Dreams have considerable meaning in Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, with the play's name derived from Langston Hughes' 1951 poem Montage of a Dream Postponed. In the poem, part of which serves as the epigraph of the play (a quote at the beginning of a book that elaborates on its key themes), the poet asks, 'What happens to a deferred dream? Considering whether it shrivels 'like a raisin in the sun or explodes. Hughes 'open question forms the basis for Hansberry's work, with the youngsters' intertwined and contradictory desires shaping the play's plot. Each character clings to distinct dreams, which have long been deferred due to socioeconomic limitations placed on the family by racism. The persistence of these dreams lends the play a pervasive sense of hope, despite the conclusion’s foreshadowing of coming struggles for the family in Clybourne Park.
Mama and her late husband Big Walter's vision of buying a house is the crux of the matter. Clinging to a vision that has been postponed for almost 35 years, Mama remembers Big Walter's comment that it feels that 'God did not see fit to give the black man nothing but dreams,' relating the postponement of his vision to racial injustice. Ironically, it is the death of Big Walter, with his resulting $10,000 insurance payment, that makes it possible for Mama's dream to be realized by the end of the game. Like Mama, Ruth clings to the illusion of a home that creates tension with her friend, Walter Lee, who dreams of becoming a self-sufficient business owner. In the same way, Walter's vision of running a convenience store (one of the first entrepreneurial projects opened to an African-American man in Chicago in the mid-century) is in sharp contrast to his sister Beneath's vision of being a doctor.
However, by the end of the play, Walter's lost investment puts both his and Beneatha 's dreams in jeopardy, casting a shadow over the semi-hopeful conclusion of the play, centered on Mama's actualized dream. With insurance money gone, Walter's and Beneatha's visions of the future seem to be in danger of further postponement, recalling larger conflicts with social forces beyond the reach of the characters.
The play, “Walter: See there, just goes to show you what women understand about the world. Baby, don’t anything happen for you in this world ‘less you pay somebody off! Ruth: Walter, leave me alone! Eat your eggs, they gonna be cold. Walter: That’s it. There you are. The man says to his woman: I got me a dream. His woman says: Eat your eggs. The man says: I got to take hold of this here world, baby! And a woman will say: Eat your eggs and go to work. The manThe man says: I got to change my life, I’m choking to death, baby! And his woman say – Your eggs are getting cold!” This quote occurs midway through a discussion between Walter Younger and his wife Ruth. Their son Travis has gone to school and Ruth cooks breakfast for Walter. As she cooks, Walter tells Ruth that he hopes to use his deceased father’s $10,000 life insurance money to invest in a down payment on a liquor store with his friends, Willy Harris and Bobo.
Ruth is wary of the investment. She doesn’t trust Willy and Bobo and continuously evades discussing the prospect of Walter using his father’s money on an investment. She finally tells him to leave her alone and he reacts with frustration at both his wife and his position in life; a black man in the 1950’s trying to provide for his family. This is the first time Hansberry touches on the idea of dreams and dreaming in A Raisin In The Sun, as well as differentiates between the dreams of men and the dreams of women. This scene highlights Walter’s aspirations for wealth and thereby an escape from his family’s poor Southside Chicago life. He is filled with hope and a deep longing for financial stability. This moment also underlines Walter’s continual feeling of being out of control and at the mercy of others. He is a chauffeur for a wealthy white family, and his mother is the sole inheritor of the $10,000, and so she will ultimately have the final say. In the period of the play, men were expected to lead and provide for their families, so Walter, who is the only man in the family but neither the final decision-maker nor the primary breadwinner, feels emasculated. He needs dreams to survive and retain his dignity.
Ruth on the other hand is pragmatic, as women had to be at the time. Her aspirations are less expansive. For her, survival means cooking breakfast, making sure her son gets to school, and she and her husband get to work. Thus, she responds to Walter’s big dreams with the utilitarian and simple task of 'eat your eggs.' As a woman (particularly a black woman) in this period, she does not have room to dream the way Walter dreams. Additionally, Walter chastises his 20-year-old sister Beneatha for wanting to be a doctor. Before this, Beneatha wakes up in the room she shares with her mother and comes out to talk with her family. Already in a fit of frustration regarding the insurance money, Walter suggests that his mother will play favorites and give a portion of the $10,000 to Beneatha to finish her schooling. He is both frustrated that his mother holds control of the money and bitter that a portion of it will go to his sister. “Walter: Who the hell told you you had to be a doctor? If you are so crazy ‘bout messing ‘round with sick people – then go be a nurse like other women – or just get married and be quiet . . .
Beneatha: Well – you finally got it said . . . It took you three years but you finally got it said.”, as stated in the play. This moment excavates themes of gender and feminism and dreams and dreaming. A Raisin In The Sun is set in the mid-1950s, a time when women weren’t seen as leaders in the workplace. Instead of doctors, they were more commonly nurses. Instead of business owners, they were secretaries. Many were housewives and mothers. Beneatha challenges the socially constructed expectations of both her gender and her race.
As a black woman pursuing a career in medicine, she fights stereotypes and aspires to go beyond what is culturally expected and even acceptable. Beneatha and Walter are more similar than they both think. Both of their aspirations extend beyond what society expects of them. However, Walter sees Beneatha’s role as exclusively mother and wife. Beneatha, on the other hand, doesn’t take Walter’s dream of opening a liquor store seriously. This moment is just the beginning of what will be an ongoing discourse between Walter and Beneatha regarding the validity of one another's dreams.
After breakfast, Walter exits the apartment and we are introduced to “Mama” or Lena Younger—Walter and Beneatha’s mother. She enters complaining about how loudly Walter slammed the door and then goes through a series of questions and commands. She checks in about how Walter is doing and makes jokes about her children. It becomes clear that the role of the mother is etched in her soul. This seems appropriate as she remains mostly nameless throughout the play, primarily referred to as “Mama.” In a moment alone, Ruth tells Mama that Beneatha and Walter have been fighting about the insurance money.
According to the text, “Mama, something is happening between Walter and me. I don’t know what it is – but he needs something – something I can’t give him anymore. He needs this chance, Lena.' Ruth then asks Mama how she plans on using that money. Mama dismisses this, but Ruth suggests that maybe gambling in the liquor store isn’t necessarily a bad idea. Mama asks why she’s changed her mind. In response, Ruth suggests that she can’t give Walter what he needs; a chance to fulfill his dreams. Ruth is exhausted and tired of working for hardly any pay, and at this moment shares that she wants more for herself, in the same way, Walter and Beneatha do. Except as a more traditional wife and mother, Ruth's dreams are her husband’s dreams.
She hopes to fix the problems in her marriage by helping Walter fulfill his dreams, and for this, he needs the insurance money. Towards the end of the play, we see an unforeseen dream not thought up by anyone come to a realization. Mr. Lindner arrives back at the Younger home and expresses that he's happy that Walter has changed his mind about re-selling their new house in Clybourne Park. Walter asks Travis to go downstairs but Mama makes him stay, telling Walter she wants Travis to see what is going to happen, 'where our five generations did come to.' According to the text, “And we have decided to move into our house because my father – my father – he earned it for us brick by brick. We don’t want to make any trouble for anybody or fight no causes, and we will try to be good neighbors. And that’s all we got to say about that. We don’t want your money.” Nervously, Walter goes on to explain to Mr. Lindner that he comes from a long line of people with a lot of pride. He calls Travis over and explains that Travis will be the sixth generation of Youngers in America.
Then, in an act of sudden bravery, Walter tells Lindner that they will keep the Clybourne Park house. Walter explains that his father earned that house and died for that house. His family has worked for five generations for that house, and they deserve it just as much as anyone else, white or black. Walter completely shifts his outlook on pride at this moment. Instead of seeing success and pride as linked to monetary wealth, he realizes that it is the groundwork of the people before him, the pride and dignity of his father, and the generations before him, that is important. With his son—a symbol of the future—on his lap, Walter shows an unwavering commitment to his family and his history, even in the face of the full power of institutional racism.
As a result of Walter’s sudden sense of pride, Mama has a moment alone with Ruth before leaving their apartment for the last time. She tells Ruth that she thinks Walter has finally “come into his manhood today, didn’t he? Kind of like a rainbow after the rain . . .' Like a rainbow after a storm, Walter's mistakes brought him closer to his sense of self as well as giving him a newfound pride in his history and identity. After this moment, Mama takes one final look at the apartment, and she stares at her plant sitting on the table. She feels an overwhelming wave of an undefined emotion (pain? sadness? fear?) and sticks her fist in her mouth to hide the scream welling up inside her. The lights dim and then re-light as she comes back into the space to grab her beloved plant. She leaves and the play ends.
Here, although she never says it directly to him, Mama finally recognizes Walter as a man. After creating a massive problem for the family by losing their money, he has made the final decision to move the family to Clybourne park. Putting his family's best interest first, this decision was to provide a better life for Travis and to prove that the Younger family never has and never will stand down in the face of oppression. Effectively crafting a new dream for the Younger family to grasp. While she's proud of Walter, at this moment we also see Mama overcome with emotion. Here, Hansberry hints that although the rainbow has arrived, more rain may still be on its way.
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