Lorraine Hansberry wrote one of her most famous plays “A Raisin in the Sun” in the late 1950s which is rich in themes. It is a matter of fact that the play was not premiered immediately. After a long wait, the play finally premiered on Broadway in 1959. It is evident from the play that it talks about the experiences of African-American families. Perhaps, it is the best reason why it gained so much attention. The second important reason behind the success of this play is that it is amongst the first works of mainstream America containing such subjects.
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Historical Background of the Play
It is always necessary to acknowledge the condition through which a literary work is written. Indeed, literature has universal appeal yet one must have knowledge of the historical background in order to squeeze philosophy from a literary work. The playwright wrote “A Raisin in the Sun” at that time when he was experiencing the gaining momentum of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. The people were being separated on the basis of race and gender. It was abundant in the South. Hence, there was much difficulty for African Americans to gain equality in that region.
No one can understand the pains of those people better than Hansberry as she herself was an African American. Thus the play is based on her own philosophy of life that she gained while experiencing and observing her neighbourhood. It is therefore she depicts universal themes and creates real-life ordinary characters in order to knit a story in his play “A Raisin in the Sun.” As far as the setting of the play is concerned, it is set in Chicago’s South Side, perhaps because of being the black and low-income area at the time.
The playwright illustrates different issues in respect of the cultural and artistic trends of her time. Social as well as creative change was observed in the 1950s and early 1960s as many artists wished to alter the conventions of mainstream culture. They wanted to explore new ideas and themes, in consequence of which “A Raisin in the Sun” was written. Thus, the play was a part of said movement.
The best work of art is that which is not limited to any single era and area. In fact, it must have universal appeal. If the play “A Raisin in the Sun” is analysed today, it continues to be performed and studied around the world. Most themes of “A Raisin in the Sun” are based on family, identity and social justice. Thus, the said themes are relevant today as human nature barely changes with the passage of time.
Primary Theme of “A Raisin in the Sun”
The play “A Raisin in the Sun” tells the story of a Younger family while portraying racism and discrimination as two major themes. The writer writes about the hurdles that an African-American family faces in day-to-day affairs. The setting of the play is Chicago’s South Side in the 1950s. The play explores the family’s struggles in respect of poverty, discrimination, and their dreams for a better life.
The central conflict of the play revolves around the family’s decision on how to spend a $10,000 insurance cheque that it receives after the death of its predecessor. Everyone has his own idea which he expresses. They have different opinions on spending money. Walter wants to achieve financial independence being the son of the family. He wants to invest the money in a liquor store. However, his sister Beneatha has a different opinion. She is of the view that her medical education should be complete. Their mother Lena alias Mama has a typical mind of mothers of that era. Thus, she wants to buy a house for her family.
These are the dreams of this family that they want to make real with a cheque of $10000 dollars. The writer depicts the obstacles that the family encounters on their way to pursue their desires. The family move to a white community but there they encounter their hostile attitude, hence, the play mainly deals with issues of racism, discrimination and segregation.
Major Themes of “A Raisin in the Sun”
Some major themes that Lorraine Hansberry sketches in the play “A Raisin in the Sun” are related to the issues faced by African American families in the 1950s which are:
- Racism and Discrimination: As mentioned earlier, the theme of racism and discrimination is the primary subject of the play. The younger family being African Americans face many hardships soon after the death of their patriarch. The play is about the impact on African families due to racism. They are unable to find good jobs. There are difficulties for them to build or buy houses. In fact, they are not given equal opportunities. Thus, racism and discrimination are two major themes of this play.
- The American Dream: The family finalises the decision and decides to purchase a house. However, they cannot find a better neighbourhood. Thus finding a good neighbourhood is one of the primary themes of the play which in other words can be termed “The American Dream”. It is a dream of every such family to spend life with good people, have equality, liberty and freedom. James Truslow coined this term to promote equality for everyone. However, the play highlights the struggles and obstacles that black families face in trying to achieve this dream because of racism and economic inequality.
- Family and Community: The play gives importance to family and also talks about the power of community. Despite differences and conflicts, the family pursues their dreams as a whole. It does not shatter despite the obstacles that the other communities put in its way. It lives a life because everyone is on the same track. In other words, they achieve their goals together. Thus, the writer portrays “Family” and “Community” as two major themes of “A Raisin in the Sun”.
- Gender Roles and Feminism: In addition to the theme of race discrimination, the writer mentions some incidents in the play that describe gender roles in detail. The play is about daily challenges that come in the lives of women in that society. Mama and Beneatha being female characters struggle to assert their independence and find their own paths in life.
- Generational Conflicts: Besides race and gender discrimination, the writer also portrays themes related to generational conflicts. In the same family, everyone has different opinions. There are two types of generations in the play: the old one and the rising one. The older generation tries to hold onto their traditions and values whereas the younger one seeks new opportunities and introduces themselves to new ways of spending life. One of the best examples in this regard is when the son of the family wants to achieve financial independence after opening the liquor store but his idea was rejected as being too risky.
Thus, the thought-provoking play “A Raisin in the Sun” explores several universal themes related to race, gender, family, and community.
Racism and Discrimination
Racism and discrimination are central themes in this play through which the playwright explores the racism and prejudice faced by the Younger family. It is not the story of a single family but the hard life of every family that undergoes such circumstances during the 1950s. In the whole play, there are many incidents showing difficulties for the family. They cannot find good jobs, they cannot avail of a chance to live in decent houses with other communities due to their race. The writer portrays that not only the barriers put by people are there for them but some additional structural inequalities that are there in the system for those families.
There are many examples of how the themes of racism and discrimination are depicted in “A Raisin in the Sun”.
- The family is restricted to living in a small and overcrowded apartment, dominated by the neighbourhood because of race.
- The family is treated with suspicion soon after the death of Walter’s father. Even the insurance company’s manager treats them harshly.
- A white representative of the company is there to deal with them when the family claims an insurance amount.
- George Murchison, with whom Beneatha dates, believes that assimilation into white society is the only way for black people to succeed.
- Walter is denied a promotion because of his race. In this way, the play shows the impact of racism on psychological and emotional well-being.
The writer depicts these themes in “A Raisin in the Sun” and urges for social change. However, in spite of so many problems, the black family does not leave hope. It is the strength of those people that they do not give up struggling. Moreover, everyone supports each other in the family to overcome the obstacles that they face.
The American Dream
From the perspective of the Younger family, the poet talks about every African American family living in poverty in 1950s Chicago. It is everyone’s dream to own a home and live like whites for a better life for themselves as well as for their children. Life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone. It is therefore Truslow Adams coined this term for implementation but the American Dream is not equally accessible to all Americans. The Younger family remains marginalised and oppressed throughout the play. The writer also criticises the narrow and materialistic approach to the American Dream. Instead of giving importance to family, community and justice, importance to other values like wealth and possessions is given.
Many examples in the play promote equality for everyone to achieve the American Dream. For instance:
- The family receives $1000 and Walter decides to run a liquor store to achieve financial freedom. It is a symbol that he wants to see his family escape the poverty and limitations that are imposed on them.
- Some traditional values are attached to the major character Mama. She desires to own a house with a garden. In fact, owning a house is a symbol of her success and independence.
- The remaining family member Beneatha wants to become a doctor. It represents a newer version of the American Dream which is based on the achievement of every individual. She sees education as a way to break free from the limitations of her race and gender and make a difference in the world and achieve the American Dream.
- However, characters like Karl Lindner are barriers in the way to achieving the American Dream. His act of bribing the Youngers not to move in clearly manifests it.
In this way, the writer shows some characters that are in support of the American Dream. But there are some who show resistance. Walter and Beneatha pursue the American Dream through individual achievement, Mama pursues it through traditional values like hard work and property ownership. On the other hand, Karl Lindner creates obstacles to prevent many people, especially people of colour, from achieving the American Dream. Thus the play “A Raisin in the Sun” promotes many prominent themes in respect of American Dream.
Family and Community
The Younger family is forced to live a life of inequality but they are together to support one another. They work hard and respect each other despite their differences and conflicts. The family becomes a symbol of strength and resilience in the face of adversity. Mama, being the head of the family after her husband’s death, becomes a symbol of resilience. She tried her best to hold the family together through her wisdom and guidance. She remains successful in doing so. In fact, their support for each other is their real strength and it is the only possible way to live in a society that is against them.
The writer of the play emphasises the importance of family and community while portraying it as a major theme of “A Raisin in the Sun”. Some incidents from the play that supports the subject of family and community are:
- The family agrees to buy a house when Mama reveals her wish. The son and the daughter support their mother. Each member of the family pools his/her resources to furnish and decorate it.
- Mama seeks and works for a better life for her family. She motivates Beneatha and enhances her interest in medicine. In addition, she is the one that tells Walter to be proud of his heritage and not to be ashamed of his job as a chauffeur.
- In addition to inner support for the Younger family, outer support is there for them. The writer shows that African families were there to support each other and discuss matters. The Younger family’s neighbour Mrs Johnson rings their bell and congratulates them on their new home while predicting some foolish incidents. The Youngers soon attend a community meeting to discuss their plans for the future.
- The writer sketches the character of George Murchison to create a contrast and to show the importance of family and community. The Younger family emphasises family and community whereas George Murchison has no connection to his African American heritage and community despite being healthy and well-educated. Thus, the writer puts both scenarios in juxtaposition to bring clarity.
There is no denying the fact that “A Raisin in the Sun” portrays family and community as essential themes. The playwright demonstrates how these values serve as a source of strength and resilience in the face of adversity.
Themes of Gender Roles and Feminism in “A Raisin in the Sun”
The writer talks about the systematic barriers that have a direct impact on the lives of female characters. The female members of that era had certain restrictions but still, they want to do something good for the community. In the 1950s, men were expected to be the breadwinners whereas women were homemakers. These challenges were there for women still the women wanted to support their families through hard work. The writer also promotes individual freedom and does not only want equality for races but also for genders.
It is evident from the play that Beneatha is a college student and she plans to become a doctor in future. The writer shows that it is a male dominant profession. However, Beneatha does not want to be controlled by a man. She rejects the idea of ruining independence. It is therefore, she gives priority to her independence rather than being controlled by her suitor George Murchison.
Ruth is another character who is worth mentioning in this regard. She is Walter’s wife. Like Beneatha, she also struggles with her own desires and aspirations. The writer also portrays through this character that women were burdened with duties. She has to fulfil her duties as a wife and mother at the same time. She desires independence and self-fulfilment. Some other examples of how gender roles and feminism are depicted in “A Raisin in the Sun” are:
- Beneatha refuses George Murchison in clear words. She tells him that she will not change herself to fit his ideal of what a woman should be. Her relationship with George Murchison reflects the tension between traditional gender roles and the changing social norms of the time. George expects Beneatha to conform to his ideal of femininity, while Beneatha asserts her own identity.
- Ruth is overburdened with duties. She is a wife and mother. She has many responsibilities due to which she is unable to find independence in her life. She cannot handle another child, hence, she thinks of abortion.
- The character of Mama is a symbol of female strength and empowerment in the 1950s. She is the one who does not let her family shatter. Mama keeps the Younger family together with her wisdom and guidance. She becomes an inspiration for her daughter as she often motivates her. Similarly, she consoles her son when he feels that he is an ordinary driver.
The playwright suggests that women must assert their own identities and autonomy in order to challenge traditional gender roles and achieve social change while portraying it as one of the major themes of “A Raisin in the Sun”.
Generational conflict runs alongside many major conflicts in the play. Thus, it is an important theme of “A Raisin in the Sun”. There is a gap between the older generation and the younger generation and as a consequence, tension arises. Mama and her husband are symbols of the older generation. They prefer their traditional values and like hard work. Their first priority is their family and then religion. It is their faith that success in life is possible only through hard work and perseverance. In addition, they have strong faith in God which helps them overcome many obstacles.
So far as the younger generation is concerned, it is represented in the play by Walter and Beneatha. It is more interested in social change and self-expression. The younger generation is not stuck to traditional values as their parents are. It seeks new ways to achieve their goals. The younger generation wants to define their own identity in the world. The writer demonstrates through the younger generation that in the modern world everybody prefers individuality. Apart from that a conflict often arises between the younger generation and the old generation.
The play suggests that these generational conflicts are a natural part of the process of social change and progress. However, the older generation is resistant to change and holds onto traditional values but the younger generation is often more open to new ideas and ways of thinking. Some examples of how generational conflicts are depicted in “A Raisin in the Sun” are:
- Walter desires to start a business through which he wishes to achieve financial independence and become rich but it is against Mama’s values of hard work.
- Mama does not want to stack his money on a new business idea. She refuses to hand over her savings to the youngster.
- Beneatha’s rejection of traditional religion and exploration of African heritage clashes with Mama’s strong Christian beliefs. Mama sees Beneatha’s rejection of Christianity as a rejection of their family values and struggles to understand her daughter’s beliefs.
- The writer also creates a generational conflict while showing the differences between Walter and his son Travis. Walter’s dreams are related to his family but Travis is more concerned with getting enough money for school and clothes.
- The younger generation does not care for values. The writer portrays it through the relationship between Beneatha and George Murchison. Beneatha rejects the idea of material success and social status as she wants to explore herself. Further, she believes in social justice equally for men and women.
Thus, the older generation holds onto traditional values and does not change with the passage of time. On the other hand, the younger generation discovers new ways to explore themselves. They try to find their place in the world. The writer shows these conflicts but he promotes that there must be respect for each other. To conclude, racism and discrimination, the American dream, family and community, gender roles and feminism, generational conflicts are major themes of “A Raisin in the Sun”.