The Play (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
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,...
(The entire section is 532 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of this article. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
Form and Content (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series, Supplement)
A Raisin in the Sun is a three-act play set entirely in the Younger family’s Chicago tenement apartment. As the play opens, Walter Younger, Sr., referred to as “Big Walter,” has recently died, leaving his widow, Lena, a life insurance policy worth $10,000. Lena wants to use the money as a down payment on a house in the suburbs so that her family can leave its crowded, shabby apartment. Lena’s son, Walter, wants to invest the money in a liquor store so that he can quit his job as a rich white man’s chauffeur and become his own boss. Beneatha, Walter’s younger sister, a college student, wants to use part of the money to pay for her medical school tuition. Ruth, Walter’s pregnant wife, sides with Lena.
The debate over how to spend the insurance money threatens to destroy the Younger family. Walter insults his sister by telling her to forget about medical school and become a nurse or get married like other women. Lena expresses misgivings about Walter’s plan to invest in the liquor business, and he, in turn, accuses his mother of destroying his dream of becoming a successful businessman and providing for his family. When Lena refuses to give Walter the $10,000 that he needs for his investment, he stops working and starts drinking heavily. Ruth considers having an abortion because she does not want to add another family member to the Youngers’ crowded apartment.
Watching her family unravel, Lena attempts a compromise that...
(The entire section is 580 words.)
Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*Chicago’s Southside. Primarily African American neighborhood of Chicago in which members of three generations of the Younger family struggle against poverty and racism. Recently widowed Lena Younger, her children Beneatha and Walter Lee, and Walter’s wife Ruth and son, Travis, occupy a three-room apartment with a bathroom down the hall that they share with other tenants. With its worn furniture and limited natural light, the apartment reflects the disappointment and growing despair of the family.
An expected insurance check has Walter Lee planning a business venture, but the scheme involves disreputable characters and the sale of liquor. Realizing that the cramped quarters of the apartment is detrimental to her family in much the same way that it is harmful to a houseplant that she is trying to nurture, Lena uses half the insurance money as a down payment on a three-bedroom house in Clybourne Park with a yard large enough for a garden.
Clybourne Park. White residential area of Chicago in which Lena makes a down payment on a house. Not considering the potential racial problems her family may face, she chooses the neighborhood because she wants “the nicest place for the least amount of money” for her family. After she makes the down payment, however, the Youngers are visited by a man representing Clybourne Park’s white residents, who offers to buy the house back at a price that will give them a profit. Walter Lee, who has squandered half the insurance payment in a bad investment, considers the offer but ultimately decides that his family has earned the right to live in a better neighborhood. As Lena leaves the family’s South Side apartment, she takes her plant, suggesting that it and her family will thrive in the sunlight of the new house. (When Lorraine Hansberry was a child, her father tried to move his family into a white neighborhood and had to win a court case to do so.)
The Play (Masterplots II: Drama)
A Raisin in the Sun opens at dawn, in the shabby South Side apartment of the Younger family, which will remain the sole setting of the play. It is Friday, and Ruth Younger, the wife of Walter, rises and wakes her ten-year-old son, Travis, who is sleeping in the middle of the living room. The living room has seen better days, as have the furnishings. In the rear is a kitchenette. To the left is the bedroom of Lena Younger, the matriarch of the family, and her daughter Beneatha. To the right is the bedroom of Ruth and Walter.
After Travis is sent off to school, Walter, a lean, intense man in his middle thirties, begins complaining that Ruth does everything to keep him from getting ahead. He mentions that his friend Willy Harris wants to buy a liquor store and has asked Walter and Bobo, another friend, to become partners. When Ruth scoffs at the plan, Walter angrily charges that all black women seek to keep their men down. Then Walter quarrels with Beneatha, who has emerged from her bedroom, over the fact that Mama Younger is paying for Beneatha’s college education. Beneatha hopes to become a doctor. She insists that it is her mother’s right to do as she pleases with her money, including the life-insurance money Mama Younger will get (Walter and Beneatha’s father has recently died). The expected ten thousand dollars should be Mama’s to do with as she pleases and, Beneatha adds, should not be used for any of Walter’s harebrained schemes. Walter, in anger, slams out of the flat.
Lena Younger, the mother, now issues from her bedroom. A dignified, white-haired woman in her sixties, she is an indulgent mother. She mourns her late husband, Walter, and the plans for the children both had made. Beneatha speaks proudly of her plans to become a doctor and makes an antireligious remark, quickly recanted at her mother’s insistence. Beneatha, humbled, leaves. Mama and Ruth discuss plans for a home of their own, and Mama waters the bedraggled plant that symbolizes her hopes for a garden of her own. Suddenly Ruth becomes ill and sinks into a chair.
The next morning, while Mama and Beneatha are spraying for vermin, Ruth appears in the doorway. The doctor has pronounced her pregnant. This fact is no joy to Ruth, who collapses in tears when Beneatha makes an unkind remark. Beneatha is visited by a Nigerian student, Joseph Asagai, who brings a Nigerian dress and headdress as a gift for her. He encourages her not to abandon her black heritage and expresses fondness for her. After he leaves, the...
(The entire section is 1036 words.)
Dramatic Devices (Masterplots II: Drama)
Lorraine Hansberry uses few innovative dramatic devices in A Raisin in the Sun. Her play rests on tried-and-true methods of the domestic drama, with loud and emotional confrontations, as well as clear individual portraits. The setting remains the same throughout the play—the Youngers’ apartment in Chicago’s ghetto.
Ruth, a calm young woman who is rapidly growing old in her life with Walter, provides a contrast with her husband, who is emotional and unreasonable. Mama herself is a counter to her two children, both of whom are high-strung and self-willed. Mama remains solid and hard-thinking when dealing with difficult problems, although she is clearly too indulgent with Walter and Beneatha.
One device is used openly: the symbol of Mama’s plant. The poor, fragile houseplant is Mama’s symbol of the future, of her house-to-be, where she will have a garden of her own. The plant, at the end of the play, is almost forgotten by Mama when she leaves, but she returns to take it with her.
Diction also is a dramatic device that Hansberry uses to reveal her characters. Joseph Asagai speaks in an inflated language that promises great and wonderful things, but he has also a bit of the fraud in him. Beneatha, who is a college student, speaks with an educated diction; in stage directions, however, Hansberry directs the actress to keep in mind the family’s Southern origins. Walter uses the language of the ghetto but is contemptuous of the subservient language he must use as a chauffeur, when addressing his employers.
Form and Content (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
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...
(The entire section is 1202 words.)
Context (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Hansberry’s influence in the theater in terms of black performers and black audiences—who saw themselves truthfully presented onstage for the first time in A Raisin in the Sun—was far greater than might seem to be the case. By 1959, Hansberry had attained fame as the youngest American and the only black dramatist to win the Best Play of the Year award. A Raisin in the Sun ran for 530 performances, toured extensively, and has been published and produced in more than thirty countries. In it, she raised the issues of racism and segregation, showing their negative influence on all of American society. She also illustrated the stereotypical hierarchy common in African American families that lack a father-figure,...
(The entire section is 261 words.)
Act I, Scene 1: Questions and Answers
1. Why does Ruth scramble Walter’s eggs, even though he says does not want them scrambled? What does this indicate about their relationship and about whether or not they try to listen to one another?
2. Why does Ruth tell Travis to get his mind off the money that is coming the next day? What does this indicate about Travis?
3. Why does Walter give his son more money than he needs for school? How does this leave Walter, in terms of money he himself needs in order to get to work? What does this indicate about Walter’s personality?
4. What rift is indicated between Ruth and Walter when she says to him, “You mean graft?”, when he talks of how he plans to get his...
(The entire section is 1267 words.)
Act I, Scene 2: Questions and Answers
1. Which theme that has been raised before is referred to in the reference to roaches “marching…like Napoleon”? Who was Napoleon? What relevance might references to him have for this play?
2. What issue in particular is alluded to when Beneatha says, “All everyone seems to know about when it comes to Africa is ‘Tarzan’”?
3. What recurring theme is alluded to when Beneatha says, while talking about how missionaries save people, “I’m afraid they need more salvation from the British and the French”?
4. In terms of the imagery associated with the rat Travis and other children are chasing, what deeper meaning do you think might be conveyed by Travis’s...
(The entire section is 827 words.)
Act II, Scene 1: Questions and Answers
1. What significance for their continued relationship do you think it has that Beneatha prepares to go out to a play with George Murchison in the dress that Joseph Asagai got for her?
2. What do you think has prompted Beneatha to cut her hair short and into an “Afro” hairstyle?
3. Do you think politics is the only reason Beneatha declares she hates assimilationists? If not, what could another factor be?
4. What does it show about Ruth’s awareness of racial tensions that in a casual chat with George Murchison she refers to bombings?
5. What do you think prompts Walter to assert that he has been to New York plenty of times when his wife flatly...
(The entire section is 829 words.)
Act II, Scene 2: Questions and Answers
1. What qualities do we see in George Murchison at the beginning of the scene that Beneatha might not like?
2. Why does Beneatha refer to him as a fool, when speaking of him to her mother? In what ways would she consider him foolish?
3. When Mrs. Johnson says, “I’m just soooooo happy for y’all,” do you think she is being honest or hypocritical? What later actions or words of hers either confirm or deny that she is speaking honestly here?
4. Why do Mama and Ruth roll their eyes before offering Mrs. Johnson the coffee? What do you think they are reacting to?
5. Why do you think Beneatha greets Mrs. Johnson so curtly? Why does Mrs. Younger object?...
(The entire section is 718 words.)
Act II, Scene 3: Questions and Answers
1. Why does Walter say, “Even the N double A C P takes a holiday sometimes…?” What is the NAACP, and what does his referring to it show about his changing attitude?
2. When Beneatha answers him, “Sticks and stones may break my bones…” what are we reminded of?
3. Why do you think Karl Lindner goes to such lengths to talk about everybody getting along before he gets to his reason for talking to them?
4. Who catches on first to what his purpose in talking to them is about? How do you know?
5. What is so cruelly ironic in Lindner statement: “They’re not rich and fancy people; just hard-working, honest people who don’t really have much but...
(The entire section is 735 words.)
Act III: Questions and Answers
1.What do you think accounts for Beneatha’s deep pessimism at the beginning of the act? Do you think it is all because of the lost money?
2. What qualities do we see in Joseph Asagai which enable him to break through Beneatha’s mood to consider her own self-pity?
3. Reading between the lines, so to speak, what does it say about whether or not Beneatha has really given up on medical school, when she refers, even mockingly, to curing “the great sore of Colonialism…with the Penicillin of Independence”?
4. Why do you think the word, “end” appears four times in the top half of page 134? What does this signify?
5. Do you see any symbolism in Asagai...
(The entire section is 823 words.)
Compare and Contrast
Topics for Further Study
What Do I Read Next?
Bibliography and Further Reading
Bibliography (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
Abramson, Doris. Negro Playwrights in the American Theater: 1925-1959. New York: Columbia University Press, 1969. The definitive work in African American drama. Treats the origin and development of the black drama—its structure, themes, innovations, and impact—from its nineteenth century beginnings through Hansberry.
Bennett, Lerone, Jr., and Margaret G. Burroughs. “A Lorraine Hansberry Rap.” Freedomways 19, no. 4 (1979): 226-233. A discussion between Bennett, a historian and editor of Ebony magazine, and Burroughs, an artist and teacher. The article focuses on Hansberry’s career, with much of the discussion...
(The entire section is 484 words.)