At a Glance

  • The title A Raisin in the Sun is an allusion to Langston Hughes' poem "Harlem," which asks, "What happens to a dream deferred?" The speaker offers several possibilities: that it festers, stinks, sags, and dries up "like a raisin in the sun."
  • A Raisin in the Sun is a play in three acts. It takes place entirely in the Younger family's apartment in Chicago's South Side ghetto, 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, better life. In the play's final act, Mama almost forgets the plant, but rushes back at the last second to retrieve it from the old apartment.


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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.

Form and Content

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

A Raisin in the Sun is a three-act play set entirely in the Younger family’s Chicago tenement apartment. As the play opens, Walter Younger, Sr., referred to as “Big Walter,” has recently died, leaving his widow, Lena, a life insurance policy worth $10,000. Lena wants to use the money as a down payment on a house in the suburbs so that her family can leave its crowded, shabby apartment. Lena’s son, Walter, wants to invest the money in a liquor store so that he can quit his job as a rich white man’s chauffeur and become his own boss. Beneatha, Walter’s younger sister, a college student, wants to use part of the money to pay for her medical school tuition. Ruth, Walter’s pregnant wife, sides with Lena.

The debate over how to spend the insurance money threatens to destroy the Younger family. Walter insults his sister by telling her to forget about medical school and become a nurse or get married like other women. Lena expresses misgivings about Walter’s plan to invest in the liquor business, and he, in turn, accuses his mother of destroying his dream of becoming a successful businessman and providing for his family. When Lena refuses to give Walter the $10,000 that he needs for his investment, he stops working and starts drinking heavily. Ruth considers having an abortion because she does not want to add another family member to the Youngers’ crowded apartment.

Watching her family unravel, Lena attempts a compromise that she hopes will satisfy everyone. She puts $3,500 down on a single-family home in Clybourne Park, an all-white suburban neighborhood, and hands Walter the rest of the money, ordering him to deposit $3,000 in a bank account earmarked for Beneatha’s medical school tuition and allowing him to invest the remaining $3,500 as he sees fit.

Initially, Lena’s compromise appeases all parties, but disaster strikes the Youngers a few weeks later, as the family is packing for its move to Clybourne Park. Walter’s friend, Bobo, arrives and informs Walter that their partner in the liquor store business has taken Walter’s money—including Beneatha’s tuition money—and skipped town. Humiliated, Walter announces that the family will recoup some of its lost money by selling its house to the Clybourne Park Improvement Association, whose representative, Mr. Linder, has made an offer to buy the Youngers’ property at a profit in an effort to keep a black family from integrating an all-white neighborhood.

At the end of act 2, as the Youngers glumly await Mr. Linder’s arrival to close the deal, the family is once again at the point of disintegration. Beneatha calls Walter a “toothless rat” for losing the family’s money and capitulating to Mr. Linder. Lena chastises Beneatha and offers sympathetic words for her son, but Walter seems a defeated man. When Linder arrives, however, Walter undergoes a dramatic change. Standing behind his son, Travis, whom Lena has ordered to be present when the sale of the home is made, Walter calmly explains to Linder that his family has decided to occupy its new home. Walter speaks eloquently of his father’s hard work and his family’s pride. He introduces Beneatha as a future doctor and proudly introduces Travis as the sixth generation of Youngers in the United States.

In the short final act, the moving men have arrived, and the Youngers are proudly departing for Clybourne Park, optimistically looking forward to living in their new home.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*Chicago’s Southside

*Chicago’s Southside. Primarily African American neighborhood of Chicago in which members of three generations of the Younger family struggle against poverty and racism. Recently widowed Lena Younger, her children Beneatha and Walter Lee, and Walter’s wife Ruth and son, Travis, occupy a three-room apartment with a bathroom down the hall that they share with other tenants. With its worn furniture and limited natural light, the apartment reflects the disappointment and growing despair of the family.

An expected insurance check has Walter Lee planning a business venture, but the scheme involves disreputable characters and the sale of liquor. Realizing that the cramped quarters of the apartment is detrimental to her family in much the same way that it is harmful to a houseplant that she is trying to nurture, Lena uses half the insurance money as a down payment on a three-bedroom house in Clybourne Park with a yard large enough for a garden.

Clybourne Park

Clybourne Park. White residential area of Chicago in which Lena makes a down payment on a house. Not considering the potential racial problems her family may face, she chooses the neighborhood because she wants “the nicest place for the least amount of money” for her family. After she makes the down payment, however, the Youngers are visited by a man representing Clybourne Park’s white residents, who offers to buy the house back at a price that will give them a profit. Walter Lee, who has squandered half the insurance payment in a bad investment, considers the offer but ultimately decides that his family has earned the right to live in a better neighborhood. As Lena leaves the family’s South Side apartment, she takes her plant, suggesting that it and her family will thrive in the sunlight of the new house. (When Lorraine Hansberry was a child, her father tried to move his family into a white neighborhood and had to win a court case to do so.)

The Play

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

A Raisin in the Sun opens at dawn, in the shabby South Side apartment of the Younger family, which will remain the sole setting of the play. It is Friday, and Ruth Younger, the wife of Walter, rises and wakes her ten-year-old son, Travis, who is sleeping in the middle of the living room. The living room has seen better days, as have the furnishings. In the rear is a kitchenette. To the left is the bedroom of Lena Younger, the matriarch of the family, and her daughter Beneatha. To the right is the bedroom of Ruth and Walter.

After Travis is sent off to school, Walter, a lean, intense man in his middle thirties, begins complaining that Ruth does everything to keep him from getting ahead. He mentions that his friend Willy Harris wants to buy a liquor store and has asked Walter and Bobo, another friend, to become partners. When Ruth scoffs at the plan, Walter angrily charges that all black women seek to keep their men down. Then Walter quarrels with Beneatha, who has emerged from her bedroom, over the fact that Mama Younger is paying for Beneatha’s college education. Beneatha hopes to become a doctor. She insists that it is her mother’s right to do as she pleases with her money, including the life-insurance money Mama Younger will get (Walter and Beneatha’s father has recently died). The expected ten thousand dollars should be Mama’s to do with as she pleases and, Beneatha adds, should not be used for any of Walter’s harebrained schemes. Walter, in anger, slams out of the flat.

Lena Younger, the mother, now issues from her bedroom. A dignified, white-haired woman in her sixties, she is an indulgent mother. She mourns her late husband, Walter, and the plans for the children both had made. Beneatha speaks proudly of her plans to become a doctor and makes an antireligious remark, quickly recanted at her mother’s insistence. Beneatha, humbled, leaves. Mama and Ruth discuss plans for a home of their own, and Mama waters the bedraggled plant that symbolizes her hopes for a garden of her own. Suddenly Ruth becomes ill and sinks into a chair.

The next morning, while Mama and Beneatha are spraying for vermin, Ruth appears in the doorway. The doctor has pronounced her pregnant. This fact is no joy to Ruth, who collapses in tears when Beneatha makes an unkind remark. Beneatha is visited by a Nigerian student, Joseph Asagai, who brings a Nigerian dress and headdress as a gift for her. He encourages her not to abandon her black heritage and expresses fondness for her. After he leaves, the long-awaited check is delivered. Walter rushes in excitedly, but Mama informs him that none of this money will be used for his liquor-store scheme. When she tries to explain, Walter gloomily laments that he cannot face a future as a mere chauffeur. Then Mama informs him that Ruth is to have a baby and wants to have an abortion. If he is a man like his father, Mama says firmly, he will stop her. Ruth, now in the bedroom doorway, acknowledges the truth of Mama’s statement. Yet Walter is unable to take any action. Angrily, Mama calls him a disgrace to his father’s memory.

Act 2 takes place on the afternoon of the same day. After the emotional exchanges of the last scene, the setting is tranquil. Ruth is ironing while listening to the radio. Beneatha enters, wearing her new Nigerian dress and headdress; she puts on a record of Nigerian folk music. As she sings, a drunken Walter comes in and uproariously joins her in the song and dance. At this time, George Murchison, an admirer of Beneatha, arrives to take her to the theater. Walter mocks his dress clothes, but Murchison ignores him and leaves with Beneatha, who has now donned formal dress.

When Mama enters, Walter wants to know what she has done with the money. Mama gradually admits that she has bought a house with it. The house is on Clybourne Street, in a white neighborhood. Walter bitterly accuses her of destroying his dreams.

In the next scene, two weeks later, the apartment is filled with crates and boxes. In pity for Walter’s despair, Mama announces to all that she actually only put thirty-five hundred dollars down on the house; the rest is to be given to Walter to deposit in the bank, three thousand of it going to Beneatha, thirty-five hundred to Walter. Overjoyed, Walter boasts to Travis that his father will one day be a big executive.

Walter’s plans, however, are doomed to collapse. In the next scene, one week later, as the Youngers prepare to move, a man named Karl Lindner appears. The white man represents the Clybourne Park Improvement Association and has come to offer to buy the house from the Youngers, to keep them out of the white neighborhood. Walter angrily shows him the door. Bobo, one of Walter’s business partners, enters; weeping, he confesses that Willy Harris has run off with all the money, including his own. Walter is now forced to confess that he did not deposit his mother’s money but gave it all to Harris. The act ends as Mama despairingly pleads with God for strength.

Act 3 opens one hour later. Joseph Asagai arrives to tell Beneatha that he has great dreams for his country, and he wants Beneatha to join him in them. After Beneatha says that she will consider his proposal, he leaves. The family is together when Walter, desperate, informs them that he has asked Lindner to return. Walter wants to accept his offer. Mama is shattered, and Beneatha disowns Walter as a brother. Yet when Lindner appears, Walter, in tears, suddenly decides to reject the white man’s proposal. He is too proud of his family to humiliate them in this way. Lindner leaves, and Mama expresses great pride in Walter. The moving proceeds as planned, and everyone except Mama leaves. She, alone, is almost overcome with emotion at this moment. As the lights dim, she leaves—not forgetting to take with her the bedraggled plant, symbol of her hopes.

Dramatic Devices

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

Lorraine Hansberry uses few innovative dramatic devices in A Raisin in the Sun. Her play rests on tried-and-true methods of the domestic drama, with loud and emotional confrontations, as well as clear individual portraits. The setting remains the same throughout the play—the Youngers’ apartment in Chicago’s ghetto.

Ruth, a calm young woman who is rapidly growing old in her life with Walter, provides a contrast with her husband, who is emotional and unreasonable. Mama herself is a counter to her two children, both of whom are high-strung and self-willed. Mama remains solid and hard-thinking when dealing with difficult problems, although she is clearly too indulgent with Walter and Beneatha.

One device is used openly: the symbol of Mama’s plant. The poor, fragile houseplant is Mama’s symbol of the future, of her house-to-be, where she will have a garden of her own. The plant, at the end of the play, is almost forgotten by Mama when she leaves, but she returns to take it with her.

Diction also is a dramatic device that Hansberry uses to reveal her characters. Joseph Asagai speaks in an inflated language that promises great and wonderful things, but he has also a bit of the fraud in him. Beneatha, who is a college student, speaks with an educated diction; in stage directions, however, Hansberry directs the actress to keep in mind the family’s Southern origins. Walter uses the language of the ghetto but is contemptuous of the subservient language he must use as a chauffeur, when addressing his employers.

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Written just as the Civil Rights movement began to get underway, this play (and the motion picture made from it in 1960) made an important statement regarding race relations. Lorraine Hansberry, coming as she did from an affluent African American family, had experienced discrimination in her own childhood when her father moved the family out of the Chicago ghetto to a home in Englewood, Illinois. She also had strong opinions about the position of black women in American society, who are represented to a great extent by the character of Beneatha in this play.

Additionally, Langston Hughes’s poem “A Dream Deferred” must be considered seminal in understanding the play. In it the poet asks, “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?. . . or does it explode?” and Hansberry has successfully dramatized various human reactions to such deferment. The time in the play spans only a few weeks, but the dreams held by each of the characters have roots that reach far back. As the play begins, Lena is expecting a check of $10,000 as beneficiary of her husband’s life insurance, and each character sees that money as the key that will unlock the future.

Most volatile about getting control of the money is Walter Lee, who wants to invest (with two other men) in a liquor store and become an independent businessman. He represents the dream that is ready to explode. In the first scene, he makes his attitude very clear when he asks his wife Ruth to persuade his mother to give him the money, and he becomes very upset with her when she insists that it is Lena’s money to do with as she likes.

Walter Lee’s frustration with his life causes him to project his predicament on his wife, as a representative of all black women. As he puts it, “Man say I got to change my life. I’m choking to death, baby! And his woman say—your eggs is getting cold!”

Lena Younger, knowing that she and her husband never realized their dreams, has accepted life as God has willed it. In the words of the poem, she has “crusted and sugared over—like a syrupy sweet.” Because of the insurance money, however, she believes that she has been given a second chance at her dream of improving the lives of everyone in her family by moving out of the ghetto. Furthermore, because she is very religious, she disapproves of the idea of a liquor store for her son. Representing the older black woman who heads the family, Lena is a loving but quietly controlling matriarch.

The early-morning scene that opens the play illustrates clearly the physical conditions in which the Youngers live. The apartment is clean but very crowded; Travis sleeps on a couch in the living room, and the family shares a bathroom with other tenants in the building. Quite soon, Ruth reveals that she is pregnant, and her con-sideration of an abortion strengthens Lena’s resolve regarding the use of the money.

Beneatha’s dream of becoming a doctor is quite concrete; she has had it since adolescence. Unlike her brother, she does not solicit her mother’s financial assistance. Representing the newly emancipated black woman (in the image of the playwright), Beneatha gives the impression that she will not marry for security or surrender her free-thinking ideas. At one point, Lena actually slaps Beneatha and insists that she affirm her belief in God, but it is clear that the young woman acquiesces only out of respect for her mother. She will march to the beat of her own drummer.

A three-act play, A Raisin in the Sun follows the typical dramatic format. The stage setting cues the audience regarding the milieu in which the Younger family lives, and in the first act the characters are established and the major conflict is made clear. In the second act, the situation becomes more complex when Lena Younger announces that she has purchased a house in a “white” neighborhood and tries to justify her decision to her son, who refuses to be placated. In this act, too, the young men who are interested in Beneatha are introduced. The audience then sees her reactions to both the upper-middle-class George Murchison, who is a fool in Beneatha’s eyes, and Joseph Asagai, whose idea of her future in Africa does not appeal to her either.

After realizing Walter Lee’s deep bitterness because she has acted as head of the family by buying the new house, Lena Younger changes her mind and decides to trust Walter Lee with all of the money that is left after she has made the $3,500 down payment on the house. She gives him instructions to put half away for Beneatha’s medical school, with the understanding that the third that remains is his to invest as he wishes.

In the second act, the family is packing to move, and even Walter Lee seems happy now that Lena has abdicated her role as ruling matriarch and has given him his position as “head of the family.” At this juncture, however, Karl Lindner interrupts their newfound harmony with his proposal to pay the Youngers rather handsomely if they will agree not to move to lily-white Clybourne Park. During this encounter, Beneatha has a chance to assert her assimilationist point of view, one undoubtedly held by the playwright, while in his newfound position of power, Walter Lee unceremoniously shows Lindner the door.

At this point, Lena returns and is made to understand what the “Clybourne Park Welcoming Committee” really signifies. She graciously accepts, however, the gardening set her children have bought for her and the too-fancy gardening hat, which Travis has selected for his grandmother to wear as she gardens in their new yard.

Bobo, the visitor who arrives after Lindner has left, represents the messenger who brings word of the classic reversal of fortune for the protagonist. Bobo reports that Willy Harris did not meet him at the railroad station to go to Springfield to get the license for the liquor store. Instead, he simply disappeared with Bobo’s money and with the entire amount that Lena had entrusted to Walter Lee, including Beneatha’s portion.

How each character reacts to this crisis initially is no surprise. After Lena has momentarily lost her temper, she prays for strength, castigates herself for “aiming too high,” and begins to think in terms of “fixing up the apartment.” Beneatha seems to have given up her idea of becoming a doctor. Practical Ruth says that the family could still make the new house payments if everybody worked. Walter Lee, however, who is completely devastated, has decided to telephone Lindner and accept his offer.

In the final scene, Lena insists that Travis witness his father’s degradation in accepting payment from “the Man” under these circumstances, which causes another reversal for Walter Lee. He cannot bear to see his son present as he exchanges his manhood for money, so he tells Lindner that they are a plain but proud family who will try to be good neighbors. As the moving men arrive, the Youngers begin their move to Clybourne Park.


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Hansberry’s influence in the theater in terms of black performers and black audiences—who saw themselves truthfully presented onstage for the first time in A Raisin in the Sun—was far greater than might seem to be the case. By 1959, Hansberry had attained fame as the youngest American and the only black dramatist to win the Best Play of the Year award. A Raisin in the Sun ran for 530 performances, toured extensively, and has been published and produced in more than thirty countries. In it, she raised the issues of racism and segregation, showing their negative influence on all of American society. She also illustrated the stereotypical hierarchy common in African American families that lack a father-figure, and she represented fairly those whom Walter Lee characterizes as “takers”—those of all colors who exploit others.

The feminist point of view is best represented by Beneatha, but Hansberry shows her three-dimensionally, not as a perfect woman, but as one probably on her way to growing into a warmer, less egocentric person, one who can combine social and political awareness with more tolerance for the foibles of her fellow human beings.

A Raisin in the Sun certainly represents Hansberry’s personal philosophy, which she summed up in an address to young black writers when she said:What I write is not based on the assumption of idyllic possibilities or innocent assessments of the true nature of life, but, rather, on my own personal view that the human race does command its own destiny and that that destiny can eventually embrace the stars.

Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s
A Raisin in the Sun directly addresses the issue of segregated housing in the United...

(The entire section is 614 words.)

Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

Among the most important elements of A Raisin in the Sun is its setting. Because the Youngers are attempting to...

(The entire section is 702 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1950s: Schools and neighborhoods were racially (and sometimes ethnically) segregated, often by law. These laws received several major...

(The entire section is 433 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Research segregation laws that applied to various U.S. cities in the 1950s. Examine the arguments people made in efforts to change these...

(The entire section is 128 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

A Raisin in the Sun was released as a film by Columbia Pictures in 1961. Its cast included Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Claudia McNeil,...

(The entire section is 141 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

Native Son by Richard Wright, which was published in 1940, opens with a scene in which a family attempts to kill a rat. The...

(The entire section is 202 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun: The Complete Original Version. New York: Signet/Penguin Books USA Inc.,...

(The entire section is 347 words.)


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Abramson, Doris. Negro Playwrights in the American Theater: 1925-1959. New York: Columbia University Press, 1969. The definitive work in African American drama. Treats the origin and development of the black drama—its structure, themes, innovations, and impact—from its nineteenth century beginnings through Hansberry.

Bennett, Lerone, Jr., and Margaret G. Burroughs. “A Lorraine Hansberry Rap.” Freedomways 19, no. 4 (1979): 226-233. A discussion between Bennett, a historian and editor of Ebony magazine, and Burroughs, an artist and teacher. The article focuses on Hansberry’s career, with much of the discussion devoted to an assessment of the themes and characters in A Raisin in the Sun and the reasons for its popularity with both black and white audiences.

Cruse, Harold. The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. New York: William Morrow, 1967. In the chapter on Hansberry, Cruse criticizes A Raisin in the Sun for what he sees as its soap opera qualities and for its failure to deal realistically with the problems of the black underclass.

Hairston, Loyle. “Portrait of an Angry Young Writer.” Crisis 86 (April, 1969): 123-124. Examines the ways in which Hansberry’s activist philosophy and rebellious attitude influence her work, especially in terms of themes and character development.

Harris, Trudier, ed. Reading Contemporary African American Drama: Fragments of History, Fragments of Self. New York: Peter Lang, 2007. Collection of essays on African American drama, including two on A Raisin in the Sun examining the play’s representation of knowledge and the relationship between Hansberry’s work and August Wilson’s later Fences (pr., pb. 1985).

Isaacs, Harold R. The New World of Negro Americans. New York: John Day, 1963. In the section on Hansberry, the author discusses the origin and development of Hansberry’s ideas on pan-Africanism and the degree to which these ideas are reflected in A Raisin in the Sun.

Kappel, Lawrence, ed. Readings on “A Raisin in the Sun.” San Diego, Calif.: Greenhaven Press, 2001. Compilation of scholarly analyses of Hansberry’s drama and its cultural, literarary, and theatrical significance.

Riley, Clayton. “Lorraine Hansberry: A Melody in a Different Key.” Freedomways 19, no. 4 (1979): 205-212. Focuses on the universality of themes in Hansberry’s plays. It emphasizes the fact that because black experience strikes “a different key” in the American experience, this universality is frequently overlooked.

Ward, Douglas Turner. “Lorraine Hansberry and the Passion of Walter Lee.” Freedomways 19, no. 4 (1979): 223-225. An in-depth study of the character of the protagonist of A Raisin in the Sun, Walter Lee Younger. Asserts that the character is much more complex than generally thought to be and that Hansberry’s skillful portrayal of him reveals these complexities.

Wilkerson, Margaret B. “Lorraine Hansberry: The Complete Feminist.” Freedomways 19, no. 4 (1979): 235-245. Looks at Hansberry’s plays as they reflect the feminist point of view, noting that as a descendant of early feminists such as Sojourner Truth and Ida B. Wells, Hansberry centers her feminism in human dignity and thus includes both men and women in her concept of feminism.