Abstract illustration of the houses of Clybourne Park

A Raisin in the Sun

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

The Younger's apartment represents the deferred dream to which the play’s title alludes, and when Lena Younger succeeds in buying a house, she achieves the long-time dream that she and Walter Sr. had shared. The over-crowded apartment, its worn-out contents, and the building and neighborhood in which the apartment is located all have important effects on the Younger family. The apartment reveals the financial and racial obstacles and limitations that the family members have faced.

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When Walter Younger, Sr. was alive, he and his wife Lena moved into a small apartment and dreamed of one day buying a house. As the family grew and Walter, Jr. married, his wife, Ruth, joined them in living in the apartment. The furniture and other possessions that they bought new have become old and worn out. Walter, Sr. died never having achieved the dream of home ownership. Lena holds onto that dream, however, and she is determined to use the life insurance money to achieve it. The racial composition of the apartment building and the neighborhood is not discussed until late in the play. After Lena announces her decision to move to a different area, it becomes clear that their current neighborhood has a predominantly African-American population, while the residents of Clybourne Park are all white.

Financial limitations are the primary obstacle that prevents Lena and her children from moving to a larger space or spaces. The apartment is too small for the number of people who live there, but Walter and Ruth cannot afford a separate apartment, and their incomes also help Lena with expenses. Not only does their son, Travis, not have his own bedroom, but everyone must share a bathroom. Beneatha has decided to attend college, and her mother supports that decision, so she is not working, at least during the school year.

The neighborhood in which the building is located has declined considerably since they moved into the apartment., In one scene, Travis tells his horrified mother that he and his friends have been playing outside with a rat. While it is not clear if the landlord or the city is responsible for the conditions, the streets and alleys are obviously not being properly maintained. Only by leaving the neighborhood as well as the apartment itself can Lena create the kind of home she longs to provide for her family.

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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. 

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The inner-city Chicago tenement apartment of the Younger family once reflected promise and dreams, but now it is crowded with "dreams deferred" and only a limited amount of sunshine and hope.

At one time the furnishings were attractive and indicative of good taste, but now they are worn and faded and covered with crocheted doilies. Not only is the couch worn, it seems tired as it is used both day and night. This is Walter Lee's bed since the breakfast room has been converted into a bedroom for Ruth and Walter. Tables and chairs are arranged to cover worn spots in the carpet. With only one bathroom, too, the family members really have little privacy.

Clearly, the apartment evinces dreams that have not come to fruition. With a son who is ten years old, Walter should have his own place; Mama has lost her husband, and she is burdened with having her children under her roof--Beneatha shares the bedroom with her--and all that she owns is worn and weary. Suggestive of the trapped lives that dwell in this apartment is the single window in which a lone plant seeks the sunshine. Nevertheless, it lives, so there is still yearning in the hearts of the family members. Reflective of this worn and weary atmosphere that yet holds some hope is Walter's morning remarks to Ruth at the beginning of the play. He sees the youthful potential in her, but only momentarily:

WALTER Just for a second--stirrin' them eggs. Just for a second it was--you looked real young again (He reaches for her; she crosses away. Then drily) It's gone now--you look like yourself again!

As desperate for change as the worn-out furniture, the Youngers have been keeping their youthful dreams limited to a single window that sheds only a dim light. They are living, but they need to flourish. 

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