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Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun challenges the stereotype of 1950’s America as a country full of doting, content housewives. The women in this play, Mama, Ruth and Beneatha, represent three generations of black women who, despite their double fronted subordination, continue to dream of a better tomorrow. Although the aspirations of these women differ in subject, they all involve the furthering their roles as women, whether it be owning a house, paying for a child’s education or attending Medical School.
For the Younger women, their dreams seem farther away than they would in the present for most females. Today, owning a house, paying for a child’s education or gaining admittance to medical school is much more accessible than it was for these women. In the time this play is set, being a woman means marrying young, having a low desire for higher education and keeping a house clean for the male provider. Since the majority of this play centers around Walter Lee’s struggles to prove his self-worth, it is easy to overlook thought-provoking Hansberry’s portrayal of women. As a writer, Hansberry is ahead of her time, challenging an American society that is generally happy to leave women in the kitchen.
It seems that each the Younger women possess a certain advantage over Walter Lee. His aspirations involve schemes of making money fast. Walter Lee becomes so obsessed with financial wealth that he equates money to be the solution to all life’s problems. As the play progresses, Walter becomes so out of touch with reality that he separates himself from his family because of his fluctuating moods. While Walter Lee is lost in bouts of elation and depression, it is the women in the family who must try and keep the family together.
Mama, Ruth and Beneatha all have very different perceptions of what it means to be a woman, resulting from their generation gap and individual experiences. Mama, the ruler of the family, takes a conservative view of the roles of women. A Christian woman who values moral accountability, she tries to keep her family from sacrificing their ethics in order to achieve. It is Mama who has the power of deciding how her husbands ten thousand dollar life insurance cheque that the other members of the family have been anticipating will be spent. As the Matriarch of the family, Mama always seems to have the best interests of the others in mind. A warm, supporting character who dreams of a nice house for her family to enjoy, Mama represents the ideal mother, bringing life to the nurturing side of women.
Ruth is a woman who is fairly neutral when it comes to the way she perceives her role as a woman. Not as conservative as Mama and hardly as radical as Beneatha, Ruth represents a neutral force in the Younger house. It is apparent from Ruth’s appearance that times have been hard on her, as she wears a tired expression. Ruth carries out the traditional domestic work of a woman, supplementing Walter Lee’s income as a chauffeur by working as a cook and housekeeper for other families. Ruth shares Mama’s enthusiasm for using the insurance money in order to secure a house of their own where she can spend as much time in the bathtub relaxing as she wants. Ruth is confronted with many internal conflicts when she discovers she is pregnant. Her relationship with Walter is becoming increasingly distant as proven when Walter finds out that Ruth is going to have a dangerous, illegal abortion and her husband responds “No-no-Ruth wouldn’t do that.” (75) This occurrence proves that Ruth and Walter Lee are at the point that although married, they don’t really know each other anymore. Living in such impoverished conditions has left Ruth’s maternal instinct in such a state of hopelessness that she would rather abort her child than raise it in such an environment where she wouldn’t be able to provide for all of its needs.
Beneatha is the youngest and most radical of the Younger women. In A Raisin in the Sun, Beneatha represents what we today call a feminist. There is much tension between Beneatha and her older brother Walter, which mostly stems from the fact that Beneatha aspires to one day become a doctor. Walter is jealous of Beneatha’s education and cannot understand why she would want to become a physician and would not “Go be a nurse like other women.” (38) This shows that Walter is not comfortable with a woman having a higher level of education than he and that he has old fashioned ideas of what women should and should not be. As a young woman of twenty trying to find her identity, Beneatha experiments with many different forms of self-expression which expands to all aspects of her life, including the men she dates. George Murchison and Joseph Asagai are very different men from polar ends of the social spectrum. Both are African men with different viewpoints on life. Asagai, a Nigerian, represents a connection to Beneatha’s heritage. Murchison, on the other hand, represents a black population who has been absorbed into the American culture, living for what has now been deemed the “American Dream.” While Murchison has what Walter dreams of: financial security, a good education and a large home, Beneatha has more rapport with Asagai as it is he who is more down to earth, is familiar the struggles of Africans and wants to further his country much in the same way Beneatha dreams of furthering herself with a medical degree. In this way, Beneatha and Joseph are quite similar as they are looking for ways to free themselves from oppression in a world that does not yet know the value of diversity or respect for the differences of race and gender.
A Raisin in the Sun was written in a time where it “presaged the revolution in black and women’s consciousness.” (Nemiroff 5) Through Hansberry’s characters motivations and actions, it is evident that a revolution is dawning in American society. An advent of social awakening is occurring, resulting from a climaxing unrest that could no longer be ignored, especially by the minorities whom it afflicted most. Through the women in this play, we are able to vicariously live a day in the life of black women and catch a glimpse of both the hardships and triumphs of their existence. Hansberry’s mundane portrayal of these lives challenges the traditional views of womanhood by demonstrating that women are just as strong as men in hard situations and can continue to dream and challenge themselves despite the obstacles they encounter along the pathways of life.
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