Literary Criticism for A Raisin in the Sun

Instructor: Audrey Farley

Audrey is a doctoral student in English at University of Maryland.

This lesson offers a literary critical reading of Lorraine Hansberry's play, 'A Raisin in the Sun.' The play is about a Black family living in Chicago during the 1950s and their struggles to escape poverty and find cultural acceptance.

Overview of the Play

A Raisin in the Sun is a play written by Lorraine Hansberry, which debuted on Broadway in 1959. The play is titled after a famous verse from Langston Hughes' poem, 'Harlem.' The play is about a Black family in Chicago that struggles to improve their situation in life with the insurance payout from the father's death.

Walter and Ruth Younger live with their son, Travis, Walter's mother, Mama, and Walter's sister, Beneatha, in a tiny and dilapidated apartment on the south side of Chicago. Walter wants to open a liquor store with his friends Willy and Bobo. He wants to use the life insurance payout from his father's death to invest in the business. His mother disapproves, wanting to use the money for a new house in an all-white neighborhood. After they put a down payment on the house, a representative of the neighborhood offers to buy them out in order to prevent a Black family from moving into the neighborhood. The Youngers ultimately reject this bribe, moving into the new home in order to find a better life.

Important Themes

The play emphasizes the importance of loyalty and trust. The Youngers live in poverty, and all they have is each other. This message of loyalty and trust is especially true for Walter, who is betrayed by his best friend. Walter gives money to Willy for their new liquor business. When Willy absconds with the money, Walter is forced to tell his family that he was fooled. Later, Walter trusts the neighborhood representative, rather than his wife and mother. He is ready to accept the bribe. It is not until the end of the play that Walter realizes he should trust his family members, the only people who really have his best interests in mind.

Another important theme is the importance of heritage. Beneatha dates a man, named George Murchison, who who is a fully assimilated Black American man that disowns his African roots. She also has a good friend, named Joseph, who is a foil (opposite) to George. Joseph encourages Beneatha to embrace her roots. For instance, when she straightens her hair, he tells her that she is 'mutilating' it. On the other hand, Joseph encourages her to take ownership of her family's cultural heritage rather than disavowing her past for the sake of social advance.

Feminist Vision

The play has been celebrated by some female critics for its rich portrayal of the African American female in the character of Lena Younger, Walter's mother. Historically, a disproportionate amount of literature has stereotyped African American females as immoral, promiscuous, helpless, and aggressive. Hansberry challenges these stereotypes by portraying Lena as strong, wise, loyal, and controlled.

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