A Raisin in the Sun

Life is filled with disappointment. Sometimes people don't behave the way we expect, plans don't come out how we anticipate, and our desires and wants go unmet. Many believe that the genuine test of a person's character lies in their response to these disappointments. Set in a 1950s America recovering from the Great Depression, and during a time of racial tension and social upheaval, Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun" (1959) explores the social dynamics of the time. 

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Table of contents

    This drama challenges issues ranging from racism, marriage, poverty, and education, to family dynamics, abortion, and social mobility. "A Raisin in the Sun" was a revolutionary work for its time, with leading African-American characters that were portrayed seriously and as three-dimensional beings. Throughout, we see how each family member struggles with their own dreams and failures. Then, consider how do you respond when you have a "dream deferred"?

    Why do you think Hansberry chose "A Raisin in the Sun" as the title to her drama?

    "A Raisin in the Sun" Title

    The title of the drama is inspired by a poem written by Harlem Renaissance poet and African-American Langston Hughes. The poem it references, "Harlem" (1951), is about life's aspirations and plans. Using simile to explore what happens to dreams that go unrealized, Hughes examines the fate of dreams that have not been accomplished, and the feelings of disillusionment and hopelessness that result from failed goals. The figurative comparisons throughout the poem use imagery to illustrate that abandoned dreams can whither, decay, and weigh down an individual's will. The ending line of the poem uses a rhetorical question, "Or does it explode?" and proves how destructive shelved dreams can be.

    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?

    Maybe it just sags

    like a heavy load.

    Or does it explode?

    "Harlem" by Langston Hughes (1951)

    A Raisin in the sun, Raisins, StudySmarterIn the poem "Harlem" raisins represent unrealized dreams, pexels.

    "A Raisin in the Sun" Context

    "A Raisin in the Sun" addresses crucial issues that people in the United States faced in the 1950s. Social groups, including minorities such as women and African-Americans, were commonly expected to conform to societal standards, and any challenges against social policies were frowned upon. Lorraine Hansberry's play focuses on an African-American family, the Youngers, struggling with the death of Mr. Younger, the father of now adult children. Before "A Raisin in the Sun", the role of African-Americans in theater was largely diminished and consisted of a compilation of small, comedic, stereotypical figures.

    Hansberry's drama explores the tension between white people and black people in society and the struggles African-Americans faced with constructing their own racial identity. While some believed the proper response to oppression was to respond with violence, others, like civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., believed in active non-violent resistance.

    When Lorraine Hansberry was young, her father spent a large amount of the family's saving to purchase a home in a predominantly white neighborhood. Carl Hansberry, her father and a real estate developer, purchased a three-story brick townhome in Chicago and promptly moved the family in. The house, now a landmark, was central to a three-year long battle Carl Hansberry fought in the Supreme Court with the support of the NAACP. The neighborhood was hostile, and Hansberry's family, including the children, were spat at, cursed at, and pummeled going to and from work and school. Hansberry's mother would guard the house as the children slept at night, with a German Luger pistol in her hand.1

    "A Rasin in the Sun" Summary

    "A Raisin in the Sun" is a drama written by Lorraine Hansberry set during the 1950s. It focuses on the Younger family, their relationships, and how they navigate life during a time of extreme racism and oppression. Having just lost the patriarch of the family, Mr. Younger, the family is left to decide what to do with the money from his life insurance policy. Each member has a plan for what they want to use the money for. Mama wants to buy a house, while Beneatha wants to use it for college. Walter-Lee wants to invest in a business opportunity.

    As a subplot, Walter's wife Ruth suspects she is pregnant and considers abortion as an option because she fears there is no room, and no financial support, for another child. The family's differing ideas and values cause conflict within the family and lead to the central protagonist, Walter, making a bad business decision. He takes the insurance money and invests it in a liquor store. He is robbed by a business partner, and his family is left to deal with his actions.

    "A Raisin in the Sun" Setting

    "A Raisin in the Sun" is set in the late 1950s, in Southside Chicago. Most of the action of the play takes place in the Youngers' small 2-bedroom apartment. With a five-person family living in a cramped apartment, the drama deals with the internal family dynamics as well as their external troubles stemming from racism, poverty, and social stigmas. Mama, the grandmother of the family, shares a room with her adult daughter, Beneatha. Mama's son, Walter, and his wife Ruth share the other bedroom together while the youngest family member, Travis, sleeps on the couch in the living room.

    In a nation slowing recovering from the Great Depression, the Youngers are an African-American family, part of the demographic that was hit hardest by the effects of the Great Depression. Mama's husband, and Beneatha's and Walter's father, has died, and the family is awaiting his life insurance money. Each member has a different desire and wants to use the insurance money to help achieve their goal. The family clashes over these conflicting wants, while each individual struggles to find their path through life.

    "A Raisin in the Sun" Characters

    "A Raisin in the Sun" marks one of the first times an entire cast of African-American characters were at the center of a drama. For the first time, the characters are authentic, strong, and true-to-life. Understanding each character and their role in the family is central to understanding the theme of the drama.

    Big Walter

    Big Walter is the patriarch of the family, father to Walter-Lee and Beneatha, and husband to Mama (Lena) Younger. He has just died when the play begins, and the family is awaiting the funds from his life insurance policy. The family must come to terms with his loss and arrive at a consensus on how to spend his life's work.

    Mama (Lena) Younger

    Lena, or Mama as she is primarily known throughout the play, is the matriarch of the family and struggling to come to terms with the recent death of her husband. She is Walter and Bennie's mother, a devout woman with a strong moral compass. Believing that a home with a backyard is emblematic of social and financial stability, she wants to purchase a house for the family with her late-husband's insurance money. The home is in a better neighborhood than where the family currently lives, but in an all-white neighborhood.

    Walter Lee Younger

    Walter Lee, the protagonist of the play, is a chauffeur but dreams of being rich. His wages are meager, and although he makes enough to keep the family afloat, he wants to become more than a driver for people who are affluent and white. He has a strained relationship with his wife, Ruth, but works hard and sometimes feels overwhelmed by the family's financial situation and other problems. His dream is to become a businessman and own his own liquor store.

    Beneatha "Bennie" Younger

    Beneatha, or Bennie, is Walter's younger sister. She is 20 years old and a college student. The most educated of the family, Beneatha represents the evolving mentality of the more educated African-American generation and often finds herself conflicting with the ideals her more conservative mother maintains. Beneatha dreams of becoming a doctor, and struggles to maintain a balance between being an educated African-American woman and honoring her culture and family.

    A Raisin in the Sun, Graduate holding a diploma, StudySmarterBeneatha wants to earn her degree and become a doctor, pexels.

    Ruth Younger

    Ruth is Walter's wife and mother to young Travis. She maintains a good relationship with everyone in the apartment, although her relationship with Walter is somewhat strained. She is a devoted wife and mother and works hard to maintain the home and feed her family. Because of her life's struggles, she appears older than she is, but is a strong and resolute woman.

    Though not frequently used now, the word "ruth" is an archaic word that means to have compassion or pity for another and to feel sorrowful for one's own faults. It is the root of the word "ruthless," still commonly used today.

    Travis Younger

    Travis Younger, Walter and Ruth's son, is the youngest of the Youngers and represents an innocence and the promise of a better life. He is understanding, enjoys playing outside with the neighborhood children, and earns what he can to help the family by carrying grocery bags for shoppers at the grocer.

    Joseph Asagai

    Joseph Asagai is a Nigerian student, who is proud of his African heritage, and in love with Beneatha. He often visits Bennie in the apartment, and she hopes to learn of her heritage from him. He proposes to her and asks her to return to Nigeria with him to become a doctor and practice there.

    George Murchison

    George Murchison is a wealthy African-American man interested in Beneatha. Beneatha is critical of his acceptance of white culture, although the Youngers approve of him because he can provide a better life for her. He is a foil character, and the two characters of Asagai and Murchison represent the contrasting philosophies that African-Americans struggled with.

    A foil character is a character is serves as a contrast for a second character in order to highlight specific traits.


    Bobo is Walter's acquaintance and hopes to be a partner is Walter's business plan. He is a flat character, and is not very astute. Bobo is a dodo.

    A flat character is two-dimensional, requires little back story, is uncomplicated, and does not develop as a character or change throughout the piece.

    Willy Harris

    Willy Harris is a con-man who poses as a friend to Walter and Bobo. Although he never appears on stage, he coordinates the business arrangement for the men, and collects their money from them.

    Mrs. Johnson

    Mrs. Johson is the Younger's neighbor who warns them about moving to a predominately white neighborhood. She fears the struggles they will face.

    Karl Lindner

    Karl Lindner is the only non-African-American in the play. He is a representative from Clybourne Park, the area where the Youngers plan to move. He offers them a deal to keep them out of his neighborhood.

    "A Raisin in the Sun" Themes

    "A Raisin in the Sun" shows how the Youngers deal with the prospect of attaining their dreams and what obstacles stand in their way. Ultimately, they must determine what is most important in life. A few themes in "A Raisin in the Sun" are key to understanding the drama.

    The value dreams hold

    Dreams give people hope and provide them with the means to continue. Having hope means to believe in a better tomorrow, and that belief leads to a resilient spirit. The insurance money from a family member's death ironically gives the Youngers' dreams new life. Suddenly their aspirations seem attainable. Beneatha can see a future as a doctor, Walter can realize his dream of owning a liquor store, and Mama can become a landowner with a home for her family. Ultimately, Mama's dream is the one realized because it is the one that serves as a uniting force for the family, and the one that secures a better and more stable life for the youngest Younger.

    The importance of family

    Proximity does not make a family close. We see that concept realized in the actions of the play. Throughout the play, the family is physically close to one another while sharing a tiny two-bedroom home. However, their core beliefs cause them to bicker and be at odds with one another. Mama, the matriarch of the family and the uniting force, proves by example that family bonds strengthen people. She is able to instill this in her children as the entire family unites to refuse an insulting proposition from Linder, who offers money to keep them out of the neighborhood.

    "A Raisin in the Sun" Important Quotes

    The following quotes are central to the theme and meaning of "A Raisin in the Sun".

    [M]oney is life.

    (Act I, Scene ii)

    Uttered by Walter, this quote surfaces the idea that money is important to the livelihood of individuals, but proves that Walter has a skewed sense of the true value of life. Mama reminds him by explaining how his worries pale in comparison to worrying about being lynched, and explains that she and he are different. Their life philosophies differ vastly, and in a greater context they serve as symbols of the two different generations that coexist during that time. Mama's generation values basic freedom and her family's health above all. For Walter, his physical freedom has always been granted, so his notion of freedom is financial and social mobility. He does not feel free until he can have the same advantages as white men. He sees that these inequities can be overcome with financial affluence, so he is obsessed with money and always seeks it. For Walter, money is freedom.

    Son- I come from five generations of people who was slaves and sharecroppers – but ain’t nobody in my family never let nobody pay ‘em no money that was a way of telling us we wasn’t fit to walk the earth. We ain’t never been that poor. (Raising her eyes and looking at him) We ain’t never been that – dead inside.

    (Act III, scene i)

    In this final act of the play, the Youngers have been propositioned by Lindner to stay out of the neighborhood. He offers them money to not buy property in an all-white neighborhood. While Walter is contemplating taking the offer, Mama reminds him to have honor and pride in who he is. She explains he is worthy to "walk the earth" and that no one can take his value from him. Mama is trying to impress upon him the value of his own life, culture, heritage, and family over money and materialistic items.

    A Raisin in the Sun - Key takeaways

    • "A Raisin in the Sun" is a play by Lorraine Hansberry that was published in 1959.
    • The drama is inspired by Hansberry's experiences as a child when her father, Carl Hansberry, purchased a home in a predominantly white neighborhood.
    • The play deals with issues of racism, oppression, the value of dreams and the struggle to achieve them.
    • The role of family is central to the action of the play and helps to frame the theme of the importance of family and one's own life, culture, and heritage over money and materialistic goods.
    • A line in "Harlem", a poem written by Langston Hughes, inspires the title of "A Raisin in the Sun".

    1. Eben Shapiro, 'Cultural History: The Real-Life Backstory to "Raisin in the Sun", The Wall Street Journal, (2014).

    Frequently Asked Questions about A Raisin in the Sun

    Is "A Raisin in the Sun" based on a true story?

    "A Raisin in the Sun" is inspired by the real life experiences of Lorraine Hansberry. When she was growing up her father purchased a home in a white neighborhood. She recalled the violence she and her family were subjected to while her father, Carl Hansberry, fought in the courts with the support of the NAACP. Her mother spent nights pacing the house and holding a pistol to guard her four children.

    What is the meaning of the title "A Raisin in the Sun"?

    The title "A Raisin in the Sun" comes from a Langston Hughes poem called "Harlem". Equating "a dream deferred" to several images, Hughes begins the poem by asking if forgotten or unaccomplished dreams dry up "like a raisin in the sun."

    What is the message of "A Raisin in the Sun"?

    The drama "A Raisin in the Sun" is about dreams and the struggles people go through to achieve them. It also deals with racial injustice and explores what happens to people when their dreams are not realized. 

    What news does Bobo bring Walter? 

    Bobo tells Walter that Willy ran off with all of their investment money.

    How did Walter lose the money? 

    Walter loses the money through an error in judgement and a bad investment with a crook, Willy, who posed as a friend.

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