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 $10,000 life insurance policy as security for them.
Beneatha and Walter Lee, on the other hand, are more selfish in their concerns. Beneatha squanders money on frivolous pursuits and devotes her attention to her personal relationships, while Walter is oblivious to the needs of everyone else, with the possible exception of his son, in his obsession with the dream of becoming a businessman. Travis, in typical childlike fashion, manipulates all the adults in the play in order to achieve his own ends.
Ideological conflicts also abound, feeding into the major theme of the novel. Beneatha, having been newly exposed to some radical ideas in the university setting, has abandoned the God-centered Christian faith of her mother and has embraced atheism, or at least secular humanism. The major clash between these two ideologies comes in a dramatic scene in which Mama forces Beneatha to acknowledge, at least verbally, the existence of God by forcing her to repeat the phrase “In my mother’s house, there is always God.” In sharp contrast to Mama Younger’s philosophy of success through faith and hard work is Walter Lee’s philosophy of the “takers and the tooken.” He adopts this philosophy after being deceived by his friend, Willie. Mama Younger denounces this philosophy when, in a powerful speech reminding Walter Lee of his heritage, she says, “Son, I come from five generations of slaves and sharecroppers—but aint nobody in my family never let nobody pay ’em no money that was a way of telling us we wasn’t fit to walk the earth. We aint never been that poor.”
In George Murchison, a rich young African American college student, and Asagai, a poor Nigerian college student—both suitors of Beneatha—Hansberry focuses on the conflicts between wealth and position versus heritage and tradition. Murchison offers Beneatha a life of opulence and comfort, while Asagai offers her a life steeped in ancestral tradition but devoid of creature comforts. Hansberry does not attempt to resolve this conflict, choosing rather to leave Beneatha undecided at the end of the play, suggesting the difficulty of such a choice. The Beneatha-Asagai relationship also introduces into the drama the theme of pan-Africanism, a theme prevalent in African American drama of this period. Through the romantic involvement of these two, Hansberry manages to link the African struggle for independence with the African American struggle for self-identity and self-determination.
Furthermore, in her portrayal of Beneatha as a fiercely independent, self-assured woman, determined to succeed in the medical profession, Hansberry introduces the theme of feminism, a novel one at this time not only in African American literature but also in American literature in general. Even Walter Lee expresses the typical male-chauvinist point of view as he taunts Beneatha about her ambitions: “If you are going to medical school, why not be a nurse like everyone else.”
The feminist theme is enhanced by the portrayal of the two other women in the play. Each in her own way reflects some aspect of feminism. Lena Younger (Mama) is the epitome of the self-reliant woman, having worked side by side with her husband to provide for the family and continuing to be its stabilizing force. Ruth, on the other hand, seems to hold fairly traditional ideas about motherhood, but she finds herself, without the counsel of her husband, considering abortion as an alternative to bringing another child into the world. Although the abortion theme is merely touched on in this play, the way is opened for other writers to treat it more thoroughly in future plays.
In A Raisin in the Sun, Hansberry raises many issues of race, gender, family values, religion, and ethics. The play poses many more problems than it resolves or even attempts to resolve; therein lies the complexity and the realism of the drama.