The long-standing appeal of A Raisin in the Sun lies in the fact that the family's dreams and aspirations for a better life are not confined to their race, but can be identified with by people of all backgrounds. Even though what that "better life" may look like is different for each character, the underlying motivation is universal. The central conflict of the play lies in Walter's notion of this American dream. Walter buys into the middle-class ideology of materialism. The notion of the self-made man who starts with nothing and achieves great wealth through hard work seems innocuous enough, but the idea can become pernicious if it evolves into an idolization of wealth and power. In the beginning, Hansberry shows how Walter envies Charlie Atkins' dry-cleaning business because it grosses $100,000 a year. He ignores Ruth's objection to his potential business partner's questionable character and dismisses his mother's moral objection to achieving his goals by running a liquor store. The liquor store is a means to an end, and Walter is desperate for his dreams to come to fruition. That same Machiavellian ethic is demonstrated when Walter plans to accept Mr. Lindner's offer. Walter is not concerned with the degrading implications of the business deal. It is simply a way to recover some of the lost money. However, Hansberry challenges Walter's crude interpretation of the American dream by forcing him to actually carry out the transaction in front of his son. Walter's inability to deal with Mr. Lindner marks a significant revision of his interpretation of the American dream, a dream that inherently prioritizes justice and equality over money.
Female Gender Identity
Three generations of women are represented in A Raisin in the Sun. Lena, who is in her early thirties, becomes the default head of the household upon the passing of her husband, Walter Sr. Raised in the South during an era where blacks' very lives were in danger because of the prevalence of lynching, Lena moved to the North with the hopes of leading a better life. The move up North was significant in that she had hopes of a better life for herself. Although Lena is ahead of her times in some respects, her dreams and aspirations are largely linked to her family's well-being, rather than to her own. Scholar Claudia Tate attributes Lena's low expectations for her individual self to gender conditioning - a term used to describe the expectation that a woman's goals and dreams be linked to her family alone. Lena tolerates her husband's womanizing and remains loyal to him even though they suffer under the same impoverished conditions throughout their marriage.
Walter's wife, Ruth, is in her early thirties. She is different from Lena in that she vocalizes her frustrations with her spouse, Walter. Ultimately, however, she seeks to please him, talking positively about the business to Lena on his behalf, encouraging Beneatha not to antagonize her brother so much, and being willing to work several jobs so that the family can afford to move into the new house.
Beneatha, a young feminist college student, is the least tolerant of society's unequal treatment and expectations of women. Beneatha constantly challenges Walter's chauvinism, and has no time for shallow men like George Murchison, who do not respect her ideas. Through these three women, Hansberry skillfully illustrates how women's ideas about their identity have changed over time.
"What defines a man?" is a critical question that Hansberry struggles with throughout the entire play. In many ways, the most debilitating affronts Walter faces are those which relate to his identity as a man, whether it be in his role as father, husband, or son. Being a father to Travis appears to be the role that Walter values the most. He sincerely wants to be perceived as honorable in his son's eyes. Knowing the family has little money to spare, Walter gives Travis a dollar when he asks for fifty cents. Walter chooses the liquor store investment not just to make more money for himself, but also to be better able to provide for his wife and family. He wants to be able to give Ruth pearls and a Cadillac convertible; he wants to be able to send his son to the college of his choice. As a son, he wants to walk in his father's footsteps and provide for his mother in her old age. Walter is framed by the examples of his father and son. At first, Walter is willing to degrade himself in order to obtain these goals, but he faces a critical turning point when he reconsiders Mr. Lindner's offer. Ultimately, he chooses the honorable path so that he can stand before his son Travis with pride.
There is a strong motif of afrocentrism throughout the play. Unlike many of her black contemporaries, Lorraine Hansberry grew up in a family that was well aware of its African heritage, and embraced its roots. Lorraine's uncle, Leo Hansberry, was a professor of African history at Howard University, a well-known, historically black college in Washington, D.C. Hansberry's uncle actually taught Kwame Nkrumah, a revolutionary who fought for the independence of the Gold Coast from British rule. Hansberry's afrocentrism is expressed mainly through Beneatha's love for Asagai. Asagai, a Nigerian native, is who Beneatha seeks out during her search for her own identity. She is eager to learn about African culture, language, music, and dress. The playwright is well ahead of her times in her creation of these characters. Hansberry is able to dispel many of the myths about Africa, and concretely depict the parallel struggles both Africans and African-Americans must face.
Class Tensions Within the Black Community
A Raisin in the Sun is not just about race; class tensions are a prominent issue throughout the play. George Murchison is Beneatha's well-to-do boyfriend. Although he is educated and wealthy, Beneatha is still trying to sort out her feelings about him. Her sister-in-law, Ruth, does not understand Beneatha's ambivalence: he is good-looking, and able to provide well for Beneatha. However, Beneatha is planning to be a doctor, and is not dependent on "marrying well" for her financial security. Hansberry also hints that marriage into the Murchison family is not very probable. Beneatha says, "Oh, Mama- The Murchisons are honest-to-God-real-live-rich colored people, and the only people in the world who are more snobbish than rich white people are rich colored people. I thought everybody knew that I've met Mrs. Murchison. She's a scene!" Beneatha is sensitive to the reality that even though the two families are black, they are deeply divided. Beneatha suggests that class distinctions are more pronounced amongst African-Americans than between African-Americans and whites. Despite their degree of wealth or education, blacks in America were discriminated against. Wealthy African-Americans had limitations on schools, housing, and occupations just like their poor counterparts. Mrs. Murchison's 'snobbishness' is emblematic of a desperate yet futile attempt to be seen as different from poor blacks and thus gain acceptance by whites. However, radical legislative and social change proves to be the only substantive solution to America's problem.
A Raisin in the Sun Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for A Raisin in the Sun is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.