Act I Scene I
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The pressures of everyday life in the ghetto have taken a toll on Ruth: "disappointment has already begun to hang in her face." In addition to working as a domestic servant, she is responsible for keeping her family together. Ruth is concerned about the necessities, such as getting the family up on time, making breakfast for her son and husband, and having enough money to get to and from work. She does not have time for world events or Walter's pipe dreams. When Walter begins to talk about his liquor store investment, she responds, "Eat your eggs." When he says how disappointed he is that he can only tell his ten-year-old son stories about rich white people, Ruth again responds, "Eat your eggs."
Ruth is stifled by the absurd redundancy of everyday life. For the eleven years of her marriage, she has seen no real progression. The Younger family is the epitome of the American work ethic: even though they toil, they do not see the fruits of their labor. In fact, Ruth is not only responding to the disappointments of her lifetime, but to the disappointments experienced by previous generations, as well. Walter Sr. had moved into the same apartment with the hopes of owning a house within a year. Now Walter Sr. has passed, and three generations live in the same tiny apartment. Ruth, overcome by this stagnation, has lost hope.
Both Walter and Beneatha are sustained by their dreams. Walter dreams of being an entrepreneur. He, along with his friends Willy and Bobo, plan to open up a liquor store. Beneatha, currently a college student, wants to become a doctor. Both of these dreams rely upon their father's life insurance check for its realization. Therefore, beneath the seemingly normal brother-sister dissent lies a fierce struggle for the survival of each individual's dreams. This tension surfaces the morning before the insurance check arrives. Walter's deceptively simple inquiry about how Beneatha's studies are going in school leads to an argument. Walter accuses Beneatha of being ungrateful for the sacrifices the family has made for her to go to college. For the first time he reveals that he wishes his sister would "be a nurse...or just get married and be quiet." Walter's chauvinist statement is an open affront to Beneatha, who is struggling to go beyond what society says women ought to do. Walter's dreams for his sister are no bigger than society's. The argument ends with both siblings admitting that the insurance money belongs to Mama, and it is for her to decide how it will be spent. However, the scales are weighed against Walter because his mother is not likely to support the idea of a liquor store.
Both Walter and Beneatha battle with Mama's conservative Protestant ethic. Mama disapproves of Walter's business plan because she disapproves of selling liquor. She says, "Well-whether they drinks it or not ain't none of my business. But whether I go into business selling it to 'em is, and I don't want that on my ledger this late in life." Lena's objection is short and succinct: she notifies Beneatha of her moral conviction, and does not seek to debate its validity. Mama's rigid beliefs conflict with Beneatha's new philosophies. When Beneatha asserts that God is just an idea that she does not believe in, Mama slaps Beneatha across the face, giving her daughter the clear message that atheism will not be tolerated in her household.