Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 640
Lorraine Hansberry’s play introduces young readers to crucial issues in the African American community: the fragmentation of the family, the black male’s quest for manhood, and the problems associated with integration. Lena is the prototypical African American matriarch who struggles to hold her family together in the face of poverty and discrimination. Although Walter’s eloquent speech to Mr. Linder at the end of act 2 saves the Youngers from disgrace, Lena is the play’s moral center, urging the members of her extended family to end their quarreling, accept their responsibilities, and love one another.
Walter’s quest for manhood is another key theme in Hansberry’s drama. Walter wants to replace Big Walter as the head of the Younger family, but he is barely able to support the Youngers on his chauffeur’s wages. He also shows himself to be irresponsible with money, and he has a tendency to walk away or turn to drink when family problems arise. Although he frequently falters along the way, Walter demonstrates by the end of the play that he can replace his deceased father as the head of the family. In the play’s final scene, Lena tells Ruth that Walter “finally come into his manhood today . . . like a rainbow after the rain.” Hansberry wants the audience to believe that Walter’s change is both significant and permanent: He has become a man.
Equally absorbing is Hansberry’s dramatization of Beneatha’s quest for womanhood. She is a young woman attempting to break away from the pattern set by the other Younger women, Lena and Ruth. They are wives, mothers, and maids; Beneatha is in college and aspires to become a physician, a virtually unattainable occupation for African American women of the 1950’s. During the play, she is pursued by two suitors who try to steer her in their own directions: George Murchison, the son of a wealthy African American businessman, and Joseph Asagai, a Nigerian student studying in the United States. Beneatha rejects the option of becoming the well-to-do wife of George, and, although she is fascinated by the lost African culture that Asagai represents, she will probably remain independent and go in her own direction.
Hansberry’s play gives young adult readers insights into the African American community at the beginning of the Civil Rights movement. At the time of the play, the doors of opportunity, if not open, are at least unlocked for African Americans. Walter can dream of becoming an entrepreneur. Beneatha can hope to become a doctor. Lena can purchase a house in the suburbs. Nevertheless, as the bitter arguments among Lena, Walter, and Beneatha suggest, the age of new opportunities creates problems in the Younger family, problems that reflect the tensions in the African American community at the commencement of the Civil Rights movement. Moreover, Hansberry suggests that many of the old prejudices persist, as evidenced by Mr. Linder’s attempt to keep an African American family out of his neighborhood.
The play’s title comes from a poem by Langston Hughes entitled “Harlem”: “What happens to a dream deferred?/ Does it dry up/ Like a raisin in the sun?/ Maybe it just sags/ Like a heavy load./ Or does it explode?” The Younger family’s dream of breaking out of poverty and enjoying the fruits of American society has been deferred for many years. Big Walter’s insurance policy presents an opportunity for the Youngers’ dream to become a reality. Through the Youngers, Hansberry asks how African Americans will deal with the opportunities confronting them in the post-World War II years. Will those deferred dreams dry up? Will they explode in frustration and anger? In A Raisin in the Sun, the playwright seems to suggest that those deferred dreams at last can be fulfilled, although the struggle to fulfill them will be difficult.
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