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Nicholas Baker

Dr. LeCoeur

American Literature

21 April 2009

A Raisin in the Sun: Dreams Deferred

The Broadway play A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry is a multi-themed

play that touches on subjects that range from racism to family to poverty. The play is

prefaced by Langston Hughes’s poem “Harlem (A Dream Deferred)”, which is

appropriate both thematically and for the fact that the play’s name is taken from the third

line in the poem. The thematic appropriateness of referencing this poem stems from the

struggles (internal or otherwise) within the play. These struggles come as a result of the

characters having their dreams deferred by racism. Hansberry uses the play’s characters

to answer the questions asked in Hughes’ poem. She does this to transmit the pain of

being black in the fifties in a way that the reader cannot easily dismiss.

Since A Raisin in the Sun is an autobiographically influenced work, a good

understanding of this play requires knowledge of both the time in which the play was

written and the playwright who wrote it. The parallels between Lorraine’s life and the

Younger’s story are inescapable, especially as they pertain to racial discrimination.

While Lorraine grew up in a family that was much closer to George Murchison’s class

level, her family fought the same struggle with racial discrimination that the Younger’s

did. Lorraine Hansberry was born May 1930 in Chicago, Illinois to prominent real estate

broker Carl Augustus Hansberry and Nannie Louise Perry. She grew up on the south side

of Chicago in the predominantly white neighborhood of Woodlawn and was subject to


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constant harassment as a result of being black while living in this location. Another

source of hostility directed at Lorraine came from the fact that her father, as a black real

estate agent, was involved in fighting racial discrimination in the housing industry. When

Lorraine was nine years old, her father Carl Hansberry took a case against

neighborhood’s “racial covenants” all the way to the United States Supreme Court. This

famous case known as Hansberry v. Lee, which Carl Hansberry won, added to the

turbulence Lorraine Hansberry experienced in the almost all white neighborhood in

which she lived. She described where she lived as a “hellishly hostile white

neighborhood” where “howling mobs” surrounded her home. She was almost killed

when a cement slab was hurled through a window of her family’s home. The

neighborhood was so dangerous that Hansberry’s mother patrolled the house at night with

a German luger (americanexception.com).

The play begins by setting the stage both literally and figuratively. The

instructions for the set, when read (or seen, as the case may be), form a visual metaphor

for the state of the family and their deferred dreams. The description of the stage starts

out by describing the “center” of the Younger’s life, the living room:

“The Younger living room would be a comfortable and well-ordered room if it


were not for a number of indestructible contradictions to this state of being. Its
furnishings are typical and undistinguished and their primary feature now is that
they have clearly had to accommodate the living of too many people for too
many years - and they are tired” (Hansberry 435).

This point is driven home to a further extent with the outright declaration that “Weariness

has, in fact, won this room” which directly parallels the state of the Younger family at the

start of the play (Hansberry 436). Ruth is perhaps the best example of this weariness and

there are direct parallels between her and the room in the opening description. Both are

described as once having been “new” but are being worn down by time; “The furnishings
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of this room were actually selected with care and love and even hope...That was a long

time ago...everything has been sat on, used, scrubbed too often” (Hansberry 436). Ruth is

similarly described, “We can see that she was a pretty girl, even exceptionally so...

disappointment has begun to hang in her face...In a few years, before thirty-five even, she

will be known among her people as a ‘settled woman’”. (Hansberry 436).

The intended effect of the opening sequence is to move the reader or viewer into

the Younger’s mindset of tired struggle, resignation, and mild - but inescapable - poverty.

The sense of a tired struggle is further highlighted in the beginning of the play by having

everyone (except Ruth) sleeping and then having Ruth wake them. The struggle that Ruth

has in waking her family is symbolic of Ruth’s role as a both a martyr and driving force in

the family. It is also has the practical effect of showing that each member of the family is

worn out. Hansberry’s ability to immerse the audience within the Younger’s sense of

hopelessness is very obvious in the opening of the play thanks to this effective stage

description, opening action, and dialogue.

The characters of the play can be effectively analyzed by taking a look at

the inspiration for the title of A Raisin in the Sun. The title is taken from the third line of

the Langston Hughes’ poem, “Harlem, (A Dream Deferred)”. The poem asks a series of

questions about what happens when people’s dreams are deferred:

What Happens to a dream deferred?


Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore –
and then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
or crust and sugar over –
Like a syrupy sweet?
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Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode? (Hughes 435)

The play answers many of the questions stated in the poem by using the Youngers as a

medium to show the result of deferring one’s dream. Each character has a dream that

they have either deferred as a result their own actions or have had deferred through no

fault of their own.

Ruth is the best example of a dream deferred “sagging like a heavy load.” The

dream she has had deferred is life outside of the ghetto (for herself and for her family).

Her dream of a better life has been replaced by tired resignation. She has resigned herself

to living out her life in the apartment that she calls a “rat trap” (Hansberry 447). This

resignation can be seen clearly in the dialogue between her and Walter during breakfast at

the start of the play. In this scene, Walter tells Ruth his about dream of owning a liquor

store so that the family can be financially independent. This independence, of course,

would give Ruth with the ability to leave the ghetto (her dream). Ruth, in her state of

hopeless resignation, ignores him by telling him to eat his eggs. Ruth says the phrase “eat

your eggs” 5 times in rapid succession (Hansberry 437). This phrase is used to show

Ruth’s internalization of what society has been telling her. “Eat your eggs” is really “stay

in your place.” She has internalized this and is regurgitating it to Walter, who resents her

for not supporting him: “Walter: That’s it. There you are. Man say to his woman: I got

me a dream. His woman say: Eat your eggs” (Hansberry 441). Ruth’s “heavy load” also

manifests itself in her willingness to have an abortion, an extreme act for the 1950s since

both the mother and abortionist could be jailed. She has become desperate because of the

family’s economic situation and her marital problems with Walter.


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Walter is a good example of what happens when a dream deferred runs away.

Walter’s dream is to be able to provide for his family so that they do not have to struggle

in poverty. He wants to be able to give his wife pearls and hand down a means for

support and pride to his son. This is made very clear during an outburst he makes when

Mama will not listen to him about the liquor store:

Well, you tell that to my boy tonight when you put him to sleep on the living-
room couch... (Turning to mama and speaking directly to her.) Yeah – and tell it
to my wife, Mama, tomorrow when she has to go out of here to look after
somebody else’s kids. And tell it to me, Mama, every time we need a new pair
of curtains and I have to watch you go out and work in somebody’s kitchen.
(Hansberry 461)

At the beginning of the story Walter is described as nervous and erratic. As the story

progresses he becomes even more so as he sees his only chance of prosperity become

more and more unlikely. Mama describes his state of mind with the statement,

“Something eating you up like a crazy man” (Hansberry 461). The tension in Walter that

has built up over the years finally comes to a head when he loses most of the insurance

check money to Willy. Walter becomes distraught and decides the only way he can help

his family is by selling out --both literally and figuratively-- to Mr. Lindner and the

Homeowner’s association.

Mama (Lena) shows what happens when a dream “festers like a sore.” Her first

dream was to have her own house with her husband “Big Walter.”

But I remember the first day me and Big Walter moved in here We
hadn't been married but two weeks. And we wasn't planning on living here
more than a year. We was going to set away a little by little... and buy us a little
old two-story out in Morgan Park. We'd even picked out the house. Looks right
dumpy today. But, child, you should have known all them dreams I had...about
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buying me that house and then fixing it up. And make me a little garden out in
back. But none of it happened. (Hansberry 447)

Mama, unlike the other characters in the play does not become resigned or depressed at

the deferral of her dream. She instead finds hope and joy by replacing her dead dream

with a new one that is real and happening, her family. Unfortunately for Mama, this

dream has begun to “fester like a sore” as the harsh conditions that deferred Mama’s

dreams have begun to defer the rest of the families dreams as well. The state of the

family, including Mama’s role in it, is represented by Mama’s houseplant: “Mama: Lord,

if this little plant don't start getting more sun, it ain't never going to see spring again”

(Hansberry 444). The connection between Mama, the family, and the houseplant is also

shown at the end of the play during a conversation between Bernetha and Mama:

Mama: I'm fixing my plant so it won't get hurt none on the way

Bernice: You going to take that thing with us to the new house? That ragged-
Iooking old thing?

Mama: It expresses me

(Hansberry 487)

Mama is the caretaker of the plant and family, and even though both are ragged and worn

she continues to love it because it is “expresses” her life’s work.

Travis is a prime example of a deferred dream “crust[ing] and sugar[ing]

Like a syrupy sweet” (Hughes 435). Travis, who has no knowledge of anything different,

has begun to think of life in the ghetto as a normal thing. In an earlier draft of the play,

this point is driven home in a much stronger fashion. In this version of the play (later

becoming the American Playhouse Version), Travis comes home just after Ruth reveals

the down payment to the abortionist, and tells an epic story about how he, a few friends,

and the building janitor killed some rats downstairs. At the end of the story he happily
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states, “There’s rat blood all over the street” causing Ruth clutch him to her and to clamp

her hand over his mouth (Carter 48). This underscores Travis’s adjustment to the

conditions of the ghetto, including violence. It also, as critic Stephen Carter puts it,

“Reinforces [Ruth’s] sense of ugliness of ghetto life that has forced her to consider

destroying her unborn child” (Carter 48). Another telling moment in the play comes

when Walter asks Travis what he wants to be when he grows up. Travis answers that he

wants to be a bus driver. His dreams have been stunted to the point that he “aspires” to

become a bus driver.

Bernetha is the only member of the family who seems at least partially immune to

the effects of having her dreams deferred. Her education and exposure to life outside of

the ghetto seems to have provided a partial cushion to it, and her options are nowhere as

limited as the rest of the family. In many ways Bernetha seems out of place in the story.

Her lifestyle, such as wasting fifty-five dollars on a horse riding outfit and buying a guitar

on a whim, seems quite of out sync with the family’s situation. The family is poor

enough that an argument ensues over fifty cents near the beginning of the play. It seems

like her inclusion is an excuse for Hansberry to present philosophical ideas about identity.

While this is an appropriate theme, the execution comes across to me as weak because the

character does not fit the situation of the Youngers. As a result of the poor fit, I feel her

character takes away from both the believability of the story and its thematic clarity.

The only pain that Bernetha shares with the family is that she is hurt by Walter’s loss of

the insurance money. The play does not, however, conclusively state that she will be

unable to attend medical school because of the lack of money. It is likely that it will be

harder to pay for but not impossible. She is also, near the end of the play, given the

option to marry Asagai and join him in Nigeria so that she can be a doctor there.
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The play’s conclusion partially resolves each of the characters problems and

deferred dreams. This occurs because of Mama’s decision to buy a new house and

Walter’s renewal of pride by rejecting Mr. Lindner’s offer to buy out the family’s home.

Mama and Ruth’s dreams of leaving the ghetto get fulfilled. Walter does not get a

business to hand down to his son or pearls to give to his wife, but he is able to see that his

is selling not only his own self-worth, but also his family’s pride. He also realizes what

the act he is about to commit will do to Travis’s understanding of himself in the world.

Even if he buys the family prosperity, he sees that it would not bring the satisfaction and

self-worth he wants for himself and his family. He decides would rather pass down a

sense of self worth and pride, than money. Walter’s actions also help heal the rifts that

have formed in the family over the course of the play. The family becomes whole again,

and much of the built up resentment falls away.

The cost of this renewal is that they will now live in a hostile white neighborhood.

The published version of the play does not focus on the danger involved with the move,

although it is foreshadowed during the scene with Mrs. Johnson showing Mama and Ruth

the newspaper headline that reads “NEGROS INVADE CLYBOURNE PARK –

BOMBED” (476 Raisin). Instead, Hansberry chooses, most likely due to strong fifties

censorship, to concentrate on the hope the family has found. The published version ends

with the family excitedly moving stuff to the moving van while Mama is alone in the

house. During this final scene Mama has an emotional moment and grabs her plant to

take with her. The effect of this gives a strong, emotional conclusion that ties the ending

to the beginning by referencing the plant metaphor. It does not, however, show that the

family has effectively moved out of a fire and into a frying pan. In a older draft of the

play, this danger is made much more obvious by ending the play with the family camped

out in their new home, armed with guns and waiting to be attacked by angry white
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neighbors. This is a parallel to Hansberry’s experience of having her mother patrol the

house at night with a Luger. This deleted scene shows both the level of fear she

experienced and her attitude toward it:

Mama: You understand what this new house done become, don’t you?
Walter: Yes – I think so.
Mama: We didn’t make it that – but that’s what it done become.
Walter: Yes
Mama: Brother.
Walter: Yes—
Mama: (not looking at him):
I’m proud of you my boy. (Walter is silent) ‘Cause you got get up... and you got
try again. You understand. You got to have more sense with it – and I got to be
more with you – but you got to try again. You understand?
Walter: Yes Mama. We going to be all right, Mama. You and me, I mean
Mama: (Grinning at him):
Yeah—if the crackers don’t kill us all first. (Carter, 50-51)

It is possible that Mama’s lines are meant to be directed at her father, who after winning

Hansberry vs. Lee and seeing no change, became embittered and moved to Mexico in

1946. There he died of a cerebral hemorrhage in what Lorraine described as “embittered

exile in a foreign land…” (theroot.com).

As a whole I feel like Lorraine Hansberry succeeds in creating a compelling and

powerful work. The themes were well developed and thought provoking. The dialogue

and action is believable due to Hansberry’s careful story and diction choice. The only

major flaw I found while reading was Bernetha’s character feeling out of place and

strangely developed. I never really felt like she “belonged.” The play could have also

benefited from the use of some of the deleted material, though in Hansberry’s defense,

some of these scenes were removed due to censors and not her own artistic judgment

(Carter). Her use of Langston Hughes’s poem “Harlem (A Dream Deferred)” as the
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source of the play’s title helps to really tie the story and characters together in a way that

is very effective. The answers the play gives the to poem’s questions are sad.

Unfortunatly the answers are also less brutal than what some black Americans of the era

may have given. Lynching was still practiced in some areas of the United States during

this era; there were eleven recorded lynchings in the United States during the fifties

(Virginia.edu). The Younger’s represented the average black family’s situation in

Chicago, as opposed to the extreme. Their lives, though challenging, are filled with hope.

By using the average, instead of the extreme, Hansberry succeeds in keeping the reader

from rejecting the Younger’s plight as the exception, rather than the rule that it was

(Carter). The result is the reader cannot easily avoid the pain the Younger’s experience

because of dreams deferred by racism.


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Works Referenced/Cited

Carter, Steven R. Hansberry’s Drama: Commitment Among Complexity. New York:


Meridian, 1993.

Gibson, Robert A. "The Negro Holocaust: Lynching and Race Riots in the United
States,1880-1950." Yale.edu. 12 Apr. 2009
<http://www.yale.edu/ynhti/curriculum/units/1979/2/79.02.04.x.html>.

HANSBERRY V. LEE, 311 U. S. 32 (1940). http://supreme.justia.com. 1 Feb. 2009


<http://supreme.justia.com/us/311/32/case.html>.

Lorraine Hansberry 1930 - 1965. Univerity of Minnesota. 6 Feb. 2009

<http://voices.cla.umn.edu/vg/Bios/entries/hansberry_larraine.html>.

McElrath, Jessica . Lorraine Hansberry. 1 Feb. 2009


<http://afroamhistory.about.com/od/lorrainehansberry/p/bio_hansberry_l.htm>.

Schilb, John , and Clifford, John, eds. A Raisin in the Sun. By Lorraine Hansberry.
Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, n.d. 433-503

Schilb, John , and Clifford, John, eds. The Lost City. Alan Ehrenhalt. Boston: Bedford/St.
Martins, n.d. 507-515

Schilb, John , and Clifford, John, eds. The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography.
By Sidney Poitier. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, n.d. 433-503

"The University in the 1950s." www.virginia.edu. University of Virgina. 12 Apr. 2009


<http://www.virginia.edu/100yearslawn/HarrisonI/uvafifties.html>.