A comprehensive analysis of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun

A comprehensive analysis of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun

Playwright's Background
The playwright, Lorraine Hansberry, was born in 1930 in Chicago. Her parents were anti-racial activists against the whites who oppressed the black society due to colour difference. She attended a segregated public school. She wrote A Raisin in the Sun in 1959.
A comprehensive analysis of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun
Background/Plot Summary of A Raisin in the Sun
As a dramatic piece, A Raisin in the Sun explores the tension between the whites and the blacks in the south side of Chicago. The play features the strain with the black community over how to react to an oppressive white community. As a revolutionary play, Hansberry creates in the Younger's family one of the first honest depiction of the black about assimilation and identity. She uses the characters of Beneatha and Joseph Asagai to reveal a trend towards celebrating the African heritage. These characters in the play are used to represent those Africans who are geared towards promoting their African heritage irrespective of the place they find themselves. Through the character of George Murchison, Hansberry exposes the attitudes of those Africans who are not proud of their ancestral root. As such, they can trade it for anything, especially their cultures. George Murchison represents an African assimilating into the white world, and this is why Beneatha rejects his proposal. The play serves as a cultural document in American history in relation to gender and racial issues predominant in then America.

When the play opens, the Youngers are about to receive an insurance check for $10,000. This money comes from the deceased Mr Younger's life insurance policy. Every adult member of the Younger's family has an idea as to what he or she would like to do with this money. The Matriarch of the family, Mama, wants to buy a house to fulfil a dream she shared with her late husband, Mr Younger. Mama's son, Walter Lee, would rather use the money to invest in a liquor store with his friends. He believes that the investment will solve the family's financial problem forever. Beneatha, Walter's sister and Mama's daughter, wants to use the money for her medical school tuition. She also wishes that her family members were not so interested in joining the white world. She tries to find her identity by looking back to the past and to Africa regardless. However, Walter's wife, Ruth, agrees with Mama, her mother-in-law, and hopes that she and Walter can provide more space and opportunity for their son, Travis. All these are the different dreams of the Youngers.

As the play progresses, the Youngers clash over their competing dreams. Ruth discovers that she is pregnant but fears that if she has the child, she will put more financial pressure on her family members. When Walter says nothing to Ruth's admission that she is considering abortion, Mama puts a down payment on a house for the whole family. She believes that a bigger and brighter dwelling will help them all. This house is in Clybourne Park, an entirely white neighbourhood. When the locals of Clybourne Park find out that the Youngers have bought a house in Clybourne Park, they send Mr Lindner (from the Clybourne Park Improvement Association) to offer the Youngers money in return for staying away. The Youngers declines the offer even after Walter loses his share of the of his late father's life insurance money ($6,500) to his friend, Willy Harris, who persuades Walter to invest in the liquor store and then runs off with his cash. In the meantime, Beneatha rejects her suitor, George Murchison, whom she believes to be shallow and blind to the problems of race caressing America. Subsequently, she receives a marriage proposal from her Nigerian boyfriend, Joseph Asagai, who wants Beneatha to get a medical degree and move to Africa with him. But Beneatha does not make her choice before the end of the play. The play ends with the Youngers moving out of their apartment to their new house in Clybourne Park, fulfilling the family's long-held dream. Although their future seems uncertain and slightly dangerous, they are optimistic and determined to live a better life. And this they believe can be achieved if they live together as a family and resolve to defer their dreams no longer.

A Raisin in the Sun is set in south side of Chicago, United States of America. The time frame is 1950s – a period marked by segregation and enforced separation of whites and blacks along racial and economic lines. Chicago, during this era, was a typical example of a city carved into strictly divided black and white neighbourhood.

Themes in A Raisin in the Sun
The following fundamental and universal ideas are explored in the play:

1. Racism
This is the predominant theme in the play. The play brings to limelight the segregation that existed between the whites and the blacks in America of 1950s. Where the blacks live and the type of job they do depict this idea.

2. The fight against racism
It is a truism that Hansberry uses the character of Mr Lindner to portray the theme of racism in the play when he is sent by the Clybourne Park Improvement Association to prevent the Younger's family from relocating to their new house in Clybourne Park. This is because the whites have succeeded in making Clybourne Park an all-white residence; thus, the presence of blacks in the neighbourhood is frustrating to them. This is obviously a racial act. However, the Youngers are able to fight against such racial discrimination by boldly declining Mr Lindner's offer. This shows that resistance is one of the greatest tools used in fighting racism.

3. The value and purpose of dreams
The play is an embodiment of dreams, and this is portrayed in the lives of its main characters who struggle to deal with the oppressive circumstances which rule and dominate their lives. It is evident in the play that every member of Younger's family has a separate and an individual dream with a view to alleviate the suffering of their family.

4. The importance of family
Despite their challenges, the Youngers are still able to live together until they achieve or realize the ultimate dream – the dream of buying a house. Mama strongly believes in the importance of family and always tries to inculcate this value in her family members. She tries her best to keep the family together and functioning from the beginning till the end of the play. 

5. African heritage
It is a known fact that most black residents in the south side of Chicago have lost not only their origin but also their identity. Hansberry, by employing characters like Joseph Asagai and Beneatha Younger, tries to portray and regain the lost African heritage.

The language of the characters in A Raisin in the Sun is non Standard English. They speak a language which sounds like the English language but lacks the grammatical structure of Standard English. In the play, Hansberry notes that certain characters like Beneatha and Mama slur their speech. Naturally, Mama's speech is different from Beneatha's. Also, there are even subtle differences among the speech patterns of Mama, Walter, Ruth and Bobo.

Unlike their white counterparts, the blacks in the play do not speak using correct grammar. The language of the blacks has a mixture of both the grammatical structure of Standard English and Pidgin.

Style is a particular way, pattern or design in which a work is written. Some of the elements of style in this play that will be discussed are:

i. Dramatic structure
The play is divided into three acts with their different scenes. Hansberry makes use of the traditional classic European dramatic forms. She employs the absurdist dramatic technique. This is evident in the scene where drunk Walter Lee walks in when Beneatha is dancing the African dance. And this immediately makes him reconnect with an African past which his character, in reality, would not have known. He is able to sing and dance as if he has studied African culture.

ii. Symbolism/The use of symbol
Symbols are objects, characters, figures and colours used to represent abstract ideas or concepts. Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun is not devoid of these elements as she fashions it with symbols which go beyond the literary meanings of the play. Read about it here
 Major characters in A Raisin in the Sun

1. Walter Lee Younger
He is the main character of the play. He is a dreamer, the only son of Mama, the brother of Beneatha, the father of Travis and the husband of Ruth. His actions and character revolve around the plot. Although most of his actions and mistakes hurt his family, his belated rise to manhood makes him a sort of hero in the last scene.

Hansberry uses the character of Walter Younger to project every man's perspective of the mid-twentieth century African-American male. Walter struggles to support his family and also discovers new scheme to secure their economic prosperity. He is handicapped by barriers that obstruct progress to attain his goals. He believes that his family's problems will be solved by money, but he is rarely successful with money.

2. Beneatha Younger
The playwright presents Beneatha as an attractive college student who provides a young, independent and feminist perspective. She is the daughter of Mama and the sister of Walter. She has a dream to become a medical doctor. Although she exhibits a sense of independence, she strongly depends on her late father's money to attain her dream of becoming a doctor.

Throughout the play, Beneatha searches for her African identity for which she dates Joseph Asagai and George Murchison. She feels happy at home with Joseph Asagai, her Nigerian boyfriend. She identifies much more with his interest in rediscovering his African root than George Murchison's interest in assimilating into the western culture. Her nickname is "Alaiyo".

3. Lena Younger (Mama)
She is the matriarch of the Younger's family. After the death of her husband, Mr Younger, she becomes the head of the family. She is a sensitive mother who demands that members of her household respect one another and take pride in dreams. She is a dream keeper in the sense that she makes sure her husband's dream of buying a new house is realized. In spite of her economic hurdles, she still has a taste for quality as she requires that their apartment must always be neat and polished. She the mother of Walter Lee Younger and Beneatha Younger, the grandmother of Travis and the mother-in-law of Ruth Walter.

4. Ruth (Walter) Younger
Ruth is the wife of Walter Lee Younger and the mother of Travis Walter. She takes side with Mama to buy a house with the proposed insurance money. She takes care of the Youngers' small apartment. Her marriage with Walter is always problematic, but she hopes to rekindle their love. Her physical outlook reflects weariness, thereby making her to seem older than her age. Despite their family hurdles, she continues to be an emotionally strong woman though she is always pessimistic in her approach to issues.

5. George Murchison
He is a wealthy African-American man who courts Beneatha. It is on record that the Youngers approve George for marriage, but Beneatha dislikes his willingness to submit to the western way of life and forget his African heritage. Despite his affluence, Beneatha turns down his marriage proposal. His arrogance and flair for intellectual competition make him to challenge the thoughts and feelings of other black people.

6. Joseph Asagai
He is Beneatha's classmate and a Nigerian. He is among the suitors who seek Beneatha's hand in marriage. His character in the play provides an international perspective in Africa. Asagai is proud of his African heritage to the extent that he hopes to return to Nigeria to help bring about positive change and modern advancements. He makes more efforts to teach Beneatha about her heritage and identity. He stands in obvious contrast to George Murchison, Beneatha's other suitor.

Minor Characters in A Raisin in the Sun

1. Bobo
Bobo is Walter's friend and one of his partners in the liquor store plan. Just like Walter, he gets ripped off by Willy Harris in the liquor store catastrophe.

2. Mr Lindner
Mr Lindner is the only white character in the play. He is the person sent by the Clybourne Park Improvement Association to the Younger's family to ask them to vacate their new apartment in Clybourne Park.

3. Willy Harris
He is the friend of Walter. He advises Walter to use his share of his late father's insurance money for a liquor business. Willy never shows up on stage, but we often hear about him through his friend, Walter, who speaks greatly of him.

4. Mrs Johnson
Mrs Johnson is the Youngers' neighbour. She is very funny. When she visits the Youngers, she takes advantage of their hospitality and warns them about moving to Clybourne Park. She is very good at getting free food out of her neighbours. She only appears on stage for few minutes but manages to gain/earn a piece of pie and coffee. Mrs Johnson is a glutton.

5. Big Walter
Big Walter never appears on stage, but his character is made known through the dialogue of other characters in the play. He is a good person as his legacy pervades the play. When Mama reminisces about her life with Big Walter, she speaks of him with admiration. He values his family over all other priorities.

6. The two moving men
Although they don't speak, the few minutes they spend on stage are memorable. Mama admonishes them for not handling her furniture with the care she feels her furniture deserves.