Study Guide

A Raisin in the Sun Poverty

By Lorraine Hansberry

Poverty

Act One, Scene One
Walter Younger

WALTER
Yeah. You see, this little liquor store we got in mind cost seventy-five thousand and we figured the initial investment on the place be ‘bout thirty thousand, see. That be ten thousand each. Course, there’s a couple of hundred you got to pay so’s you don’t spend your life just waiting for them clowns to let your license get approved – (1.1.79)

Walter believes that investing a whole lot of money will earn his family their fortune. He gets a lot of crap from his family about this idea from his family, but on paper it's really not a terrible idea. Unfortunately, Walter's would-be business partner, Willy Harris, turns out to be a total crook. In the end, the Youngers remain in poverty.

WALTER
Anybody who talks to me has got to be a good-for-nothing loudmouth, ain’t he? And what you know about who is just a good-for-nothing loudmouth? Charlie Atkins was just a "good-for-nothing loudmouth" too, wasn’t he! When he wanted me to go in the dry-cleaning business with him. And now – he’s grossing a hundred thousand a year. A hundred thousand dollars a year! You still call him a loudmouth! (1.1.71)

Money is a consistent reason for dispute between Walter and Ruth. This quote seems to suggest that Walter doesn't care who he goes into business with as long as it will result in more money.

WALTER
…Baby, don’t nothing happen for you in this world ‘less you pay somebody off! (1.1.81)

Walter believes he needs to spend money in order to gain money. And, in this case, he means to spend money on a bribe to help get his liquor license. It seems like Walter's poverty has helped to make him perfectly willing to be a little shady in his business dealings.

WALTER (Without even looking at his son, still staring hard at his wife)
In fact, here’s another fifty cents…Buy yourself some fruit today – or take a taxicab to school or something! (1.1.59)

Walter tries to prevent the family's economic status from affecting his son. He wants his son to have everything he ought to have.

WALTER
Have we figured out yet just exactly how much medical school is going to cost? (1.1.109)

Walter resents Beneatha's wish to become a doctor because it will cost the family a significant amount of money. The Youngers' poverty seems to often make them turn on each other.

Ruth Younger

RUTH
They said Saturday and this is just Friday and I hopes to God you ain’t going to get up here first thing this morning and start talking to me ‘bout no money – ‘cause I ‘bout don’t want to hear it. (1.1.5)

The ten thousand dollars is the first thing on everyone's mind because they are so accustomed to being worried about having enough money. Like many Americans the Youngers have had to struggle to make ends meet.

RUTH
Shallow – what do you mean he’s shallow? He’s rich!…Well – what other qualities a man got to have to satisfy you, little girl? (1.1.249)

Ruth jokes that wealth is the most important trait in a man. Somehow we doubt that she truly believes this. Otherwise, she never would have married Walter.

RUTH
Well, I ain’t got no fifty cents this morning…I don’t care what teacher say. I ain’t got it. Eat your breakfast, Travis. (1.1.28)

The Younger family is so poverty-stricken that Ruth must deny her child money required for class. She's really short with Travis about this. We wonder if her snippiness belies a sense of shame.

RUTH (Looks at him, then warms; teasing, but tenderly) Fifty cents? (She goes to her bag and gets money)
Here – take a taxi! (1.1.139)

Walter gave Travis his last fifty cents, forcing him to ask Ruth for money to go to work. This moment reveals a lot about Walter. For one, he's ashamed of his poverty and tries to hide it from his son even when it's totally impractical to do so. Ruth's character is also highlighted in this moment. Here, we see the kindness she shows Walter. She gives him the money even though he's totally undermined her in front of their son.

Beneatha Younger

BENEATHA
I mean it! I’m just tired of hearing about God all the time. What has He got to do with anything? Does he pay tuition? (1.1.277)

Bennie suggests that having faith does not ensure financial security. It could be that the family's poverty and struggles over the years have put a strain on the Christian faith that her mother brought her up in.

BENEATHA
Oh, Mama – The Murchisons are honest-to-God-real-live-rich colored people, and the only people in the world who are more snobbish than rich white people are rich colored people. I thought everybody knew that. I’ve met Mrs. Murchison. She’s a scene! (1.1.264)

George's family is one of the few black families that Beneatha has ever met that doesn't live in poverty. Of course, she is none too impressed with Murchisons and feels like their money has made them total snobs.

Act One, Scene Two
Lena Younger (Mama)

MAMA (Still staring at [the check])
Now don’t act silly…We ain’t never been no people to act silly ‘bout no money –
RUTH (Swiftly)
We ain’t never had none before – OPEN IT! (1.2.165-6)

The arrival of Walter's life insurance check is a momentous event. The Younger family is beside itself with the possible doors that money opens.

MAMA (Quietly)
Oh – (Very quietly)
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… (1.2.229)

This statement from Lena shows a real generational gap between her and her son. There's a good chance that her parents were born slaves. Lena would have grown up with the idea that just being free was a big accomplishment. However, Walter is further separated from slavery and so being a free man just isn't enough. To him, the goal is to make money and move up the socioeconomic ladder. What do you think about this? Is Walter not appreciating what he has? Or is Lena just out of touch with the times?

MAMA (She holds the check away from her, still looking at it. Slowly her face sobers into a mask of unhappiness)
Ten thousand dollars. (She hands it to RUTH) Put it away somewhere, Ruth. (She does not look at RUTH; her eyes seem to be seeing something somewhere very far off) Ten thousand dollars they give you. Ten thousand dollars. (1.2.169)

After Lena receives the much-anticipated money, she realizes there is no price someone can put on a lost loved one. It seems she would remain in total poverty if she could have her husband back.

Walter Younger

WALTER (Picks up the check)
Do you know what this money means to me? Do you know what this money can do for us? (Puts it back) Mama – Mama – I want so many things… (1.2.220)

Walter feels limited from opportunities because of the family's lack of money. The poverty that he's been trapped in for his entire life is starting to drive him crazy.

Beneatha Younger

BENEATHA
It is my business – where is he going to live, on the roof? (There is silence following the remark as the three women react to the sense of it) (1.2.54)

The family is so poverty-stricken that the birth of a new family member is bad news. There's just no more room in their tiny apartment for another person, and there's barely enough money to feed the ones who already live there.

WALTER
Listen, man, I got some plans that could turn this city upside down. I mean think like he does. Big. Invest big, gamble big, hell, lose big if you have to, you know what I mean. (2.1.77)

As is proven later by his dealings with Willy, Walter is willing to put a lot on the line in order to earn money. It seems like his life of poverty has made him a bit reckless. The ironic part is that it's this recklessness that lands him back in poverty by the end of the play.