Are the characters in A Raisin in the Sun stereotypes?
One of Lorraine Hansberry’s greatest accomplishments was writing a play that is meant to be performed and holds the audience’s attention while at the same time a document that communicates important social messages. Some of the characters are more fully developed than others, and a few stereotypical figures are included, but for the most part the central characters seem very real. Some of their perspectives are unique and well thought through, while others are quick reactions based on emotion rather than logic—in the ways, they are very human. It is also vital to keep in mind the pioneering role of this play when it premiered in the 1950s, when characters now familiar were literally never seen on Broadway.
Beneatha, the character that Hansberry modeled on herself, is a confused teenager. Although she has had enough academic success to get into college, and knows the financial burden it puts on her family, she still is growing both intellectually and emotionally. Her changing involvement with Joseph and George, which leaves the audience wondering if she will uproot herself and move to Africa, give the play a subplot so interesting that it often rivals the central plot.
Walter and Ruth together, perhaps more than individually, come to life as a couple struggling on many levels. Although Walter has some old-fashioned notions and does not want his wife to work, his desire to succeed as a business owner resonates with many versions of the American Dream. Ruth worries about her family’s future, so much so that she considers not having a second child because they find it so difficult to raise just one.
The character of Lena is in some ways the most problematic but may not have been so 50 years ago when this play was written. The strong black matriarch, holding her family together against all odds, has since become a stereotype. As a leading character in a play—especially one that ran on Broadway—there was no antecedent to Lena in the 1950s.
The minor characters, even though they play key roles, tend to be underdeveloped. These include Travis, Walter’s friend Bobo, and Mr. Linder from the Clybourne Park Homeowners Association (the only white character).
In my mind, a stereotype reduces complexity in characters. It is a caricature, a way to represent someone without the intricacies and full layers to what it means to be human. I don't think that the characters in Hansberry's work are stereotypes because they are shown to be round and fluid, individuals who endure a great deal of change and make critical decisions at pointed moments. Walter is struggling, and like many other men of color, finds that the personal and private worlds he inhabits possess challenge. Yet, when faced with the critical decision, he acts in the interests of family, rejects quick money, and stands up for the emotional bonds that connect him. This would defy the stereotype. Ruth does not have the abortion, defying the stereotype again, and recognizing that there is hope for the new child entering the world. Mama Younger does not disappear from the family's decision making process, but rather invests in its future. These are characters that are placed in stereotypically challenging situations. However, their actions reveal unique individual responses to these contexts.