How does the setting of the apartment reflect the family's problems in Hansberry's play A Raisin in the Sun?

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tmcquade eNotes educator| Certified Educator

At the beginning of Act I, Hansberry spends a significant amount of time describing the Younger's apartment.  This apartment in many ways reflects the problems the family faces - it is overcrowded, "tired" and worn out, poverty-stricken, and lacking in light. 

The author sets the stage with her opening words:

The Younger living room would be a comfortable and well-ordered room if it were not for a number of indestructible contradictions to this state of being.  Its furnishings are typical and undistinguished and their primary feature now is that they have clearly had to accommodate the living of too many people for too many years - and they are tired (23).

This is an apartment designed for far fewer people.  Mama and Beneatha are forced to share a bedroom, Walter and Beneatha sleep in what used to be a breakfast room, and Travis must sleep on the couch - which creates issues when the adults are up late talking, as Walter was the night before.  It is this sense of the apartment being already overcrowded that leads Ruth to later think of getting an abortion.  To make matters worse, they must share a single bathroom with another couple on their floor.

The apartment, Hansberry points out, was not always this way:

At some time ... the furnishings of this room were actually selected with care and love and even hope - and brought to this apartment and arranged with taste and pride (23).

Mama and her husband moved into this apartment many years before, thinking it would only be a temporary residence until they could buy themselves a house.  That dream never materialized, so now, many years later, she is still living in the same apartment - with three generations forced to make the best they can of a difficult situation.  They have tried to cover over the worn-out quality of the apartment:

And here a table or a chair has been moved to disguise the worn places in the carpet; but the carpet has fought back by showing its weariness, with depressing uniformity, elsewhere on its surface.... Weariness has, in fact, won in this room (23-24).

Just as they have had to "patch over" the problems in their apartment, they have often had to patch over the problems in their lives - and many of the family members are feeling tired and weary of their life of poverty.

The poverty of the neighborhood also is apparent in the fact that Travis and some of other neighborhood children find excitement in chasing a rat around the street, and the family must battle the cockroaches that keep taking over their apartment.  The sight of Travis chasing the rat makes Ruth even more desperate to move away from this apartment.

Finally, the fact that there is only one window in the apartment adds to the dark and gloomy atmosphere.  Mama makes the most of the window by keeping her plant on the windowsill, where it can get the light it needs to grow.  Ruth needs more - and when she hears about the new house from Mama, one of her first questions is, "Is there a whole lot of sunlight?" (94).

When the family finally leaves their worn-out apartment for their new house, they are saying goodbye to this life of overcrowding, weariness, poverty, and darkness, and hello to their dreams and hopes for a better tomorrow.  Clearly there are many questions and uncertainties ahead, including the prejudice they know they will face, but they believe this new setting will make all the difference in their lives.