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.