Summary of the Play
The play begins with a typical early weekday morning in the life of the Younger family. The household prepares for work and for school. Some of the talk is about a check which they expect to receive the next day. It is from the insurance policy of Mr. Walter Younger, Sr., who has died. Each member of the family has his or her own ideas about how to use the money.
Two gentleman friends of Beneatha visit her: Joseph Asagai, and George Murchison. Ruth is pregnant and may want an abortion. Walter drinks heavily and argues with Murchison about the latter’s pretensions, in Walter’s opinion, as well as with Beneatha about her plans for medical school and with his wife and mother about his desire to open a liquor store with some of the money Mrs. Younger will receive.
Mama places a down payment on a house. She has always wanted her own home, with a garden in the back. Ruth is happy and decides not to have the abortion, but Walter is upset because he wants money for his liquor enterprise.
A few weeks later, Beneatha stops seeing George Murchison because he does not understand her ideals, hopes, or dreams. Walter is in danger of losing his job because when drunk, he does not show up for work. The Youngers’ neighbor, Mrs. Johnson, visits to tell them that more black families’ homes have recently been bombed in white neighborhoods. The neighborhood the Youngers plan to move to is all-white.
Walter, constantly drunk, gets Mama worried, and she agrees to give him money for his liquor store.
A week later, the family gets an unexpected visit. A white man representing a neighborhood organization from the area the Youngers plan to move to has come to talk to them. His name is Karl Lindner. He tells them that the residents of the area, Clybourne Park, want to pay them not to move in. Walter throws the man out of the house.
Bobo, Walter’s friend visits. He tells them that the money Walter gave him for the liquor store, as well as more money meant for Beneatha’s education, is gone because the man Bobo gave it to hold has disappeared with it. The family is thrown into an uproar at hearing this bad news.
Asagai visits Beneatha and reminds her that her future does not depend solely on her mother paying for medical school; he asks her to go to Africa with him when she becomes a doctor. Mrs. Younger prepares to forget about the move. Walter says he will accept the offer of money not to move from Mr. Lindner.
Mr. Lindner comes to enact the deal. But in the process of talking to Mr. Lindner, there is a transformation in Walter, and remembering what his father had to go through to provide for his family, and how the rest of the family struggles to survive and to fulfill their aspirations, he changes his mind and tells Mr. Lindner they will not accept his offer.
The play ends as the family starts the move to Clybourne Park. It will not be easy for them to live there because of the prejudice they will face, but they decide to move forward in spite of it.
Robert Nemiroff’s critique of the pertinence of Ms. Hansberry’s writing to the universals indicative of all great literature:
If we ever reach a time when the racial madness that afflicts America is at last truly behind us—as obviously we must if we are to survive in a world composed four-fifths of people of color—then I believe A Raisin in the Sun will remain no less pertinent. For at the deepest level it is not a specific situation but the human condition, human aspiration and human relationships—the persistence of dreams, of bonds and conflicts between men and women, parents and children, old ways and new, and the endless struggle against human oppression, whatever the forms it may take, and for individual fulfillment, recognition, and liberation—that are at the heart of such plays. It is not surprising therefore that in each generation we recognize ourselves in them anew.
The Life and Work of Lorraine Hansberry
Lorraine Hansberry was born in 1930, and was the first African-American woman to win the Best American Play award from the New York Drama Critics Circle. She was the fifth woman and the youngest American to ever have done so. She was given this award for her play, A Raisin in the Sun, which was written when she was in her twenties, and was first performed on Broadway in 1959.
Lorraine Hansberry started writing when she was a young woman. When she was 22 years old, she declared to her later-to-be husband, Robert Nemiroff:
I am a writer. I am going to write!
Her husband then later became her literary executor (the person in charge of handling her writing) after her early death due to cancer, when she was 34 years old.
When she was a college student, she wrote a piece for her school magazine which foretold the driving concerns which would form the basis for A Raisin in the Sun:
What is it exactly that we Negroes want to see on the screen? The answer is simple reality. We want to see film about a people who live and work like everybody else, but who currently must battle fierce oppression to do so.
Even so, when she had completed writing A Raisin in the Sun, Ms. Hansberry could not quite believe what she had accomplished. As described in her autobiographical work To Be Young, Gifted and Black:
...I had turned the last page out of the typewriter and pressed all the sheets neatly together in a pile, and gone and stretched out face down on the living room floor. I had finished a play; a play I had no reason to think or not think would ever be done; a play that I was sure no one would quite understand...
Where did Lorraine Hansberry get the impetus to carry forward her vision through her writing? As Robert Nemiroff related it, she “had herself as a child been almost killed in such a real-life story”4 as the one depicted in her play.
In addition to these works, Ms. Hansberry also wrote another play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, a novel Les Blancs, and Lorraine Hansberry: The Collected Last Plays, in addition to numerous magazine and newspaper articles, and other work in progress, left unfinished when she died. No matter how famous Ms. Hansberry became, though, and no matter how much she achieved during her brief lifetime, she never forgot her commitment to carrying forward her ideals to the young people who would follow her.
When she died, her ex-husband inscribed these lines from her Brustein play on her tombstone:
I care. I care about it all. It takes too much energy not to care…the why of why we are here is an intrigue for adolescents; the how is what must command the living.
Estimated Reading Time
The play is about 150 pages long. It should, therefore, take an average student five or six hours to read.
It is suggested that the reading of the play be broken down into the following sittings:
1 hour: Act I, Scene 1
1 hour: Act I, Scene 2
1 hour: Act II, Scene 1
45 minutes: Act II, Scene 2
45 minutes: Act II, Scene 3
1 hour: Act III Scene 1
This is a total of five-and-a-half hours total reading time; students should set aside more time than that for class assignments and studying of various aspects of the play as indicated by their coursework.
This MAXnotes study guide is based on the 1987 Penguin edition, A Raisin in the Sun: The Complete Original Version.
A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry’s most celebrated play, is a realistic portrait of a working-class black family struggling to achieve the American Dream of careers and home ownership while gripped by the reality of their lives as African Americans who must survive in a racist society.
Hansberry based her play on her knowledge of life in Chicago’s black ghetto and the families to whom her father, a successful real estate broker, rented low-income housing. The action takes place in the cramped, roach-infested apartment of the Youngers, where three generations of the family have resided for years. With the death of her husband, Lena (Mama) becomes the head of the family. She has the right to decide how to use the 10,000 in life insurance money that has come with her husband’s death.
Tensions develop quickly. Mama dreams of using the money to move out of the apartment into a new, large home where her family can breathe the free, clean air outside the ghetto. Her son Walter, seeing himself as the new head of the family, envisions the money as a way to free himself and his family from poverty by investing in a liquor store. Walter’s intellectual sister hopes the windfall may be a way for her to break racist and sexist barriers by getting a college education and becoming a doctor.
As the play unfolds, Hansberry explores issues of African American identity, pride, male-female relationships within the black family, and the problems of segregation. Mama makes a down payment on a house in a white neighborhood. Fearing that her exercise of authority will diminish her son’s sense of masculine self-worth, and in spite of her opposition to buying a liquor store, she reminds Walter of his sister’s right to some of the money for a college education and entrusts him with what is left of the money after the down payment. When he returns despairingly after losing all of it, he considers that the only way to recoup the loss is to humiliate himself and his family by making a deal with the Clybourne Park Association, a group of white homeowners who want to buy back the new home in order to keep their neighborhood white.
In a dramatic conclusion, the disillusioned Walter enacts the dilemma of the modern African American male. Trapped at the bottom of the economic ladder, he must again submit to matriarchal authority. Mama despairs at having to take control and wield the authority she knows is destroying her son’s masculine identity. Walter finally realizes that he cannot accept the degradation he would bring upon himself, his family, and his father’s memory by accepting the association’s offer. Discovering his manhood and his responsibility to his family and his race, he refuses to sell back the house. When the association’s representative appeals to Mama to reverse her son’s decision, she poignantly and pridefully says, “I am afraid you don’t understand. My son said we was going to move and there ain’t nothing left for me to say.” The play closes with the family leaving their cramped apartment for their new home and the challenges that surely await them there.