The Elusive Desire for Progress and The American Dream in A Raisin in the Sun

by Kane Prestenback | return to list of publications

Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun is a groundbreaking piece of dramatic literature about a Black family striving to achieve their version of the American Dream in post-World War II-era Chicago, following a financial windfall from the death of the family patriarch. For these characters, progress can seem like nothing but a farfetched dream. Hansberry establishes relatable characters in a conventional narrative to compel the audience to sympathize with the story and acknowledge their mutual struggles. By questioning the evolving and differing perspectives of what it means to achieve the American Dream, Hansberry’s play seeks to expose the obstacles standing in the way of true progress while beginning to heal the fundamental ailments of humanity.

The characters in the play are all working toward the advancement and improvement of their social and economic status, but what that means for each character depends on their personal perspective and how they individually define the American Dream. Lena says, “There’s something come down between me and them that don’t let us understand each other and I don’t know what it is. One done almost lost his mind thinking ‘bout money all the time and the other done commence to talk about things I can’t seem to understand in no form or fashion. What is it that’s changing, Ruth?” (Hansberry 544). These clashing perspectives point at the obstacles to achieving true progress for the characters and for humanity itself. The play is also set against the backdrop of a post-World War II America, as a new middle-class lifestyle starts to take shape and cultural expectations start to shift in this new America. Walter infers an understanding of these changes, commenting on his conflict with George, saying, “See there – they get to a point where they can’t insult you man to man – they got to talk about something ain’t nobody never heard of!” (558). Longstanding beliefs about race, gender, and class begin to shift, exposing deeper difficulties as new perspectives conflict with earlier ideals. These circumstances have shaped the Younger family to the point of resigned weariness, where “all pretenses but living itself have long since vanished” (530). For the Younger family, new obstacles are introduced quite dramatically as Hansberry generates dramatic tension at the end of each scene. Notably, these tensions often seem to dissipate when the curtain rises on the next scene, highlighting the way the Younger family has grown to accept these setbacks and settle on their circumstances.

In addition to these compounding complications, Hansberry’s play appeals to its audience’s narrative expectations by utilizing a conventional, simple, and straightforward dramatic structure. The play follows the framework referred to as Freytag’s Pyramid and contains five dramatic elements: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement or outcome. The play begins with an exposition that introduces the main characters and reveals “a number of indestructible contradictions to [their] state of being” (529). After establishing the circumstances of the play, characters start to disagree on how to best utilize their impending financial windfall and the rising action of the play begins. Throughout the rising action, new complications arise that affect each characters ability, alter the circumstances, and create additional obstacles for the Younger family’s mutual growth, such as Ruth’s unplanned pregnancy, the unexpected “mask of unhappiness” that comes from the gravity of the physical reality of the check, Lena’s impulsive purchase of the house in Clybourne Park, and Lindner’s veiledly prejudiced explanation of “the lowdown on the way [they] do things out in Clybourne Park” and his attempt to “force [the Younger’s] to change their hearts” (551; 569; 571). These tensions rise until the play’s climax when Walter learns that the money is all gone. Following this emotional peak, the family deals with the fallout while working toward a solution during the play’s falling action. They are still a “household in preparation for a journey,” though now they fight for altered visions of what they see as progress (577). Ruth is now willing to “strap [her] baby on her back… and scrub all the floors in America” to afford to move, but Mama says that she “[sees] things differently now,” preferring to “fix this place up some… so that we can forget trouble ever came” (581). The change in perspective for the main characters leads to a denouement where Walter claims his manhood and acknowledges pride in his family’s progress despite insurmountable odds, declaring that the family intends to occupy the house in Clybourne Park. Hansberry crafts an engaging story through conventional means; by utilizing this framework she increases the play’s effectiveness in getting its message across to conventional audiences.

Hansberry also connects to the audience by grounding her characters in relatable actions and traits corresponding to and in spite of their circumstances. Lena maintains the familiar stereotype of the doting grandmother by insisting on spoiling her grandson and conspicuously meddling in his upbringing:

MAMA. Lord have mercy, look at that poor bed. Bless his heart – he tries, don’t he? [She moves to the bed TRAVIS has sloppily made up.]
RUTH. No – he don’t half try at all ‘cause he knows you going to come along behind him and fix everything… you done spoiled that boy so.
MAMA. Well – he’s a little boy. Ain’t supposed to know ‘bout housekeeping. My baby, that’s what he is. (538)

Her actions relate to her self-concept that she is still the matriarch of the family and align with her goal toward fulfilling the American Dream as she perceives it. Walter and Ruth depict a conflicted and strained love between husband and wife, each striving for personal progress while failing to recognize the strain. After a disagreement, Ruth admits, “I guess I just didn’t realize how bad things was with us,” then stops to ask Walter, “You want some hot milk?” (559). This unexpected offering breaks the tension and affirms their caring and loving relationship despite the obstacles. Ruth concludes, “What else can I give you, Walter Lee Younger,” to which Walter acknowledges the strain between them. He says, “I guess between two people there ain’t never as much understood as folks generally think there is” (559). Their relationship reflects the kind of quiet, settled, obligatory love found in the mutual striving of a husband and wife.

By questioning the evolving and differing perspectives of what it means to achieve the American Dream, Hansberry’s play seeks to expose the obstacles standing in the way of true progress while beginning to heal the fundamental ailments of humanity.

Throughout the play, the Younger’s have been depicted as flawed and conflicted individuals striving to take their place in an evolving world. Their blameless circumstances, perceived obligations, and conflicting perspectives stand in the way of their progress. Hansberry’s depiction of these characters enables their troubles to reflect the problems that humanity faces on its own journey. Hansberry challenges the audience to “[take] into account what hills and valleys [a person comes] through before he got to wherever he is” (584). By exposing this family’s struggle and its context in reality, Hansberry asks her audience to consider “what one person could do for another, [to] fix him up – sew up the problem, make him all right again… make them whole again” (577).

Works Cited

Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun. 1959. Arizona Actors Academy, Accessed 22 Jan. 2023.