Act II, Scene 1: Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on July 23, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1290

New Character:

George Murchison: wealthy, college-educated gentleman friend of Beneatha

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Summary

As the scene opens, Ruth is again ironing later in the same day. Beneatha comes out of her room in Nigerian dress, which Asagai gave her, and puts on the records of African music. Ruth admires the African garb and enjoys the music with Beneatha.

Walter comes home drunk. He gets into an exaggerated display of singing along with the record and chanting African chants. Some of his fervor is shown by his dancing on top of the kitchen table. Beneatha joins him in song and chant, although she is apprehensive about the cause of his energy—alcohol.

In the midst of this wild scene, George Murchison comes calling on Beneatha to take her to a play. Of course, he is shocked. Ruth gets her husband down from the table. Beneatha then reveals her new haircut, what today we would call an “Afro.” Her hair draws mixed reactions from everyone. When George Murchison joins in with the negative reactions, saying she looks “eccentric,” she calls him an “assimilationist.” They have a heated exchange.

Walter and George then get into a vigorous debate about Murchison’s lifestyle, with Walter spewing bitterness and sarcasm throughout his drunken attacks on him. Walter especially dislikes what he considers George’s complacent and arrogant attitudes. Finally, George and Beneatha go to the play, but on their way out, George calls Walter “Prometheus.” Walter does not know who Prometheus was, and asserts that George just made up a name to call him.

Left alone, Walter and Ruth quarrel over Walter’s dream of a liquor store. At one point, however, they manage to admit to each other that their constant bickering makes them both sad, and then they admit to each other the problems they have been having in relating to each other. At one point, Ruth says: “Honey… life don’t have to be like this. I mean sometimes people can do things so that things are better… You remember how we used to talk when Travis was born… about the way we were going to live… the kind of house… Well, it’s all starting to slip away from us…”

Then Mama comes home, and at first refuses to tell them where she has been and what she is doing. Travis comes home late, and Ruth says he is going to get a beating. Mrs. Younger calls the child to her and tells him that she has put a downpayment on a house; this is the first Walter and Ruth are also hearing of this.

Ruth’s reaction is joyous, because now they will have room for the baby. Mama then tells them about the house, which sounds very nice, and again mentions how she has always wanted her own garden to work in: “And there’s a yard with a little patch of dirt where could maybe get to grow me a few flowers…”

Then Ruth asks where the house is located, and is told, “Clybourne Park.” The family is shocked, because that is a “Whites only” area. Nevertheless, Ruth grows more optimistic about the planned move than she was before, and goes to give Travis his punishment while not feeling much like punishing anyone.

When Mama and Walter are left alone, she tries to explain to him why she did what she did.

Mama: Son—you—you understand what I done, don’t you? I—just seen my family falling apart today… just falling to pieces in front of my eyes… We couldn’t of gone on like we was today. We was going backwards ‘stead of forwards—talking ‘bout killing babies and wishing each other was dead… When it gets like that in life—you just got to do something different, push on out and do something bigger…

Walter, however, upset about not getting the money for his liquor business, implies that his mother is a tyrant and walks out of the house.

Analysis

One striking aspect of this scene is the reference to Prometheus, the Titan god in Greek mythology who stole fire from the gods and gave it to mankind and was punished for this by the gods. They had him chained to a rock and had an eagle eat at his liver for all eternity; his liver would grow back anew every day.

This is interesting because of the reference to livers in mentioning Prometheus; the implication is that Walter shares with Prometheus a liver being destroyed (in Walter’s case, through constant drinking). The implication, as well, is that where Prometheus wanted to give fire to humanity (which assisted them), Walter wants to bring liquor to humanity, in the form of his liquor business. The irony is lost on Walter, who doesn’t know who Prometheus was and doesn’t even believe it is a real name for someone. The remark is not wasted on the audience, who sees the irony in the comparison, and who also notes that George Murchison can only be pushed so far by Walter’s insults; he returns one of his own.

Nevertheless, we still care about Walter, because his constant heavy drinking is an indication of his desire to seek oblivion in a hostile world. His desire to start a liquor business, then, over the objections of his whole family, can be seen as a message of deepest despair: that whereas Prometheus brought fire to humankind, all Walter can see ahead of him is the bleakest of destinies, so that all he hopes to bring to his people is greater and greater oblivion. The tragedy of his vision (or lack of vision) is one of the most painful aspects of this play. It can also be interpreted as a tragic flaw, destined to destroy him.

An uncanny note is struck in the scene, as well, when Ruth, in trying to make polite conversation with George Murchison while Beneatha is getting ready to go with him to a play, casually drops into the conversation a comment about “them bombs and things they keep setting off.” This shows the ever-present threats Black families face, which Ruth is acutely aware of, even though she would not be considered as politically oriented as her sister-in-law Beneatha. The audience is reminded that even in the midst of social chatter, the danger of violence is never far from people’s thoughts. Ironically, almost in the same breath, she asks Murchison if he would like “a nice cold beer,” reminding us of Walter’s drinking and the reasons for his seeking alcohol.

When Mama comes home later and announces she has put a downpayment on the house, and tells the family where the house is located, we remember Ruth’s innocent comment about “them bombs and things.” Even though we are happy for the family that they may have new chances at things they want in life with this move, we are worried for them in the face of what they will encounter in moving into an all-White neighborhood.

Also interesting is what we learn about Mrs. Younger’s idealism at the end of the scene which shows, perhaps, where Beneatha acquired some of hers. When Mrs. Younger talks to Walter about how “… When it gets like that in life—you just got to do something different,” we see that Mama has a great deal of vision herself, although she expresses it within the context of her family while Beneatha expresses her vision in terms of a wider sphere of activity. With these words to Walter, as well, we see that there is a courage in Mrs. Younger that may have a great deal to do with Beneatha’s ambition and belief that she can accomplish anything she wants to.

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Act I, Scene 2: Summary and Analysis

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Act II, Scene 2: Summary and Analysis