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A Raisin in The Sun: What Happens to a Dream Deferred

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The 19th century was a difficult time for a lot of people, especially colored people. During this period, racial segregation was ubiquitous. Even though slavery had been abolished, colored people were not treated equally. This is a direct description of how the Younger family in the play A Raisin in The Sun written by Lorraine Hansberry felt. With a people always being put down and never seeming to get a leg up, their only hope was to dream. Dreams are like a defense mechanism of using fantasy to try to escape a situation, which represents the eagerness or desperation to change life’s ever-changing circumstances. Each of the characters in the Younger family was trying to escape reality byways of them each having their own particular individual dream. Of the three main characters Mama (Lena Younger), Beneatha, and Walter; one wants to move to a bigger home, one wants to attend medical school, and the other wants to rise above his conditions though he does not necessarily have a plan to do so. Each person’s dream serves an important conceptual function, for example, aspiration, motivation, or direction for the character; however, the different dreams also divide the characters, creating conflict amongst them. With thinking of the Langston Hughes poem from which the title of this play was taken, the key concept of dreams deferred comes to mind. The title of Hansberry’s play makes a direct reference to the Langston Hughes poem, “A Dream Deferred.’ “What happens to a dream deferred?’ asked Hughes. “Does it shrivel up like a raisin in the sun?’ Lorraine Hansberry answers this Hughes’s question through play. The play proves through different altercations and situations that no matter how long a dream has been deferred, it does, in fact, live on. Mama, Walter Lee, and Beneatha have cherished dreams. These dreams reveal a great deal about the nature of the characters’ longings which unjust societal expectations cannot destroy.

Set in the 1940s and ’50s and written in 1957 A Raisin in the Sun was the first play written by an African American and produced on Broadway. Lorraine Hansberry’s inspiration came from the various lives of the African American working-class people who rented from her father and those who went to school with her on the South Side of Chicago. She also said that she “used members of her family as inspiration for her characters. Hansberry noted similarities between Nannie Hansberry and Mama Younger and between Carl Hansberry and Big Walter. Walter Lee, Jr. and Ruth are composites of Hansberry’s brothers, their wives and her sister, Mamie. In an interview, Hansberry laughingly said “Beneatha is me, eight years ago.”” Like the characters within the story, Hansberry lived a very similar life. Although her family did live a rather above average life as a result of her father’s financial status, Hansberry had experienced segregation firsthand. In Michelle Gordon’s critical essay, she reveals the many parallels between Lorraine Hansberry’s own childhood life and that of the fictional Younger family of her first play: A Raisin in the Sun. As a young girl, Hansberry was directly attacked by the forces of racism when her black family moved into an all-white neighborhood. Gordon explains that the neighborhood “improvement association” justified their refusal to accept the Hansberry’s by claiming the neighborhood was under a “race restrictive covenant”. Directly affected by this refusal of equality and requirement of segregation, Hansberry was inspired to create the Younger family to reflect her family’s fight for freedom and equality. With hopes of eventually doing away with all unequal treatment, Hansberry used her perspective to bring awareness to the cultural issue of segregation and racism. Gordon argues that Hansberry’s true realism opposes the deterministic tendencies of naturalism. The required reform that Hansberry stipulates in the play was therefore intended as not only a drama but also as a call to action.

Lena Younger also known as Mama is the matriarch of the family who keeps them together and makes the final decisions. Recently made a widow, she is a retired housekeeper who works vigorously to make sure that her family is taken care of. All while keeping her religious faith and remaining optimistic despite multiple financial and social challenges. As shown through her actions and her faith, Mama is a proud black woman and serves as the family’s source of strength and stability. Mama’s dream is to move her family out of the slums of Southside Chicago and into a house with a great yard where children can play and she can grow her garden. Her dream has been deferred since she and her husband moved into the apartment that was supposed to be temporary lodging. However, life happened and years later after her husband died; and Walter grew up with a son and wife, the Younger family remained there. Every day, her dream provides her with an incentive to make money. But no matter how much she and her husband strived, they could not scrape together enough money to make their dream a reality. His death and the resulting insurance money present Mama’s first opportunity to finally go after her dream.

Mama’s plant shown in act one is one of the symbols used to demonstrate the significance of both her dream and in return will benefit her children. She nourishes this plant constantly to see it grown and blossom into a beautiful flower. Mama’s plant, which is weak but resilient, represents her dream of living in a bigger house with a lawn. As she tends to her plant, she symbolically shows her dedication to her dream. Mama first pulls out her plant early in the morning. It is the first thing that she does in the morning; thus, at the beginning of the play, we see that her plant — and her dream — are of the highest importance to her. Mama admits that the plant has never had enough sunshine but still survives. In other words, her dream has always been deferred but remains strong. At the end of the play, Mama decides to bring the plant with her to their new home. In doing so, she gives a new significance to the plant. While it initially stands for her deferred dream, now, as her dream comes true, it reminds her of her strength in working and waiting for so many years.

However, this plant seems to be limited in the sense that it never has enough light or space to grow on. This represents her children as they also seem to be limited. In the case of Walter, he is economically limited and this directly affects his self-esteem, and in the case of Beneatha, she seems to be limited not only because of color but because of gender as well. Mama’s dream for her plant is the same as for her children. She wants to see them grow and develop into beautiful beings. During one of her confrontations with Walter, we can see that she suffers from her children’s limitations. She says as she gives him the money “What you ain’t never understood is that I ain’t got nothing, don’t own nothing, ain’t never really wanted nothing that wasn’t for you. There ain’t nothing as precious to me … There ain’t nothing worth holding on to, money, dreams, nothing else — if it means — if it means it’s going to destroy my boy. (Hansberry 107)” Here we can see mama’s appreciation of her family over her materialistic desires. She would give up the money left by her husband for the happiness of her children. After Walter loses the money, mama starts beating him senselessly as she says “I seen … him … night after night … come in … and look at that rug … and then look at me … the red showing in his eyes … the veins moving in his head … I seen him grow thin and old before he was forty … working and working and working like somebody’s old horse … killing himself … and you — you give it all away in a day. (Hansberry 130)” Here we can see that mama is enraged not because of the loss of the money but because of the wasted sacrifice of her husband to obtain that money. She saw many years of hard work (hard work that she values) go to waste in the blink of an eye and that simply made her indignant. However, during a conversation with Beneatha, she says:

There is always something left to love. And if you ain’t learned that, you ain’t learned nothing. Have you cried for that boy today? I don’t mean for yourself and for the family ’cause we lost the money. I mean for him: what he been through and what it done to him. Child, when do you think is the time to love somebody the most? When they done good and made things easy for everybody? Well then, you ain’t through learning — because that ain’t the time at all. It’s when he’s at his lowest and can’t believe in himself ’cause the world done whipped him so! When you starts measuring somebody, measure him right, child, measure him right. Make sure you done taken into account what hills and valleys he come through before he got to wherever he is.

Beneatha’s dream is to become a doctor and to save her race from ignorance. The first part of her dream may be deferred because of the money Walter loses. Her dream is also one deferred for all women. Beneatha lives in a time when society expects women to build homes rather than careers. As for saving her race from ignorance, Beneatha believes she can make people understand through action, but the exact course she chooses remains unclear at the end of the play.

Walter dreams of becoming wealthy and providing for his family as the rich people he drives around to do. He often frames this dream in terms of his family — he wants to give them what he has never had. He feels like a slave to his family’s economic hardship. His dream has been deferred by his poverty and inability to find decent employment. He attributes his lack of job prospects to racism, a claim that may be partially true but that is also a crutch. Over the course of the play, his understanding of his dream of gaining material wealth evolves, and by play’s end, it is no longer his top priority.

In conclusion, Hansberry shows through these characters’ dreams that we can break through our limitations and reach our goals. She also shows us that our initial dreams are not always definitive. For instance, in Walter’s and Beneatha’s case, they don’t accomplish their initial dreams, but rather modified them along the way to fit not only their happiness but the happiness of the family as a whole. We can see that even though this family lives in a period that is segregated and where colored people never get what they deserve, they got themselves a house and kept their dignity by refusing to sell it. Some of their dreams had to adapt to the situation, yet they are all together on their way to their happiness. 

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A Raisin In The Sun: What Happens To A Dream Deferred. (2021, December 16). GradesFixer. Retrieved September 22, 2022, from
“A Raisin In The Sun: What Happens To A Dream Deferred.” GradesFixer, 16 Dec. 2021,
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