Study Guide

A Raisin in the Sun

A Raisin in the Sun Summary

Set in the aftermath of World War II, the Younger family is facing its own war against racism in the Chicago slums. America’s complicated history of racial tension between black Americans and white Americans is ingrained into the Youngers’ everyday lives. Single mother (and grandmother) Lena Younger, her daughter Beneatha, and her son Walter (plus his wife Ruth and their son Travis) squeeze into a run-down two-bedroom apartment. According to our count, that’s five people in a space built for three.

Not only do these characters feel confined by their physical home space, they also feel restricted by the social roles they’ve been assigned. For example, socially-progressive Beneatha (Bennie) studies to become a doctor, despite the financial strain it puts on the low-income family. Walter works as a chauffeur for a white man, but he dreams of opening a liquor store with his buddies and making more money for his family. His wife Ruth draws no attention to her own desires, cleaning up after the rest of the family members as well as the houses where she works. Toward the beginning of the play, we learn that Ruth is pregnant, which only complicates the family situation. The family is not affluent enough to provide for another life, so Ruth prepares to abort her child.

But the Youngers have a chance at a new beginning. Ten thousand dollars is coming in the mail, and Lena must decide what to do with it. Bennie hopes for tuition money, Walter hopes for the down payment on his liquor store, and Ruth just wants her family to be happy. Then three huge events happen: 1) Lena decides to buy a house for the family…in a white neighborhood, 2) Lena entrusts the rest of the money to Walter, advising him to save a good amount for Beneatha’s schooling, and 3) Walter loses all the money in the liquor store scam. Morale goes from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows.

When a white man, Karl, comes to buy out the Youngers’ new house, Walter figures that giving in to The Man is the only way to get some money for his family. In the play’s climactic moment, Walter must decide between standing up for his family’s rights and standing up for his ego and role as the breadwinner of the family. Fortunately for the Youngers, and for Broadway history, Walter sides with his family’s rights and declines Karl’s offer. The family will move into their new home.

  • Act One, Scene One

    • The play opens in an apartment worn down from generations of ownership. It’s in the South Side of Chicago, and it’s a three-room apartment – there’s a bedroom for Mama and Beneatha, a bedroom for Ruth and Walter Lee, and their son Travis sleeps on a couch in a living room.
    • Ruth Younger is preparing for the day. She wakes up and feeds her son Travis and husband Walter.
    • While Travis is in the bathroom, which is also the bathroom the neighbors use, his parents discuss the check coming in the mail.
    • What check, you ask? Don’t worry; you’re not supposed to know what they’re talking about just yet.
    • The family doesn’t seem all that happy. Ruth in particular is indifferent and irritable.
    • Travis requests fifty cents for school, but Ruth insists that he go without. Ruth succeeds in teasing him into giving her a kiss good-bye.
    • Travis asks for permission to carry groceries at the supermarket after school for money. Then his daddy hands him a dollar while staring pointedly at Ruth in a how-do-you-like-this kind of way.
    • Ruth is not a happy camper.
    • After Travis leaves, Walter brings up a business plan he and his friends are concocting, which triggers an argument between the married couple.
    • Walter says that he wants to partner up with his friends Willy Harris and Bobo to open up a liquor store. It sounds rather shady, but Walter continues dreaming of it as a way out of poverty.
    • Ruth keeps telling him to eat his eggs.
    • Water gets angry; he wants his wife to nod, smile, and support him.
    • Beneatha Younger, also referred to as Bennie, emerges from the left bedroom.
    • She wants to use the bathroom but those dratted neighbors and their bodily functions prevent her from doing so.
    • So she stands around and chats with her brother Walter, by which we mean Walter tells her, "woman, what kind of woman studies medicine?" He also points out that her tuition money will cut into the insurance check.
    • Aha! Insurance check. We find out that the big Check they’re all waiting for is from when Mama’s husband (also known as Bennie and Walter’s father) passed away. It’s for $10,000, which this family could come up with about a million different uses for.
    • Bennie argues that the check belongs to Mama, and Walter leaves for his job as a chauffeur. After asking Ruth for carfare (his money went to Travis, remember?), he leaves for work.
    • Lena (a.k.a. Mama) enters and makes a beeline for a plant she keeps outside the kitchen window (which, by the way, is the only window in the apartment).
    • Despite Ruth’s earlier argument with Walter, she backs the liquor store idea to her mother-in-law. Ruth argues that Walter needs this chance.
    • Mama points out that Ruth looks dead tired and she should stay home from work; Ruth says they need the money.
    • Mama says they’re all too obsessed with money.
    • Ruth argues that the money belongs to Mama, and suggests that she take a trip to Europe or South America. Mama isn’t keen on the idea. She says some of the money will definitely go towards Beneatha’s education, and then that some of it could also go towards the down payment on a house.
    • Mama reminisces about her husband, whom she refers to as Big Walter, and their big dreams of buying a house. We learn that Big Walter was a hard-working man who loved his children but was never able to fulfill his dreams.
    • Beneatha re-enters and mentions guitar lessons, setting off her mom and Ruth on her case about "flitting" around trying too many activities. Beneatha claims her right to express herself.
    • The ladies discuss Beneatha’s romantic prospects and her date with George Murchison that night.
    • Beneatha thinks he’s shallow, but the other women in her family approve of him, mainly because he’s got money.
    • Beneatha concludes the discussion by announcing that she’s not worried since she doesn’t even know if she’ll get married, which Lena and Ruth really wanted to hear. Not.
    • Beneatha continues on to announce that she does not believe in God, and that only humans can make miracles happen. For which Mama gives her a big fat SLAP.
    • Mama asserts her right as head of the household and makes Beneatha repeat her faith in God.
    • Beneatha then leaves.
    • The two mothers in the family are alone, and Ruth tries to mollify Mama’s worries about her children. Mama is overwhelmed by their ambitions – Walter cares only for money, and Beneatha is too intellectual.
    • Mama goes to water her plant, voicing her desire to one day have a garden and a back yard.
    • When she turns around, she finds Ruth lying semiconscious.
  • Act One, Scene Two

    • It’s the next morning. Lena and Beneatha clean the house with Travis in the room. Travis complains about the insecticide Beneatha is using and requests to go outside.
    • He leaves after asking about his mother’s whereabouts; his relatives tell him that Ruth is on an errand.
    • Walter takes a call from his friend Willy Harris and promises that he’ll soon have the money for their liquor store.
    • We find out Ruth has gone to the doctor’s (that’s good, because falling and lying semi-conscious didn’t sound the actions of a healthy woman to us).
    • Mama (subtly) suggests that Ruth is pregnant.
    • Travis plays outside and keeps a lookout for the postman.
    • Beneatha gets a phone call from Joseph Asagai, a Nigerian schoolmate. She invites him over, despite knowing that her mother hates it when people see the house all messy. Bennie warns Mama not to ask her friend ignorant questions about Africa.
    • Ruth returns and the mood is somber after she announces that she is two months pregnant. Mama and Bennie ask her if she planned the pregnancy, and if so, where is the baby going to live? Ruth suggests that she did not go to a traditional doctor.
    • Ruth looks out the window to find that Travis and other kids are not playing tag, not kicking a ball around, but chasing a rat in the street. As you might guess, the ladies aren’t thrilled with this and call him back up.
    • Ruth is on an emotional roller coaster and alternates between screaming and sobbing. Mama takes her to go lie down just as the doorbell rings.
    • Beneatha answers the door to find Joseph standing there. We find out Beneatha and Joseph were romantically involved before he left for Canada. He clearly still cares for her.
    • He presents her with Nigerian robes and vinyl records. In the next breath, he calls her hair mutilated because she straightens it. Bennie argues that she is not an assimilationist.
    • Mama puts on a polite and proper demeanor in the guest’s presence; she parrots Beneatha’s words from earlier about Africa.
    • Joseph leaves, having charmed both women.
    • The mail arrives and Mama doesn’t seem to know what to do with herself. She asks Ruth to clarify just which doctor she went to, and it becomes clear that Ruth went to see about getting an abortion.
    • Walter bounces in, eager to win them over with his liquor store plan.
    • Both ladies have the pregnancy on the brain, but Walter is not in the mood to listen. Exasperated, Ruth finally leaves.
    • Frustrated that his mother and wife refuse to listen to him, Walter gets all pouty. And then wants to deal with it in the most responsible way possible: by getting drunk.
    • Before he leaves, Mama stops him and in the following conversation, the generation gap and difference in priorities are evident. Mama emphasizes that things used to be worse, that racism was a threat to everyday existence, but that all Walter cares about now is money. Walter admits that he’s frightened of a future of nothingness.
    • Mama tells Walter that he better shape up because his wife is not only pregnant but also thinking about aborting the baby.
    • Ruth re-enters, saying that she’s already put down a five-dollar deposit to get the abortion. Mama challenges Walter to be the man that his father was.
    • Great. Walter’s really cheered up now. He peaces out to the bar.
  • Act Two, Scene One

    • Beneatha puts on a Nigerian record and appears in Nigerian garb. She is radiant and singing with Ruth (who is ironing) as her audience.
    • Drunk, Walter returns home and digs the Nigerian music. He starts dancing around shouting nonsense words, and we learn that he’s tapping into old myths and conceiving of himself as a fine African warrior.
    • George Murchison enters to pick up Beneatha en route to the theatre. He asks her to change and she takes off her headdress, revealing her new haircut.
    • It’s a big ’fro! Others in the room express their shock and disapproval, and Ruth hustles Beneatha off to change into more suitable attire.
    • Walter tries to talk business with George, who brushes him off. Walter is offended and begins to insult George. George remains indifferent and compliments Beneatha when she reemerges in a dress.
    • After they leave, Ruth tries to make nice with Walter. Not having it, Walter takes his bitterness out on Ruth.
    • Things calm down and timid conversation leads to a kiss.
    • Mama enters, coming back from a mysterious day outside of the home. She tells Travis that she bought a house. The rest of the family can obviously hear her.
    • Walter turns away from her, outraged…and it only escalates when Lena announces where the house is located: in an otherwise white neighborhood.
    • Shocked, Ruth is the first to recover and embrace the happy prospects of moving into an actual house.
    • Mama asks for Walter’s understanding, but – happy-go-lucky guy that he is – he thanks her for crushing his dreams.
  • Act Two, Scene Two

    • Beneatha and George return from another date. George wants to kiss, but Beneatha wants to discuss social issues.
    • George says there’s no point to such political mumbo-jumbo.
    • Beneatha is not impressed.
    • Lena returns with groceries and offers Beneatha useful advice.
    • Ruth enters right before Mrs. Johnson, a neighbor, pops by. She shares some recent neighborhood news of some white Americans bombing African-Americans out of their houses. She obviously overstays her welcome…but not before she mooches some coffee and snacks from the Youngers.
    • Mrs. Arnold, Walter’s employer, calls inquiring as to his absence for the past three days. This is news to Ruth and Lena. Walter proudly shares that he has been driving around while playing hooky with Willy.
    • Lena has a heart-to-heart chat with her son. She apologizes if she has ever done him wrong and reaffirms her faith in him. To put her money where her mouth is, she hands over an envelope with $6,500. She directs Walter to reserve $3,000 for Beneatha’s schooling, and the rest to be saved in a checking account under Walter’s name.
    • Shocked, Walter in turn has a heart-to-heart with his own son, sharing the vision he has in seven year’s time: a world in which the business transaction he’s about to make will have enabled a higher standard of living, one in which Travis can choose to be anything he wants to be. Yay, the American Dream!
  • Act Two, Scene Three

    • Before curtain rises, we can hear Ruth singing "Hallelujah!" Taking care of last minute packing, Ruth is in a good mood. She tells Beneatha about how she and Walter went to the movies together for the first time in a long time. And they even held hands.
    • Walter comes in and seduces Ruth into a slow dance. The mood is jolly…until a man appears at the door, introducing himself as Karl Lindner, a member of the Clybourne Park Improvement Association.
    • Through niceties and stammering, Karl basically says that the current people in the neighborhood don’t want the Youngers to move in because of the color of their skin – in fact, they don’t want them there to the point of offering to buy the house for more than it was sold for!
    • Mr. Lindner tells the Youngers that the residents of Clybourne are working-class and have worked hard, and that they’re ready to protect their dreams.
    • Isn’t that ironic.
    • Karl claims the whole proposal is really just in the Youngers’ best interest.
    • They tell him to scram. Effectively.
    • When Mama arrives, the adults relay the episode and then present her with the gift of gardening tools. Travis chimes in and presents her with a gaudy gardening hat. Mama is overcome. Prior to this, she has only received presents at Christmas.
    • They continue packing; someone knocks at the door.
    • Walter is joyful with expectation and answers the door to find Bobo.
    • Unfortunately, it becomes clear that Bobo is not happy to be there. Ruth doesn’t know what’s going on but she senses danger immediately.
    • Finally Bobo drops the bomb: Walter’s supposed friend, Willy, disappeared with all their liquor store money.
    • Walter tries the deny, deny, deny defense and is all pumped to track down Willy. Bobo points out that it’s really a lost cause.
    • By now the family has entered the room and has heard everything.
    • Lena asks Walter if all of it is gone – even Beneatha’s portion – and Walter confesses that he never created the checking account.
    • Lena starts beating him on the head, guilt-tripping him about how he just flushed his dad’s life’s work down the drain in one day.
    • Lena turns to God and asks for strength.
  • Act Three

    • The mood in the house is spiritless. Asagai shows up at the door, jolly and naïve to what has happened. He asks Beneatha to go with him back to Africa and encourages her to hang onto any remaining faith in idealism.
    • Walter leaves and returns, only to announce that he is going to put on a show for The Man. It turns out that in true Walter fashion, he has called Karl Lindner back… to accept the offer. He gives a speech about how you can dream about making a difference, but in the end, it’s a dog eat dog world. That’s right, he sells out. Big time.
    • The women are – as you might imagine – outraged.
    • It seems that Walter has truly dragged the family down to rock bottom.
    • Beneatha expresses her disgust for her brother. Surprisingly, Lena stands up for her son, saying that just when people seem to deserve compassion the least is when they need it the most.
    • Karl arrives, and Walter struggles to form sentences. Knowingly giving into racism tends to produce that effect.
    • Especially when your son is looking at you.
    • After a lot of stammering, Walter rejects the offer. He says that the family isn’t out to fight any big causes or cause trouble.
    • Everyone (except Karl) breathes out a collective sigh of relief.
    • With that, moving day is back on. The apartment is bustling once more with life, with Beneatha and Walter arguing over whom she should marry.
    • Ruth and Lena share a maternal moment, glowing with pride from Walter’s strong stand.
    • Lena has a last moment to herself in the apartment, then takes the plant and goes downstairs.