Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun does quite well in addressing several societal issues at the same time. The reader will likely discover that depending on the perspective of the character he is identifying with, he’ll come away with a completely different idea of what the story is about.
The Big Issue
On the surface, the story tells the tale of one of the most famous struggles in American history for African Americans. Set at the heart of the Civil Rights Movement, the Younger family becomes a voice of the typical African American family of the period striving for a better life in a society that wants to keep them confined in an unforgiving caste system. Still, within the confines of the family dynamics, the reader gets to see that there are still differences in viewpoints and that there are so many varying levels of thinking to be considered from one individual to the next.
The Inner Struggle
Walter Younger, the main character in the book, is a man with strong ambitions but because of societal limitations, lacks the knowledge to recognize when his decisions amount to an unreasonable gamble, which will inevitably lead to failure. He keeps striving for something better, ignorant of the fact that the predominant white society has hoarded the wealth and kept it just out of his reach. This does not deter his drive and ambition and in spite of the climate of the time, he comes to the realization that he has reached his emotional breaking point.
The story begins with Walter pictured as a man that is so ambitious and driven to reach his goal that he would allow his strive for success to eat away at his family ties. The result is that he loses his connection with his household and instead becomes more of a burden to them.(1)
Ironically, while Walter can easily see the restraints put upon him as a black man and resents society for it, he fails to see that he is doing the same thing to the women in his household. Believing that their efforts to enter the world of business (an area where they do not belong) is intriguing since he himself is not capable of grasping that foreign world to him.
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The Hidden Prejudices
Throughout the story, while Walter is viewed as the head of the household because he is male, it is the women that become the glue that keeps the family together. His drive for success and to be able to walk in his father’s footsteps is the very thing that keeps him from becoming the kind of man his father was. In fact, he actually resents the contributions that women have made to solidify their future. His comment ‘No thanks to the colored women,” shows that he does not see his own wife’s contributions and unconditional support of him despite his repeated failures are the very thing that keeps it all together.
Beneatha Younger offers a more intelligent view of the African American woman. While she has achieved a level of academic success, she fails in supporting the family unit by allowing her success to be used as a weapon to degrade her fellow African Americans.(2) Describing her brother at one point as something to be dissected, she helps the reader to see that outside influences can actually have a powerful effect on the family dynamics within the household. The result is an internal conflict that many African American families unwittingly engage in still today. It is the silent feud that shows that even among a section of society that one is accepted in there are class distinctions.
This leaves everyone in the household feeling inadequate on so many levels. Walter feels inadequate as he tries repeatedly to become a remake of his father rather than becoming a man in his own right. He failed to recognize that he needed to gain insight into a new and emerging world and use it to fit into a changing picture of society. Beneatha on the other hand, recognized the value of knowledge but failed to use it to bring unity to her household and instead used it as a weapon that tore at the fabric of what could have become a powerful family unit in a strong society.