Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
In 1957, when Lorraine Hansberry began work on A Raisin in the Sun, she titled it Crystal Stair, taken from a line in a Langston Hughes poem, “Mother to Son.” The final title, like the original one, also comes from a Hughes poem, “Harlem,” which asks the question, “What happens to a dream deferred/ Does it dry up like a raisin in the Sun?” Either title is appropriate, for certainly this is a play about a mother-son relationship, but it is no less a play about dreams, dreams too long deferred. These unfulfilled dreams are at the center of the play and are the source of the varied problems in the play. The manner in which Hansberry presents these problems and the skill with which she weaves them into the basic theme of the work attest the artistry of the playwright.
A Raisin in the Sun is rife with conflicts: generational conflicts, gender conflicts, ideological conflicts, and perhaps most important, conflicts of dreams, which are at the center of the play. By placing three generations in the same cramped quarters, Hansberry focuses dramatically on some of the essential differences between age and youth. Mama Younger’s concern is always for the welfare of her children. She wants to provide for Beneatha’s education and find a comfortable home for the family. She and her husband, Big Walter, had struggled to make life better for the children. Although he had literally worked himself to death, he had taken out the...
(The entire section is 880 words.)
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Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Drama)
A Raisin in the Sun deals with two problems: the discords of a family with high hopes, and the social injustice of segregation. The two Younger children, Beneatha and Walter, are both determined to improve their station in life. Walter, however, struggles only with dreams of success, while Beneatha realistically takes college courses that will lead to her becoming a doctor. In one way, both are fighting the oppression of racism, but it is Beneatha who seems coolly to understand that the oppression will be conquered only through hard work.
Wise enough to know that the family will survive only through wise management, Lena Younger uses her insurance money to buy a house. She has bought it, however, in a segregated area, and though she is willing to face that battle when it comes, the ominous appearance of Lindner, who wants to buy out the Youngers to avoid their moving it to Clybourne Park, threatens future difficulties.
Yet racial segregation is not the major theme of the play. The major theme is that families must remain united; when family members act selfishly, as Walter does when he takes his mother’s money and invests it in a fly-by-night scheme to buy a liquor store, the family may disintegrate. This very nearly happens to the Youngers. At the last minute, however, Walter realizes what he is doing and abruptly rejects Lindner’s offer (though he had threatened to accept it). The unity of the family is saved. The problem of...
(The entire section is 270 words.)
Race and Racism
The clear primary theme of A Raisin in the Sun has to do with race and racism. The Youngers live in a segregated neighborhood in a city that remains one of the most segregated in the United States. Virtually every act they perform is affected by their race. Ruth is employed as a domestic servant and Walter as a chauffeur in part because they are black—they are the servants, that is, of white people. They are limited to their poorly maintained apartment in part because they have low-paying jobs but also because absentee landlords often do not maintain their property. Travis chases a rat, while Beneatha and Mama attempt to eradicate cockroaches, both activities which would not occur in wealthier neighborhoods.
The most significant scene which openly portrays racism, however, is the visit with Karl Lindner. Although he does not identify himself as racist, and although his tactics are less violent than some, he wants to live in an all-white neighborhood—and he is willing to pay the Youngers off to stay out of white neighborhoods. This type of racism is often dangerous because it is more easily hidden.
Prejudice and Tolerance
Closely related to the theme of race and racism is the theme of prejudice and tolerance. Karl Lindner and his neighbors are clearly prejudiced against black people. Yet other forms of prejudice and intolerance also surface in the play. Walter responds to George Murchison...
(The entire section is 746 words.)