Abstract illustration of the houses of Clybourne Park

A Raisin in the Sun

by Lorraine Hansberry

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A Raisin in the Sun Analysis

  • The poem's title is an allusion to Langston Hughes' poem "Harlem," which asks, "What happens to a dream deferred?" The speaker offers several possibilities, including that it dries up "like a raisin in the sun."
  • The play takes place entirely in the Younger family's apartment, adhering to the classical unity of place, which states that a play should have only one setting.
  • Mama's plant becomes a symbol of the future and of the small garden she wants to tend in her new house. In the final act, Mama almost forgets the plant, but rushes back at the last second to retrieve it.

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The concept of dreams is a focal point throughout A Raisin in the Sun, with Hansberry using the title to allude to “Harlem,” a 1951 Langston Hughes poem that poses the question: what happens to a dream deferred? The poem frames racial injustice as a barrier to the aspirations of Black people, with both individuals and communities being forced to set aside their hopes as a result of political, social, and economic oppression. However, the question of what happens to those dreams is left open-ended. Some may shrivel and die along with the individual who first dreamt them, while others may fester into sources of bitterness and resentment, becoming volatile. Still others may be deferred across generations, obtained after years of struggle and toil. 

Many different kinds of dreams—and the ways different characters relate to them—are explored within Hansberry’s play. Walter Jr.’s dreams seem the most explosive, echoing the final lines of Hughes’s poem. He figures himself as a “giant—surrounded by ants.” He has big ambitions, but he feels as though the people around him do not support him. The deferral of his dream has driven wedges between him and his family, with Walter becoming bitter and despondent. However, being scammed by Willy Harris and finding the courage to reject Karl Lindner’s buyout offer seems to help Walter overcome his more selfish and materialistic aspirations and instead embrace the simple, shared dream of owning a home with his family. 

By contrast, Lena has endured a lifetime of struggles and deferred dreams with relative grace. She has placed all of her hopes for the future on Walter, Beneatha, Ruth, and Travis. While the house does represent a personal dream for Lena, she also views it as an investment for her family. She tells Walter, “What you ain’t never understood is that I ain’t got nothing, don’t own nothing, ain’t never really wanted nothing that wasn’t for you.” Both Lena and the deceased Big Walter viewed their children as sources of motivation for a lifetime of hard labor, with the insurance check figured as being made of Big Walter’s “flesh.” Although the loss of the money infuriates Lena to the point of striking Walter, she ultimately still chooses to love and support her son, deferring to his choice as the new “head of [the] family”—even at the potential cost of her own dream of homeownership.

As a play, dialogue drives the majority of the action in A Raisin in the Sun. However, Hansberry also included extensive stage notes to help set each scene and add additional depth to the setting and characters. Of particular note is the emphasis placed on describing the Younger family’s apartment at the beginning of act 1, scene 1. Although the space is cramped and rundown now, Hansberry notes that all of the furnishings were once selected with “care and love and even hope.” In many ways, the small apartment likely once represented a fulfilled dream for Big Walter and Lena. This is echoed in Lena’s emotional response at the end of the play as she exits the apartment for the final time, leaving behind the space she built and inhabited with her beloved husband for decades. However, although she is leaving behind one dream, she is also delivering her family into a new one.

The notion of dreams changing over time is further echoed in the exchange between Joseph Asagai and Beneatha after the loss of the insurance money. Beneatha is distraught and ready to give up her sense of idealism, but Asagai reminds her of an important lesson: life is not a continuous circle of misery, but rather a long line of progress and setbacks. His dream of liberating his country from colonialism may be large, but the same principle can be applied to smaller dreams. Once Beneatha obtains her medical degree—something both Walter and Asagai continue to assert she will someday do—she will need new dreams and passions to dedicate herself to. By proposing marriage and inviting her to join him in Nigeria, Asagai extends her the opportunity to incorporate a new dream into her life, showcasing how people and their goals can evolve over time.

This exchange also represents one of the major differences between Asagai and George Murchison. Whereas Asagai cares about Beneatha’s thoughts and opinions, finding her questions about his culture endearing, George wants her to be “simple,” “sophisticated,” and “good looking.” In George’s world, there is no room for the sort of idealism and intellectualism that Beneatha and Asagai seem to share. For him, education is a means to an end, and the appearance of respectability matters more than individual passions or self-expression.

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