According to Lorraine Hansberry’s stage directions at the beginning of the play, the action occurs sometime between the end of World War II and the 1950’s. The play is set in an urban ghetto and deals with the problems encountered by a poor black family as it tries to cope with the realities of life on Chicago’s South Side. It reveals the devastating effects of poverty and oppression on the African American family. Even before the play begins, Hansberry’s stage directions, both in tone and substance, suggest the extent of that devastation. The furnishings in the Younger family’s apartment, she says, are “tired,” and the “once loved couch upholstery” has to “fight to show itself from under acres of dollies and couch covers.” The very environment in which the Youngers live mirrors the struggle for survival that is waged daily in this household.
As the play progresses, the frustration born of this poverty and oppression mounts. The anger and hostility that it spawns begin to erode the foundations of the family structure. This erosion begins early in the play, exhibiting itself in the strained relations between Walter Lee and his wife Ruth as they argue over the disposition of money coming from insurance on Walter’s father. Walter Lee wants to use the money to purchase a liquor store. He is convinced that such a business venture will be his ticket out of the ghetto. His marriage threatens to collapse under the constant bickering. Ruth, having just discovered that she is pregnant, contemplates abortion to avoid bringing a new life into this hostile, poverty-ridden environment.
As the family anticipates the arrival of the insurance check, the tension grows and Walter becomes more agitated. He is resentful of his sister, whose medical-school expenses, he thinks, will consume money that he might otherwise use to finance his liquor store. When the check finally arrives and he finds that Mama Younger has used part of the money to make a down payment on a new house and plans to use the rest for Beneatha’s medical-school expenses, Walter explodes, spending his days driving around town and his nights brooding in the local bar.
When Mama begins to understand the depth of damage to Walter Lee’s feelings and manhood, she turns over the rest of the money to him to do with as he pleases. She makes one request, however: that he put aside the money for Beneatha’s education. Still pursuing his dream, however, Walter gives Willie, one of his friends, the money to purchase the liquor store for him. Willie absconds with the money, dashing Walter Lee’s hopes and dreams as well as those of the entire Younger family.
In an effort to recover his losses, Walter Lee decides to accept the money that has been offered earlier by their prospective white neighbors as a bribe to keep the Younger family out of an all-white neighborhood. In the last scene of the play, however, under the watchful eye of his son, Walter finds the courage to reject the offer. The family takes its leave of its ghetto apartment and heads for its new home and anticipated better life.