According to the Oxford Dictionary, the American Dream is “the ideal that every US citizen should have an equal opportunity to achieve success and prosperity” (“American Dream”). In A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry shows a typical African-American family, the Youngers, struggling to achieve a typical American Dream of suburban living in affluence but unable to do it due to the depressing poverty and prejudice. Hansberry skillfully demonstrates that, while claiming that everyone is entitled to fulfill one’s ideal, the American Dream includes only white middle class and the realization of the Youngers’s dream is almost impossible. Although each member of the Younger family views the dream in terms of social mobility and financial stability, by the end of the play they redefine the existing American Dream and make a valid claim for it.
The title of the play is taken from Langston Hughes’s poem “Harlem,” where the poet inquires, “What happens to a dream deferred?” and answers with several rhetorical questions, one of which is “Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun?” (Hughes). Hansberry uses an image of a dried-up raisin to draw comparisons with African-American dreams of freedom and independence, which had seemed real in theory but were not achievable in real life. The Youngers are a family with class and dignity but they had been experiencing financial problems for years. Their domestic surroundings confirm it: the furniture was chosen with care and taste but the textiles are threadbare, the flat is exceptionally clean but it is no longer possible to hide its flagrant weariness. Living in South-Side Chicago, the family is awaiting the insurance money after the death of the head of the family, Walter Younger. Almost all family members believe that the money will help them solve their problems and their ‘hills and valleys’ will finally end.
Although Hansberry vaguely marks the time period of the play as “sometime between World War II and the present,” it is clear that African-Americans have a nominal freedom but are unable to enjoy it to the full extend. Under such conditions, observing the affluence of the whites, each family member imagines their American Dream in their own way. For Walter, it is limited to financial success; Beneatha dreams to become a doctor; while Mama and Ruth will be content to have a house. Thus, the Younger family wants to join the collective American Dream of a suburban living with a bread-winning head of the family and children in college, usually “associated with white, suburban, middle-class culture” (Bloom 17). However, the fact that the Youngers are of different race, class, and income makes them unsuitable to reach their dream. Lloyd W. Brown says, “their deprivations expose the gap between the American Dream and the Black American reality” (Brown 241).
Throughout the play the dream of every member of the Younger family suffers transformation. The viewer first sees Walter as a man obsessed with a desire to move upward in society and gain financial stability. Being enchanted by the way of white rich people living he worked for as a driver, Walter wants the same for himself and his family. He believes that all the bitterness and frustration will disappear as soon as he receives the insurance money and invests it into a liquor business. Awaiting $10,000 insurance, Walter cannot relax and constantly worries that Mama would refuse him the money to invest. He begs his wife to help him persuade Mama to give him money. Answering to his wife’s reproach that he keeps company with “good-for-nothing loudmouths,” Walter bitterly reminds Ruth that the same opinion she had of Charlie Atkins who was not “grossing a hundred thousand a year” (Hansberry 493). Such preoccupation with the money and Walter’s fidgety attitude reveal that his American Dream is simply reduced to financial success.
However, in Act II Hansberry disclosed another side of the Walter’s character, not materialistic but tragic and caring about his African heritage. In Act II, scene I, Walter begins his comic act in his personalization of an African tribal chief. Drunken Walter jumps on the table and cries out words in one of the Ethiopian languages thumping his chest and calling people to follow him (Hansberry 526). By the end of this act Walter reveals himself as a person searching for his identity and self-actuation. In Act II, scene III, Walter demonstrates that he is not as much materialistic as he seems to be. He puts his son Travis to bed and voices the elements of his dream, it becomes clear that apart from money he wants higher status and professional fulfillments for himself, as well more satisfying relationship with his wife and ability to provide good education for his son (Hansberry 547).
Mama, Lena Younger, dreams of a new house where all her family could comfortably fit in and feel themselves freely and not as crowded as they are used to. Coming from a different generation between the struggle for civil rights, Mama is quite taken aback by Walter’s constant pursuit of money and Beneatha’s search for identity. In Act I, scene II, Walter and Mama exchange their worldviews. For Walter, money equals life, the quality of life, the ability to afford what one wants and better opportunities for the family. Mama, in her turn, expresses her astonishment by saying: “So now it’s life. Money is life. Once upon a time freedom used to be life – now it’s money. I guess the world really do change” (Hansberry 522). Mama may belong to a second generation born in freedom, and probably her grandparents were born in slavery. Thus, she views the issues of freedom and money differently. Being strong both physically and morally she actually becomes the head of the household. Lena is an archetypal African-American mom who is sturdy, loud and religious. She slaps her daughter for professing her atheistic views and makes a decision to buy a new house on her own. However, Mama’s ability to see that her actions ruin Walter eventually opens Walter’s eyes and makes him able to ‘become a man.’ While dreaming about her house and seeing her self-actualization in being a housewife, Mama is ready to redefine her dream for her children.
Beneatha is the first generation of women in this family who gets her education and views herself not necessarily in terms of wife and mother. Beneatha is looking for her identity wishing to help people and make the world a better place. Her desires are supported by Asagai, a young intellectual student from Nigeria who prompts her to explore her African roots and claim her African heritage. He believes that African-American struggle for liberation should not be limited to the USA only but include Africa and other oppressed countries (Wilkerson 82). Seeing how Walter’s loss of money makes Beneatha upset, Asagai points out that she may unconsciously use it as a pretext to stop “the ailing human race” (Hansberry 565). Asagai argues that her brother’s stupidity should not avert her from the right path, because in the long run, a mistake of one is not going to stop the whole movement. Asagai’s speech expresses doubts and arguments of many African-Americans who were struggling to have their rights accepted and acted upon. Through Asagai’s image, Hansberry rejects the idea that the civil rights movement does not give any results and says that even when at some moment it may seem a retrogressive phase, there is a constant movement forward (Hansberry 565-566).
The inability to pursuit the American Dream affects Walter powerfully. His chauffeur job is not fulfilling, and he feels that living such way will not bring him anything in the future. Walter describes the void of his future the following way:
Sometimes it’s like I can see the future stretched out in front of me – just plain as day. The future, Mama. Hanging over there at the edge of my days. Just waiting for me – a big, looming blank space – full of nothing. Just waiting for me (Hansberry 522).
Inasmuch as it was impossible to Walter to attain success, he begins to connect it to his manhood and his perception of himself. According to Brown, Walter’s financial deprivation likens him to “the affluent bourgeoisie in that they, too, view materialistic achievements as self-justifying, even self-redeeming, goals” (Brown 242). That is why Walter is willing to become involved in any kind of business schemes, if only it could improve his financial situation. Despite his mother’s and his wife’s protestations that it is an un-Christian and ungodly way of behavior, he is eager to participate in liquor selling. Placing so much importance on money, Walter is completely changed when Mama entrusts him with the balance of the insurance money after she had made the first payment for the house. From an irritable and frustrated man, Walter turns into an affectionate husband and father. He feels more confident and believes that they are on their way to a better future.
However, Hansberry shows that for the African-American people at the time of the play (1959) financial success was not a solution of the problem. As a sign of their difficulties to fit into their new white community in Clybourne Park, the Youngers find out about a recent bombing of colored people who live in white areas in Chicago (541). Anyway, Lena Younger acts on her right to live where she wants and she reasons that if property prices are lower and houses are better in the areas where white people live it is her right to live there, as well. Helene Keyssar argues that “Hansberry directly undercuts the central middle-class American notion of “equality of opportunity” by presenting the white man, Mr. Lindner, who finally believes that opportunities for blacks should not be identical with those for whites” (143). Believing that money can solve the problem of the exclusion from the white society, the Youngers receive a refutation of such idea by being offered not to move to the new white neighborhood.
Further, Walter receives another proving that financial success is not enough to fulfill his American Dream. Apart from an obvious unwillingness of the white community to accept the African-American family in and, thus, acknowledging their middle class status, the Youngers are robbed of their insurance money. Walter is depressed and, following his materialistic ideal, he is ready to neglect his family’s pride and values and take money from Karl Lindner, a representative of the Clybourne Park white community. If he had done it, it would have been the triumph of materialism because at this point Walter believes that money can justify everything: “There ain’t no causes – there ain’t nothing but taking in this world and he who takes most is smartest – and it don’t make a damn bit of difference how” (Hansberry 571). However, the wisdom and support of Walter’s mother help him overcome the difficult situation and “finally come into his manhood” by refusing the money Mr. Lindner had offered and deciding to move in any case (Hansberry 577).
Margaret B. Wilkerson argues that, alongside with Asagai, Walter is a new type of revolutionaries (82). Mama’s silent support of Walter makes it possible for him to realize his mistake in undervaluing his integrity. Walter embodies two aspects necessary for a revolutionary movement. He comes from proud ancestry, just as his mother, and he has the restlessness of his generation to change world order. At the end of the play Walter morphs into “the symbolic father of the aggressive, articulate black characters who would stride the boards in the 1960s” (Wilkerson 82).
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Brown argues that Hansberry “rejects integration or the economic and moral promise of the American dream, but that she remains loyal to this dream ideal while looking, realistically, at its corruption in the United States” (240). In A Raisin in the Sun, Hansberry revealed a problem between the ideal and the inability to fulfill it in lives of certain groups of American citizens. Walter had been observing the American Dream in lives of whites and wanted the same for himself and his family but the impossibility to attain it frustrated and negatively influenced him. In the image of Walter, Hansberry showed how people confuse materialism with the American Dream allowing themselves to justify all their actions with it. However, by the end of the play Walter began to see the purpose in personal fulfillment, rather than just material affluence. Ultimately, Hansberry demonstrated how the redefining of the American Dream can begin with a single family, which will inevitable be supported by the masses of other families in similar situations.