats and university professors . . . [I]t is she who drives the young into the fire hoses. And one day she simply refuses to move to the back of the bus in Montgomery.

Lena’s literary descendant in Hansberry’s works is the slave Rissa in Drinking Gourd, who allows her owner to die while arming her son for the escape north.

Although the Younger family’s spiritual condition has changed, their material condition has not altered much—as symbolized by the worn furniture they move to the new home. They remain mired in subservient jobs and are likely to receive, as Hansberry’s family did, bricks through windows from their racist neighbors; an earlier version of the play, in fact, ended just that way. So A Raisin in the Sun, rather than naïvely supporting integration or allowing its audiences to applaud, and thus escape, protest directed against themselves, in reality is more subversive. “The dream denied” as the last line of the Hughes poem that gives the play its title reminds, might not “dry up like a raisin in the sun,” but rather “explode”—as the United States would in the 1960’s.

A Raisin in the Sun Summary

Act I, Scene One
The opening scene of A Raisin in the Sun occurs on a Friday morning when the...

(The entire section is 1135 words.)

A Raisin in the Sun Summary and Analysis

Act I, Scene 1: Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
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

Summary
The play opens on a typical early morning...

(The entire section is 1834 words.)

Act I, Scene 2: Summary and Analysis

New Character:
Joseph Asagai: a Nigerian friend of Beneatha’s who has just returned from a trip to Canada

Summary
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

New Character:
George Murchison: wealthy, college-educated gentleman friend of Beneatha

Summary
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

New Character:
Mrs. Johnson: neighbor of the Youngers, noted previously for her frugality

Summary
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

New Characters:
Karl Lindner: a white man representing a resident organization from Clybourne Park

Bobo: another friend of Walter’s with whom he has business
dealings

Summary
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

Summary
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.)