Last Updated on July 23, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1827
Mrs. Lena Younger (Mama): a woman in her sixties, employed as a domestic worker, mother of Walter and Beneatha, grandmother to Travis
Walter Lee (Brother): a man of 35, employed as a chauffeur, married to Ruth, brother of Beneatha, father to Travis
Beneatha: a 20-year-old young lady, college student, sister to Walter Lee, planning to go to medical school after college
Ruth: a woman in her early thirties, employed as a domestic worker, married to Walter, mother to Travis, sister-in-law to Beneatha
Travis: a boy about 10 years old, son of Walter and Ruth, grandson of Mrs. Lena Younger
The play opens on a typical early morning during the week, as the Younger family gets ready to go to school and work. After a reference to another bombing (referring to a racist attack on a Black church or family), the family makes preparations for the day. Mention is also made of a check the family expects to receive the next day. It is for the life insurance of the elder, deceased, Mr. Walter Younger.
Travis wants 50 cents for school, which the teacher has asked the students to bring in. Ruth says they do not have the money to spare. Travis asks if he can go carry groceries after school to earn some money, but his mother wants him to come home right after school. His father gives him the 50 cents and another 50 cents in addition, before Travis leaves for school.
Walter and Ruth then talk, and he discusses his scheme for a liquor store he wants to open with some of the insurance money. Ruth dislikes the idea for many reasons, as well as the idea of his getting involved with the men he wants as partners in the liquor business. Walter feels she does not understand him or his dreams, but she wants a life with more respectability than the one her husband envisions with his dream of a liquor business.
Then Beneatha, Walter’s sister, gets up. Walter goads her about her plans for medical school, and it is apparent that this is a long-standing topic of debate between them. He feels she wants the family to make continued sacrifices for her and resents her claim on any of the insurance money for continuing her education. He feels she should stop expecting them to do anymore than they already have for her. Beneatha, however, does not like the idea of Walter’s investing in a liquor store.
When Walter is leaving for work, he finds he must ask his wife for carfare because he has given Travis too much money for school.
Mrs. Younger arises. She asked what the ruckus was before, and Ruth tells her that Walter and Beneatha were arguing again. Mama spends some time caring for her plant, and talks with Ruth about the ironing that they will be doing, and about Travis’s breakfast. She wants to know what Walter and Beneatha were arguing about, and guesses correctly that it is about the money they expect tomorrow, and the way it will be spent.
Then Ruth bluntly asks Mrs. Younger how the money will be spent, as Walter had earlier asked her to. Mama, however, objects to talking about money so early in the morning. She answers, “It ain’t Christian.”
Nevertheless, Ruth presses the point because Walter wants money for the liquor store business. Mama does not approve of using the money for such a purpose, though.
It is then apparent that Ruth is tired, so Mama suggests she stay home from work. Ruth says no, however, because she feels she might lose her job if she does.
They again discuss the $10,000 check due the next day, and Mama reveals that she has always wanted a house with a garden in the back that she could work in. She then reflects on her life when her husband was alive, how they struggled, and how they lost a baby.
Following this, Mama and Beneatha argue because Mrs. Younger does not like the things Beneatha is saying, and feels her daughter is taking the name of the Lord in vain. Beneatha states her age, 20 years old, as proof of her right to speak the way she wishes, but her mother feels it has nothing to do with age. They then discuss why Beneatha seems to flit from hobby to hobby, some of which are very expensive, such as horseback riding. She maintains this is the way she can express herself, but that causes the two other women to laugh.
They also discuss one of Beneatha’s gentlemen friends, George Murchison, who is wealthy. Beneatha considers him to have superficial values, however, but her mother and sister-in-law are amazed that she doesn’t want to marry him just because he is rich. Beneatha astounds them even more by declaring that she doesn’t even know if she’ll marry at all; what is more important to her at this stage of her life is going to medical school and becoming a doctor.
When her mother says that of course Beneatha will be a doctor, “God willing,” Beneatha says that God doesn’t have anything to do with it. Mrs. Younger is outraged this time at her daughter’s continued lack of respect for the Lord, and after an argument about this, she slaps her grown daughter.
This only makes Beneatha more bitter, instead of feeling she was reprimanded for good cause. She refers to her mother, in what she says to Ruth, as a tyrant. She then says, “But all the tyranny in the world will never put a God in the heavens!”
Then Beneatha goes off to school, and Mama confides to Ruth that her children frighten her. She feels they have no respect for the kinds of struggles she and her husband went through to raise their children. As Mama looks at her plant and sprinkles a bit of water on it, she does not notice that Ruth is trying to maintain her balance, and has had to stop her ironing. As the scene ends, Ruth starts to faint and slips to the floor, as Mrs. Younger cries out, “Ruth! Ruth honey—what’s the matter with you…Ruth!”
The title of A Raisin in the Sun comes from a 1951 poem by Langston Hughes entitled “Montage of a Dream Deferred,” which appears at the very beginning of the play:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
Like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
Like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
Many of the conflicts depicted in the first scene of the play relate to this theme of dreams deferred. For instance, there is the conflict between Walter’s dream of a liquor store and his wife’s pragmatism and desire for respectability, as reflected in this exchange:
Ruth: Eat your eggs, they gonna be cold.
Walter: That’s it. There you are. Man say to his woman: I got me a dream. His woman say: Eat your eggs...Man say: I got to take hold of this here world, baby! And a woman will say: Eat your eggs and go to work...Man say: I got to change my life, I’m choking to death, baby! And his woman say—your eggs is getting cold!
It is important to analyze actions and motives of characters in order to come to an understanding of what the author intends to convey. It is highly significant that some of the first words in Scene 1 refer to the check the family expects to receive the next day, as well as a series of bombings (racist attacks on Black churches and homes) in the news. This sets the tone for two indicative themes in the play, that of how the family will use the insurance money, and the danger Blacks are in while living in a society that tolerates racism. These themes will appear over and over again in the work.
Another aspect of the play which surfaces early is the extent to which the family members have conflicts and clashes with each other. These collisions emerge over and over again, as well. For instance:
1. There are variances as to the kinds of lives the members of the family want to lead. For example, Ruth longs for tranquillity and respectability, but her husband wants success in the form of material prosperity, seemingly at any expense. Beneatha wants to be a doctor but her mother and Ruth cannot understand that for her that is a more pressing matter than whether or not she gets married.
2. There are also religious disagreements between Mama and Beneatha, with Mrs. Younger representing traditional Christian values, and Beneatha standing for the beliefs of people who hold no conventional religious convictions at all. While this shows severe discord between the two characters (so extreme that it results in Beneatha’s getting her face slapped by Mama), it also sets a precedent for the examination of serious moral issues in the work. The family’s ethical dilemmas and situations, when they appear in the play, then, are heralded by the religious dispute in the first scene.
3. The minor bickering over how Travis should be reared (whether or not he can have 50 cents for school, whether or not he should be eating cereal rather than eggs) sets the tone for reflection upon how future generations of Black people should conduct themselves, and whether or not what is taking place now in Black people’s lives is good for them as they head toward the future. Reverberations of this theme will be seen many times throughout the course of this play.
4. The very placement of so many conflicts among the characters so early in the work sets the tone for the expectation in the audience of struggle and disharmony as the play continues. We are introduced very early to the fact that although these people love each other, they have great difficulty in expressing themselves to each other, and in overcoming some despair about realizing their own individual goals within the context of competing goals and aspirations of their family members. This theme of discord and disharmony is also significant as it appears very early in the work, for it leads us to the expectation of a great deal of frustration in the Younger family’s attempts to communicate with each other. This expectation is also borne out as the play progresses, and is indicative of the wider struggle the Youngers face as they attempt to survive in a society which is hostile to people such as themselves, for purely racial reasons.
These major themes, then (struggle, injustice, frustration, miscommunication, clashes in moral values), inform a great deal of the material of the work. The action and dialogue in the remainder of the play after this scene will reflect these concerns.
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