Abstract illustration of the houses of Clybourne Park

A Raisin in the Sun

by Lorraine Hansberry

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Discussion Topic

Generational differences and varying interpretations of the American Dream in A Raisin in the Sun

Summary:

Generational differences in A Raisin in the Sun highlight varying interpretations of the American Dream. The older generation, represented by Mama, values stability, home ownership, and family unity. In contrast, the younger generation, like Walter and Beneatha, seeks financial success, individual fulfillment, and social progress. These differences create tension but also illustrate the evolving nature of the American Dream.

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What are the generational differences between Mama, Beneatha, and Walter in A Raisin in the Sun?

Lena Younger is in her sixties and is the head of the household. She is a conservative Christian who fails to understand and connect with her children on certain levels. Lena is disturbed at her daughter's atheist views and motivation to become a doctor. She refuses to allow Beneatha to use the Lord's name in vain and blaspheme God under her roof. Lena also doesn't understand Beneatha's affinity for African heritage. Lena fails to see Walter Jr.'s dream and cannot understand his fascination with becoming wealthy. Lena associates masculinity with hard work and integrity, which is opposite of how her son views manhood.

Walter, who is in his thirties, has an entrepreneurial spirit and dreams of one day running a successful business. He is not concerned about how others perceive him and is willing to take extreme measures to meet his goals. Wealth and financial security are Walter's priorities. In regards to integrity and character, Walter fails to demonstrate these positive traits for the majority of the play and is portrayed as insensitive and selfish. This generational disconnect between his ideas and personality and his mother's interests leads to conflict throughout the play. Walter also disapproves of Beneatha's dream of becoming a doctor and believes a woman's role is to support her husband.

Beneatha, who is in her twenties, is the youngest of the three characters. She is an educated, independent woman who challenges social norms by going to school to be a doctor. She is more concerned with discovering her own identity than appeasing the men in her life. She is relatively flighty but has strong views on gender roles, heritage, and religion. Beneatha's generational disconnect between Lena and Walter also leads to conflict throughout the play. Beneatha's mother and brother do not support her dream of becoming a doctor, and her mother disagrees with her atheist beliefs.

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What are the generational differences between Mama, Beneatha, and Walter in A Raisin in the Sun?

In Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, family members Mama, Beneatha, and Walter voice generational differences over religion and gender identity. These differences lead to disagreement and conflict among the three.

Mama, in her sixties, is conservative, family-oriented, and devoutly religious. She values religious piety and holds strong to a traditional Protestant belief system. Her son, thirty-two year-old Walter, is utterly unconcerned with religious affairs. His primary motivation in life is to acquire wealth and become the breadwinner of the family. While Walter does not feel antagonized by his mother's religious fervor, neither does he share it. Walter's younger sister Beneatha on the other hand, stands sharply against her mother by expressing atheist views and showing open resentment toward religion. Young Beneatha, in her twenties, fashions herself a budding Afro-centric intellectual. Her politics involve a flat repudiation of religious dogma. Mama, Walter, and Beneatha experience a great deal of conflict over their differing religious orientations.

The three also understand gender and gender roles differently. For Mama, masculinity means hard work and sacrifice. She doesn't associate wealth with masculinity. For Mama, it's character traits -- perseverance, diligence, and patience, for example -- that define a "true man." For Walter however, manhood is intimately connected to wealth. Walter views poverty as essentially emasculating. His impatience; his willingness to take big risks; and his desire for a life of luxury, are sources of confusion and sadness for Mama. Beneatha, for her part, subverts gender expectations with ambitions of becoming a doctor; a profession both Mama and Walter feel is ureachable and unrealistic for a woman of color. 

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How does the idea of the American Dream differ between Beneatha, Walter, and Mama in A Raisin in the Sun?

A Raisin in the Sun presents three generations of the Younger family, whose visions of success vary according to personal differences among individuals as well as characteristics associated with social categories. Lena Younger, usually referred to as Mama, is a widow and the family matriarch. Beneatha and Walter are siblings, but Beneatha is fifteen years younger than her brother, so she can be considered part of a different generation. The siblings are similarly headstrong and highly motivated, but their goals differ. Their mother is primarily invested in her ability to help the other family members succeed.

The twenty-year-old Beneatha is an extroverted, highly curious person who has benefited from being the younger child in a loving, supportive family. In pursuing education and self-development, she has resisted long-term commitment such as marriage and parenthood. Coming of age in the post–World War II era and the early years of nationwide Civil Rights activism has helped her gain confidence that she can succeed in medicine, a career path that was formerly out of reach for African American people, especially women.

Walter married fairly young, and by age twenty-five, he was already a father. His idea of the American Dream is ambitious but conventional: he wants to switch from working for someone else to being his own boss as a business owner. Walter’s impulsive personality combined with frustration in achieving his goal unfortunately makes him reckless. He both rationalizes his own unethical behavior and is victimized by a friend before he finally takes a courageous stand.

Lena’s dream of helping her children, grandson, and future, unborn grandchild is consistent with her generous, caring personality. Her family orientation also matches with the goals encouraged among women of her generation. The tangible marker of her dream is the house that she and Walter Sr. had hoped to buy. Her strength to carry on alone after her husband’s death is also evident, as she ultimately succeeds in purchasing a home for the family.

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How does the idea of the American Dream differ between Beneatha, Walter, and Mama in A Raisin in the Sun?

Each character in the Younger family has different ideas of what the American Dream is and plans on spending the insurance money to accomplish their individual dreams. Lena Younger's idea of the American Dream involves having her family together in a safe, comfortable environment. She does not necessarily have any dreams of her own and mentions that she would even donate the check to her church. Lena's foremost concern is the well-being of her children. However, Lena decides to put a down payment on a house in Clybourne Park, which is a white neighborhood. She is motivated to put her family in a better position with improved living conditions.

Beneatha's idea of the American Dream involves her going to college to become a doctor. The self-confident, independent woman, selfishly wishes to use the family's insurance money to pay for her schooling.

Walter Lee's idea of the American Dream involves him becoming a wealthy business owner. Walter wishes to use the insurance money to open a liquor store and dreams of providing his family with numerous material possessions. He also wishes to be admired by his peers and seeks the gratification associated with a higher social status. Unfortunately, Walter's business partner steals some of the insurance money. However, Walter redeems himself by courageously refusing to sell the family's home in Clybourne Park.

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How does the idea of the American Dream differ between Beneatha, Walter, and Mama in A Raisin in the Sun?

Good question. When the play opens, The American Dream differs for each member of the Younger family because each one has different dreams forged from their life experiences.However, by the end of the play, all three characters see the American Dream as keeping the family together and having the self-respect to stand up for one another.

For Mama, success means keeping the family together and having a safe place to live. Mama, of course, is older than her children, and has experienced more losses in his life--the death of a baby, the inability to move up the social ladder because of race, and finally, the death of "Big Walter". She has come to realize that the only real success in life can come from her family. She has also come to believe that her ways are the best ways. Because of this, she has kept control of the family. She expresses this control when Beneatha says "There is no God" and Mama forces her to recant. She also is unwilling to invest in a liquor store, even though she knows it will fulfill her son's dream. When threatened with the loss of her family, she gives control of the remaining money and the family's future to Walter. Although Walter stumbles at first, he finally becomes the type of man she wants him to be.

One the other hand, Walter's dreams have been forged largely because he sees himself as a failure. He is married and has a child, yet he still lives with his mother and sister. He sees his mother and his wife ignoring his pleas to try to become independent. However, after losing the money for the liquor store, he learns how to really be independent when he turns down Mr. Linder's offer. He discovers that the American dream also revolves around self-respect and family.

Beneatha's dreams at first seem rather lofty and admirable. She wants to be a doctor, something rare for an African American woman of her time. However, at the beginning of the play, she is so wrapped up in her own dreams that she fails to see the needs of others. When Ruth announces she is pregnant, Beneatha's only question is "Where will he[ the baby] sleep?" She is filled with self-pity after Walter loses the money for her education. It takes an outsider, Joseph Asagai, to remind her that the money was never hers to begin with. With that reminder, and with Asagai's proposal, Beneatha begins to realize that her success may not depend upon some kind of outward achievement but with her future with Asagai. Like Mama and Walter, she, too, begins to see the value of family and the importance of keeping her family together. 

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