Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun depicts a Chicago family trying to pull themselves out of poverty amid racism and the predatory practices of dishonest people. Ruth Younger, the matriarch of the family, is mother to Beneatha and Walter Lee.
Walter Lee and his sister Beneatha share a burning desire to escape their current lives. They are similar in that they are frustrated with the life their mother leads—it isn’t enough for them. Their mother understands to an extent, but wonders how her children have become so different from her.
The plot revolves around the life insurance money from their recently deceased father, Lena’s husband.
Both Beneatha and Walter Lee want to use the money to escape from their current situation. Walter Lee wants to make his way out by investing in a liquor store. Beneatha wants to go to medical school to become a doctor.
They are different in how they look at life. Beneatha has an appreciation for her family’s African heritage, but doesn’t really understand it. The character of Joseph Asagia helps illustrate this. She is frustrated with the attitude of her rich boyfriend George Murchison, who is only concerned about money and appearances.
Walter Lee, on the other hand, is fascinated by the Murchisons and their success. He sees their independence and wants the same thing for himself and his family. He chafes in his role as a driver for a rich white family. To him, business success is everything. He’s even willing to engage in bribing public officials to get a liquor license.
For much of the play, Walter Lee and Beneatha see each other as rivals. They can’t both use their father’s life insurance money for what they want. One of them will have to do without. Ruth, as the mother, controls the money, and she is siding with Beneatha. This rankles Walter Lee further, and makes him angry. At one point he criticizes Beneatha for being ungrateful for what others do for her. Beneatha responds sarcastically:
BENEATHA (Dropping to her knees)
Well – I do – all right? – thank everybody! And forgive me for ever wanting to be anything at all! (Pursuing him on her knees across the floor) FORGIVE ME, FORGIVE ME, FORGIVE ME!
Later in this argument, Walter Lee gets closer to the real reason for his anger, the fact that Beneatha wants to use the money for medical school:
Who the hell told you you had to be a doctor?
If you so crazy 'bout messing 'round with sick people
then go be a nurse like other women or just get
married and be quiet . . .
Walter Lee and Beneatha both want out of the life they lead now. But their circumstances dictate that they approach things in a different way. Beneatha, as s single woman, can afford to be idealistic and aloof. Walter Lee, with a wife and child, has more immediate, practical needs.