A Raisin in the Sun Themes
by Lorraine Hansberry

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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.

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Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 1,896 words.)