Act I, Scene 2: Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on July 23, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1283

New Character:

Joseph Asagai: a Nigerian friend of Beneatha’s who has just returned from a trip to Canada

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Summary

Scene 2 opens on the following morning. The family, on this Saturday, is involved in housecleaning. The phone rings, and it is Willie Harris, Walter’s friend. They talk about the liquor store they want to start while Mrs. Younger stares at her son in disapproval. The next hone call is for Beneatha, from her school friend Joseph Asagai, who has just returned from studying in Canada.

Ruth comes home and we learn she is pregnant (which would account for why she dropped to the floor at the end of the last scene; she had not been feeling well, as some women do not at times during their pregnancies). Beneatha wants to know if it was a planned pregnancy or an accident, but, as can be imagined, both Mama and Ruth object to Beneatha’s attitude.

Then they hear a ruckus on the street, where Travis is playing, and they see that he and his friends are chasing a rat. He is told to come upstairs immediately.

In a little while, the doorbell rings, and it is Asagai. He has brought a present for Beneatha—a Nigerian dress and records of African music. Beneatha is delighted. They disagree about her hair, however, which Joseph does not think she should wear so short. They also clash on the subject of identity, with Asagai referring to American Black people as “assimilationists” (as Beneatha defines the term in the play—later, on page 81, it means “someone who is willing to give up his own culture and submerge himself completely in the dominant, and in this case oppressive culture”). Beneatha disagrees with this assessment of her friend.

Asagai expresses a desire to get closer to Beneatha, but she wants to wait on serious decisions and take time to find herself and accomplish what she wants to do in the future. When Mama comes home, they all chat for a while about Africa. Mrs. Younger extends an invitation to Joseph to visit them again. As he is leaving, Joseph tells Beneatha his pet name for her, “Alaiyo,” which is in his African (Yoruban) language. It means “One for Whom Bread—Food—Is Not Enough.” A complimentary reference to her idealism, Beneatha likes her African name. Mama says, when he leaves, that she likes him.

Suddenly, the downstairs bell rings and the family is jarred into realizing the awaited check is downstairs with the postman. Travis is sent downstairs to get it, and when he comes back with it, the family gathers around Mama, who holds the check in her hand, staring at it and unable to open it. The family urges her to open the envelope, and she does, but as soon as she does, she becomes sad, for she remembers what the money is for.

Then Mama asks Ruth where she went that morning, and Ruth admits she saw an abortionist and is deciding whether or not to have an abortion. Walter comes home and immediately upon entering asks if the check has arrived. He informs them that he has started the legal work necessary to launch his liquor business with Willie Harris.

Mrs. Younger does not want to hear about that, and tells him to talk to his wife. Walter feels no one is listening to him, and plans to go outside again, to drink, we assume. Ruth wants to go with him, but he does not want her along. Mama objects to the way he is treating Ruth. Walter and Ruth keep arguing, though, with Ruth particularly objecting to Walter’s drinking. Mrs. Younger asks Walter what it is that has been bothering him lately and causing him to behave badly and drink so much. She reminds him when he least expects it, it would seem, that what is valuable about his relationship with his wife is that she loves him.

Walter again implores Mrs. Younger for money for the liquor business. He expresses the deepest despair about what life means apart from material success and money. Mrs. Younger tells him that in her day, they were worried about being lynched, and now he and Beneatha have dreams she cannot understand. She informs Walter that his wife is pregnant, and that she is in danger of having an abortion. He urges her son to speak to his wife, but instead of facing the issue, he walks out of the apartment. As he is leaving, Mrs. Younger calls him a disgrace to his father’s memory.

Analysis

Scene 2 begins with Travis asking where his mother is, and we are immediately reminded about the conflict over whether or not Ruth will have an abortion. Beyond this, however, we are reminded of a wider theme, also raised earlier: that of the survival of Black people as a whole. The idea of the abortion sets an ominous tone about the ability of people like the Youngers to survive in a world which continually beats them back in their efforts to survive.

Later, when Travis is seen to be cornering a rat, the visual representation of a metaphor for the plight of Black Americans is introduced into the scene. Black Americans feel they are cornered by a racist culture, and just as a rat is despised, some of America’s people are continually disrespected, humiliated, and persecuted in other ways. The dire situation some of America’s population continually find themselves in is vividly symbolized by the image of the cornered rat.

Another important theme is highlighted in the brief talk Mama and Beneatha have about Joseph Asagai being from Africa. The discomfort some Black Americans feel about their heritage, as embodied by Mrs. Younger’s denial of knowing any Africans, shows that some Black people have difficulty in accepting the roots of their heritage, just as Black Americans are not accepted in the wider American society. The ongoing ideological disagreement between mother and daughter is depicted in their not agreeing about the role of the church and missionary work in Africa.

When Beneatha’s school friend Joseph Asagai visits, the continuing theme of struggle for survival and identity is raised again. He cannot understand why she puts being a doctor over being happy about his affection for her. The theme of miscommunication, first raised in Scene 1, is repeated here. The name Asagai confers to Beneatha, “Alaiyo,” meaning “One for Whom Bread—Food—Is Not Enough,” reminds us of her high ideals and aspirations—this time, appreciated by a man, her friend Joseph, instead of being resented, as by her brother Walter. In particular, this name speaks to his respect for her striving beyond matters of mere survival, even in the face of enormous personal and cultural obstacles.

In sharp contrast to Beneatha having such visions for herself and her people, the character of Mrs. Johnson is introduced in this scene, although she does not directly appear in it. Her pettiness is expressed in her petty concern with how much cleanser she will lend the family, even though they have lent her things freely in the past. This reiterates the theme of discord even within the Black community.

Towards the end of this scene, the family’s joy at receiving the check is mitigated by their concern over whether or not Ruth will have an abortion. Even happy events, then, exist within a context of foreboding. The fact that Mrs. Younger becomes sad at remembering what the check is for when she receives it highlights and underscores this theme of every gain made at enormous physical, emotional, and spiritual expense—some of which are too high to pay even under the best of circumstances.

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Act I, Scene 1: Summary and Analysis

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Act II, Scene 1: Summary and Analysis