A Raisin in the Sun Themes

The main themes in A Raisin in the Sun are dreams, selfishness, and race.

  • Dreams: Everyone in the play has a dream. However, achieving one's dreams proves a complicated endeavor, especially when factors like race, class, and gender interfere.
  • Selfishness: Lena's selfless desire to provide for her family is contrasted with her childrens' more selfish concerns. Walter's cynicism conflicts with Lena's belief in hard work.
  • Race: When Lena puts a down payment on a house in a primarily white neighborhood, the neighborhood association tries to buy the house back in order to keep the Youngers out, highlighting the barriers erected by racism.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 880

In 1957, when Lorraine Hansberry began work on A Raisin in the Sun, she titled it Crystal Stair, taken from a line in a Langston Hughes poem, “Mother to Son.” The final title, like the original one, also comes from a Hughes poem, “Harlem,” which asks the question, “What happens to a dream deferred/ Does it dry up like a raisin in the Sun?” Either title is appropriate, for certainly this is a play about a mother-son relationship, but it is no less a play about dreams, dreams too long deferred. These unfulfilled dreams are at the center of the play and are the source of the varied problems in the play. The manner in which Hansberry presents these problems and the skill with which she weaves them into the basic theme of the work attest the artistry of the playwright.

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A Raisin in the Sun is rife with conflicts: generational conflicts, gender conflicts, ideological conflicts, and perhaps most important, conflicts of dreams, which are at the center of the play. By placing three generations in the same cramped quarters, Hansberry focuses dramatically on some of the essential differences between age and youth. Mama Younger’s concern is always for the welfare of her children. She wants to provide for Beneatha’s education and find a comfortable home for the family. She and her husband, Big Walter, had struggled to make life better for the children. Although he had literally worked himself to death, he had taken out the $10,000 life insurance policy as security for them.

Beneatha and Walter Lee, on the other hand, are more selfish in their concerns. Beneatha squanders money on frivolous pursuits and devotes her attention to her personal relationships, while Walter is oblivious to the needs of everyone else, with the possible exception of his son, in his obsession with the dream of becoming a businessman. Travis, in typical childlike fashion, manipulates all the adults in the play in order to achieve his own ends.

Ideological conflicts also abound, feeding into the major theme of the novel. Beneatha, having been newly exposed to some radical ideas in the university setting, has abandoned the God-centered Christian faith of her mother and has embraced atheism, or at least secular humanism. The major clash between these two ideologies comes in a dramatic scene in which Mama forces Beneatha to acknowledge, at least verbally, the existence of God by forcing her to repeat the phrase “In my mother’s house, there is always God.” In sharp contrast to Mama Younger’s philosophy of success through faith and hard work is Walter Lee’s philosophy of the “takers and the tooken.” He adopts this philosophy after being deceived by his friend, Willie. Mama Younger denounces this philosophy when, in a powerful speech reminding Walter Lee of his heritage, she says, “Son, I come from five generations of slaves and sharecroppers—but aint nobody in my family never let nobody pay ’em no money that was a way of telling us we wasn’t fit to walk the earth. We aint never been that poor.”

In George Murchison, a rich young African American college student, and Asagai, a poor Nigerian college student—both suitors of Beneatha—Hansberry focuses on the conflicts between wealth and position versus heritage and tradition. Murchison offers Beneatha a life of opulence and comfort, while Asagai offers her a life steeped in ancestral tradition but devoid of creature comforts. Hansberry does not attempt to resolve this conflict, choosing rather to leave Beneatha undecided at the end of the play, suggesting the difficulty of such a choice. The Beneatha-Asagai relationship also introduces into the drama the theme of pan-Africanism, a theme prevalent in African American drama of this period. Through the romantic involvement of these two, Hansberry manages to link the African struggle for independence with the African American struggle for self-identity and self-determination.

Furthermore, in her portrayal of Beneatha as a fiercely independent, self-assured woman, determined to succeed in the medical profession, Hansberry introduces the theme of feminism, a novel one at this time not only in African American literature but also in American literature in general. Even Walter Lee expresses the typical male-chauvinist point of view as he taunts Beneatha about her ambitions: “If you are going to medical school, why not be a nurse like everyone else.”

The feminist theme is enhanced by the portrayal of the two other women in the play. Each in her own way reflects some aspect of feminism. Lena Younger (Mama) is the epitome of the self-reliant woman, having worked side by side with her husband to provide for the family and continuing to be its stabilizing force. Ruth, on the other hand, seems to hold fairly traditional ideas about motherhood, but she finds herself, without the counsel of her husband, considering abortion as an alternative to bringing another child into the world. Although the abortion theme is merely touched on in this play, the way is opened for other writers to treat it more thoroughly in future plays.

In A Raisin in the Sun, Hansberry raises many issues of race, gender, family values, religion, and ethics. The play poses many more problems than it resolves or even attempts to resolve; therein lies the complexity and the realism of the drama.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on July 23, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 270

A Raisin in the Sun deals with two problems: the discords of a family with high hopes, and the social injustice of segregation. The two Younger children, Beneatha and Walter, are both determined to improve their station in life. Walter, however, struggles only with dreams of success, while Beneatha realistically takes college courses that will lead to her becoming a doctor. In one way, both are fighting the oppression of racism, but it is Beneatha who seems coolly to understand that the oppression will be conquered only through hard work.

Wise enough to know that the family will survive only through wise management, Lena Younger uses her insurance money to buy a house. She has bought it, however, in a segregated area, and though she is willing to face that battle when it comes, the ominous appearance of Lindner, who wants to buy out the Youngers to avoid their moving it to Clybourne Park, threatens future difficulties.

Yet racial segregation is not the major theme of the play. The major theme is that families must remain united; when family members act selfishly, as Walter does when he takes his mother’s money and invests it in a fly-by-night scheme to buy a liquor store, the family may disintegrate. This very nearly happens to the Youngers. At the last minute, however, Walter realizes what he is doing and abruptly rejects Lindner’s offer (though he had threatened to accept it). The unity of the family is saved. The problem of moving into a White neighborhood lies in the future. For the present, the Youngers have proven that in unity lies strength.

Themes

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Last Updated on July 23, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 741

Race and Racism

The clear primary theme of A Raisin in the Sun has to do with race and racism. The Youngers live in a segregated neighborhood in a city that remains one of the most segregated in the United States. Virtually every act they perform is affected by their race. Ruth is employed as a domestic servant and Walter as a chauffeur in part because they are Black—they are the servants, that is, of White people. They are limited to their poorly maintained apartment in part because they have low-paying jobs but also because absentee landlords often do not maintain their property. Travis chases a rat, while Beneatha and Mama attempt to eradicate cockroaches, both activities which would not occur in wealthier neighborhoods.

The most significant scene which openly portrays racism, however, is the visit with Karl Lindner. Although he does not identify himself as racist, and although his tactics are less violent than some, he wants to live in an all-White neighborhood—and he is willing to pay the Youngers off to stay out of White neighborhoods. This type of racism is often dangerous because it is more easily hidden.

Prejudice and Tolerance

Closely related to the theme of race and racism is the theme of prejudice and tolerance. Karl Lindner and his neighbors are clearly prejudiced against Black people. Yet other forms of prejudice and intolerance also surface in the play. Walter responds to George Murchison aggressively because George is wealthy and educated; educated men seem to Walter somehow less masculine. Similarly, although Joseph Asagai encourages Beneatha to feel proud of her racial identity, he discourages her from feeling proud of her intellectual abilities because he believes professional achievements are irrelevant to a proper woman.

Civil Rights

Also related to the theme of race and racism as well as to the theme of prejudice and tolerance is the theme of Civil Rights. Although this play would debut before the major Civil Rights movement occurred in the United States during the 1960s, it raises many of the issues that would eventually be raised by the larger culture. ''Civil Rights'' generally refer to the rights a person has by law—such as the right to vote or the right to attend an adequate schools—and are often also referred to as human rights. The central civil rights issue in this play is, of course, the idea of segregated housing. Mama Younger has the money to pay for a house she wants, but people attempt to prevent her from doing so because of her race. At this moment, she is not trying to make a political point but rather to purchase the best house available for the money. Houses available in her own ghetto neighborhood are both more costly and less well-kept.

American Dream

The "American Dream" includes many ideas, but it is primarily the belief that anyone who comes to or is born in America can achieve success through hard work. Walter Younger aspires to achieve part of this American Dream, but he is frustrated at every turn. Although he is willing to work hard, opportunities for him are few because he is Black. His culture has relegated him to the servant class. When some money does become available to him, his business opportunities are also few—for few businesses historically thrived in minority neighborhoods. Yet by the end of the play, whether or not he achieves the American Dream, he does achieve a sense of himself as an individual with power and the ability to make choices.

Sex Roles

While questions of race are certainly prominent in the play, an equally significant, if less prominent, issue involves gender. Mama understands that in order to experience himself as an adult, Walter must experience himself as a man—that is, he must be the leader of a family. Of course, in order for Walter to be the leader, the women must step back. And even within their stations as servants, Walter and Ruth's roles are further divided according to their sex—Walter is the chauffeur, Ruth the domestic servant. More blatantly, however, Joseph Asagai asserts that women have only one role in life—that of wife and presumably mother. And although Beneatha longs to be a doctor, she is also caught upin the romance of potentially being Asagai's wife. This tension points out the fact that individuals can be exceptionally progressive in one area of their lives while being much less progressive in other areas.

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