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.
A three-act play, A Raisin in the Sun follows the typical dramatic format. The stage setting cues the audience regarding the milieu in which the Younger family lives, and in the first act the characters are established and the major conflict is made clear. In the second act, the situation becomes more complex when Lena Younger announces that she has purchased a house in a “white” neighborhood and tries to justify her decision to her son, who refuses to be placated. In this act, too, the young men who are interested in Beneatha are introduced. The audience then sees her reactions to both the upper-middle-class George Murchison, who is a fool in Beneatha’s eyes, and Joseph Asagai, whose idea of her future in Africa does not appeal to her either.
After realizing Walter Lee’s deep bitterness because she has acted as head of the family by buying the new house, Lena Younger changes her mind and decides to trust Walter Lee with all of the money that is left after she has made the $3,500 down payment on the house. She gives him instructions to put half away for Beneatha’s medical school, with the understanding that the third that remains is his to invest as he wishes.
In the second act, the family is packing to move, and even Walter Lee seems happy now that Lena has abdicated her role as ruling matriarch and has given him his position as “head of the family.” At this juncture, however, Karl Lindner interrupts their newfound harmony with his proposal to pay the Youngers rather handsomely if they will agree not to move to lily-white Clybourne Park. During this encounter, Beneatha has a chance to assert her assimilationist point of view, one undoubtedly held by the playwright, while in his newfound position of power, Walter Lee unceremoniously shows Lindner the door.
At this point, Lena returns and is made to understand what the “Clybourne Park Welcoming Committee” really signifies. She graciously accepts, however, the gardening set her children have bought for her and the too-fancy gardening hat, which Travis has selected for his grandmother to wear as she gardens in their new yard.
Bobo, the visitor who arrives after Lindner has left, represents the messenger who brings word of the classic reversal of fortune for the protagonist. Bobo reports that Willy Harris did not meet him at the railroad station to go to Springfield to get the license for the liquor store. Instead, he simply disappeared with Bobo’s money and with the entire amount that Lena had entrusted to Walter Lee, including Beneatha’s portion.
How each character reacts to this crisis initially is no surprise. After Lena has momentarily lost her temper, she prays for strength, castigates herself for “aiming too high,” and begins to think in terms of “fixing up the apartment.” Beneatha seems to have given up her idea of becoming a doctor. Practical Ruth says that the family could still make the new house payments if everybody worked. Walter Lee, however, who is completely devastated, has decided to telephone Lindner and accept his offer.
In the final scene, Lena insists that Travis witness his father’s degradation in accepting payment from “the Man” under these circumstances, which causes another reversal for Walter Lee. He cannot bear to see his son present as he exchanges his manhood for money, so he tells Lindner that they are a plain but proud family who will try to be good neighbors. As the moving men arrive, the Youngers begin their move to Clybourne Park.