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A Raisin in the Sun

by Lorraine Hansberry

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Why Does George Call Walter Prometheus

Why do you think George sarcastically says to Walter, "Good Night, Prometheus" in A Raisin in the Sun?

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Lorraine Hansberry’s play about a low-income African American family struggling to better itself in a predominantly white and racist world contrasts the intellectual underpinnings of those members of the family who lack formal education (especially the main protagonist, Walter, and culturally conservative Mama) with those who represent higher levels of academic achievement but who subscribe to vastly different perspectives on racial relations (mainly Beneatha and George). This contrast is a major component of A Raisin in the Sun and is nowhere better exhibited than in the brief exchange between Walter and George in act 2, scene 1, in which George, exiting the Younger family apartment with Beneatha, addresses Walter as “Prometheus.”

Prometheus is a figure from Greek mythology, a Titan who famously created humans and who, unforgivably, gave to his creation the instrument of fire. So, with that information in mind, our task is to understand Hansberry’s choice of Prometheus for this quick, seemingly innocuous exchange between George and Walter. Hansberry’s characters are a judgmental lot, each turning his or her nose down at others depending upon the context, which is usually centered on the distinctions mentioned above. Beneatha likes George, but not in any serious, romantic way:

George looks good—he’s got a beautiful car and he takes me to nice places and, as my sister-in-law says, he is probably the richest boy I will ever get to know and I even like him sometimes—but if the Youngers are sitting around waiting to see if their little Bennie is going to tie up the family with the Murchisons, they are wasting their time . . .

George and Walter share a mutual disregard for each other, Walter viewing George as the pompous blowhard he is, and George looking down on Walter from the socioeconomic perspective that differentiates these two African American men. Beneatha looks down upon any African American who does not embrace her vision of respect for heritage. In this sense, let us look at the first entrance of George early in act 2, scene 1. Walter greets George’s arrival with exaggerated rhetoric:

WALTER: Telling us to prepare for the GREATNESS OF THE TIME! (Lights back to normal. He turns and sees GEORGE) Black Brother! (He extends his hand for the fraternal clasp)

GEORGE Black Brother, hell!

During the action that follows, Walter broaches the subject of a business arrangement with George, who ignores the suggestion. George, with his white shoes and culturally superior demeanor (a rather artificial effort given George’s intellectually shallow nature, something upon which Beneatha commented earlier in the play), cannot be bothered with the uneducated and culturally inferior Walter. Their conversation becomes more heated and confrontational until George and Beneatha head out on their date, the former now addressing Walter as “Prometheus.” To understand Hansberry’s choice of this particular mythological figure, one needs to go beyond the initial description of Prometheus into the specifics of the punishment to which he was sentenced for the sin of stealing fire for the benefit of humanity. Prometheus was condemned to an eternity of being chained to a mountain, during which time an eagle eats his liver again and again. By using “Prometheus” in this context, George is suggesting that Walter is condemned to a lifetime (or eternity) of ignorance and poverty.

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At the end of act 2, scene 1, George Murchison visits the Younger apartment to pick Beneatha up for a date. While George waits for Beneatha to get ready, Walter begins criticizing him for his outfit and college education. Walter, who is intoxicated, continues to ridicule George by mocking his formal demeanor. Fortunately, George is able to keep his composure and tells Walter that he is full of bitterness. As George and Beneatha are leaving the apartment, George tells Walter, "Good night, Prometheus!" (Hansberry, 88)

George recognizes the similarities between Walter and Prometheus and is aware that Walter will not understand the reference. Prometheus was the Greek god, who stole fire from Mt. Olympus and gave it to mankind. Zeus ended up punishing Prometheus by chaining him to Mt. Caucasus, where an eagle tore out his liver each day after it regenerated.

Similar to Prometheus, Walter suffers every day at his unfulfilling job and ruins his liver by continually drinking alcohol. George Murchinson's comment is also another opportunity for him to display his intelligence as he sarcastically references the tortured Greek god. 

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As George waits for Beneatha to change into "proper attire" for the show, Walter talks to him about money and investments.  Walter is aware of the financial success of the Murchison family, and he tells George that he must have keen ideas about making money.  George wants little to do with this conversation, yet Walter continues and tells him that they must get together to talk about business plans.  George refuses the gesture, and Walter then rails him about his "useless" education and ideas.  Walter claims that George knows nothing about being a man, implying that he himself does.  On the way out, George calls Walter "Prometheus" as a sarcastic stab at his identity and as an element of foreshadowing

In Greek myth, Prometheus challenged the power of the gods and thought that he was being clever by stealing fire for humankind.  Similarly, Walter believes that his ideas trump those of his other family members including Mama, and he simply sees the outside world as an oppressive force rather than a path which he must learn to navigate.  For his actions, Prometheus is punished by the gods and must live in the recurring hell of having his liver eaten by birds; Walter later is punished by fate when he loses the family's money in an ill-planned scheme with Willie Harris and Bobo.  Walter can never get this money back and is destined to live with this guilt.

Walter, like Prometheus, is punished for believing that he is clever enough to trump higher powers with his simple plans.

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