Life is rough for the Younger family, and Hansberry's use of somber tone is appropriate to that. At the same time, however, she injects a heavy dose of irony and sarcasm. Did you notice how Hansberry writes "Drily" in a lot of the line directions? (Wait, is that just "dryly" spelled a different way? Yes, it is.) The Youngers have a bite in how they talk; there's a fun tongue-in-cheek kind of feel, especially in Walter and Beneatha's sibling chats.
One of the single most ironic moments in the play, however, might be when Mr. Lindner explains that the people he represents have worked hard to achieve their dreams. In that single scene, the characters don't notice the irony so much as the audience does. It's Hansberry at her finest – exposing how the American Dream can ring hollow for black Americans.
A Raisin in the Sun was part of a broader movement to portray the lives of ordinary, working-class African-Americans. The genre of Realism captures ordinary life, and A Raisin in the Sun definitely fits this description. Dreams of buying a house, making some money in business, and going to medical school are dreams shared by millions of working-class Americans. And if you can’t figure out why this play is a Family Drama, then we seriously screwed up our job.
Hansberry names the play after a line in the poem "Harlem" (sometimes called "Dream Deferred"), by the great Harlem Rennaisance poet Langston Hughes. In the poem, Hughes asks: "What happens to a dream deferred?/ Does it dry up/ like a raisin in the sun?"
While we don't see a single raisin in the play, we do see a lot of deferred dreams – and at the end, one dream fulfilled. (The poem is the play's epigraph, so you'll hear more about this in "What's Up with the Epigraph?" Also, be sure to check out Shmoop's learning guide to "Harlem.")
Hansberry welcomes us into the tiny apartment of the Younger family. This place is really cramped, especially with five people living in it. On stage we see the kitchen, which is so small that it's more like a closet. Most of the play's action goes down in the living room, which also serves as the dining room and Travis's makeshift bedroom.
There's access to two bedrooms on opposite sides of the apartment (one room shared by Mama and Beneatha, the other by Walter and Ruth). The bathroom is out in the hall; the Youngers are forced to share it with their neighbors, the Johnsons. So, yeah, you get the point – this place is small!
The incredibly close quarters of the Youngers' apartment definitely adds to the high tensions that run throughout the play. It's a wonder the family doesn't fight more than they already do, considering how on top of each other they're forced to live.
The tininess of the apartment definitely has a major effect on the action of the play early on. When Ruth finds out she's pregnant, she seriously considers having an abortion. If the baby is born, there just won't be anywhere for it to sleep. This thought is just too much for Mama, however. When she realizes what her daughter-in-law is considering, she marches straight out and purchases a new setting for her family to live in – the house in Clybourne Park.
Be sure to look at set design pictures in order to better visualize the space. To see how professional Scene Designers have brought the Younger apartment to life onstage, look online. (Or better yet, attend a theatre production.) Here's an example.
The neighborhood which the Youngers live in is particularly significant because, during the 1950s, it was primarily a poor neighborhood inhabited mainly by African Americans. Many blacks ended up in Chicago's Southside after migrating from the South, looking for work and seeking to escape racial discrimination.
Things were definitely better in the North on a lot of levels, but blacks still faced many challenges because of their race. As A Raisin in the Sun shows, white society made it very hard for African Americans to escape the cramped, vermin-infested apartment buildings of Chicago's Southside. There may not have been any law officially segregating the city, but unofficial segregation was still going on.
The exact year is never specified, but the play takes place in the 1950s. Probably, the most significant thing to think about as far as the time period goes is the status of race issues. A lot of progress had been made by this point in American history, but as A Raisin in the Sun shows, there was still a long, long way to go.
The 1950s was a sort of turning point in America, the decade that brought the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. During much of the 1950s, the South was segregated by racist Jim Crow laws. And, as we point out in our entry on the Southside, many African Americans faced unofficial racial barriers in the North. The racial tensions of the time period definitely fuel the conflicts of the play.
Beneatha's character, in particular, is grounded in the time period, as she deals with very timely socio-political issues. In a way, though, she is totally ahead of her time. We have no doubt that if Beneatha was still in the US around in the 1960s she would definitely be marching with Dr. King. Beneatha is also head of her time with the idea that African Americans should be more in touch their African roots. This became a major movement among black Americans later on in the '60s. With the character of Beneatha, Hansberry predicted (and possibly helped to spark) some major movements in American history.
Want to learn more about the historical context around this play? Check out these Shmoop US History learning guides:
Interested in studying another play about an African-American family set in the 1950s? If so, check out Shmoop's learning guide on August's Wilson's Fences.
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?
- Langston Hughes
First of all, it’s a poem. With a lot of questions. Its central question, however, is "what happens to a dream deferred?" meaning basically "what happens when your dreams don’t come true?" only Hughes’s version sounds better. He poses a couple of graphic suggestions: do the dreams dry, fester, run, stink, crust, sugar, sag, or explode? If we make like kindergarteners and play a little game of, "what doesn’t belong," the word explode fits the bill. While the other verbs deal with decay, waste, or extinction, explode is considerably more active, more powerful. No wonder Hughes chose to use it last.
All right, time to explore some context. Hughes was a major leader and poet in the Harlem Renaissance, which means that although anyone can have dreams, Hughes was specifically addressing the situation of blacks in America, who had been systematically denied access to the various American dreams of education, career, purchasing power, etc. Asking if deferred dreams explode is a subtle (or not so subtle) way of reminding readers that deferred dreams don’t always decay and disappear; they can very well trigger explosions.
So why did Hansberry use this as the epigraph for her play? Although the play ends with the Younger family achieving one of their dreams – of moving out of the slums and into an actual house – the play leaves us hanging in regards to the other dreams. Beneatha still needs tuition money for medical school and Walter still doesn’t have a rewarding job. This reflects the similarly in-between situation of blacks in America at the time. While they had fulfilled some dreams (i.e., freedom, integrated education) there were still plenty of ones that had been continually deferred (i.e., equal opportunity employment). The epigraph is a way for Hansberry to point to both the universal nature of her play – everyone has dreams – and its particular nature – black Americans have been forced to defer their dreams more than others.
The plant that Mama keeps near the apartment’s sole window is barely surviving because it lacks adequate nourishment. Sound like anyone else we know? Yet she is completely dedicated to the plant and lovingly tends it every single day in the hopes that it will one day be able to flourish. Gosh. Sound like her behavior towards anyone else? This is by far the play’s most overt symbol; the plant acts as a metaphor for the family.
Hansberry writes about sunlight and how the old apartment has so little of it. The first thing Ruth asks about in Act Two, Scene One is whether or not the new house will have a lot of sunlight. Sunlight is a familiar symbol for hope and life, since all human life depends on warmth and energy from the sun.
These creatures heavily reinforce the Younger family’s undesirable living situation.
Sounds pretty wretched to us. The Younger family doesn’t have much except for dreams. Walter dreams of a great business career, his mother dreams of a house with a garden, and his sister Beneatha dreams of one day becoming a doctor.
Yay, one dream is fulfilled! The family can move into a proper house where they can have a garden, their own bathroom, and a space to call their own. This is definitely only the Initial Success stage, however, because trials and tribulations are destined to hit the Younger family.
Mama entrusts $6,500 to Walter, who promptly hands it over to a man who makes like a tree and leaves. Walter is overcome with shame for making this bad, bad decision, and remembers that Karl Lindner has offered to purchase their new house at a profit for the family.
Walter calls Mr. Lindner and says he’s willing to sign the contracts. Meanwhile, his family is shocked that money is worth more to Walter than principle. When Mr. Lindner shows up and lays out the contracts, Walter is facing his final test.
Walter points out to Mr. Lindner that the Younger family has worked incredibly hard to fulfill their dream of moving out of the ghetto and owning a house. By refusing Mr. Lindner’s offer, Walter is placing the psychological needs of his family before monetary gains. This finale means that at least one family member’s dream is achieved.
The play opens with the five members of the Younger family working their butts off, living in a cramped roach-infested apartment, and sharing a bathroom with neighbors across the hall. Although life is less than peachy, they do have hope for change. A very large check is coming in the mail. Until this check comes, however, we’re still stuck in the Initial Situation.
Money tends to lead to conflict, doesn’t it? Walter Younger wants to go into business and invest the money in a liquor store, but his mother has her heart set on purchasing a house and getting her family out of their cramped quarters. This leads to several tearful scenes and disagreement, otherwise known as conflict.
OK so clearly not everyone gets what they want. That would be known as a Disney movie. In this play, Mama buys a house – but in a white neighborhood that really doesn’t want black neighbors. She expresses her faith in Walter by giving him the rest of the money, but instead of saving some of it like his mother told him to, Walter hands every last dime of it over to a man named Willy, who promptly takes off for destinations unknown. Needless to say, this isn’t a great situation. One might even call it complicated.
When a representative from their new neighborhood comes knocking and offers to buy the family out of their house (and throw in a little extra on top), the family kicks him out. But the climax of the play is when Walter calls the man back in, announcing that he is going to accept the offer. Mama is aghast.
Walter’s drawn-out monologue suggests that his reservations against consenting to the park association are considerable. He wants to be a strong person, but he also wants to right the wrong he did to his family when he lost their money. At the end of it all, Walter must decide what to tell Karl.
In his shining moment, Walter tells Karl that the Younger family is a proud family, and that they have no plans to cause trouble when they move into Clybourne Park. The suspense is finally resolved; Travis’s naïve presence jolted Walter into standing up for principle.
A comfortable and loving atmosphere comes to life after Karl leaves. The family instructs the moving men and prepares to start a new chapter of their life.
The Younger family awaits a check in the mail. This Holy Grail will fulfill their respective dreams.
Lena announces she’s bought a house in a white neighborhood; a totally-not-racist-at-all (right…) representative of the neighborhood shows up and offers more money for them to not move in.
Walter gives in to the racism and then takes it back at the last second. The family prepares to move in to their new home.