A Raisin in the Sun: Literary Elements


 In her play A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry encapsulates the theme of retaining cultural pride and identity of African-Americans while they took risks to achieve the American dream equal to the opportunities that were afforded white Americans, due to economic advantages. Hansberry experienced the turbulent side of integration in the 1930s firsthand, being attacked by white neighbors and forced to move. I feel that the original written play of A Raisin in the Sun casts a harsh light on the cultural theme of retaining or even finding identity more effectively than the original film version through characterization, setting, and tone.  

The differing cultural identities of the struggle that was going on during the time the play was written are depicted through characterization with how each character represents an idea of the way larger groups in society were handling the struggle of the time. Walter Lee Younger as the protagonist character questions throughout the play which of those around him represents the path he wants to step onto for his life. Should he follow his ancestors where freedom and dignity are the only thing like his deceased father? Why can’t he be like George Murchison and get a lucky break with business and become the new conformist dream? Should he duck his head and stay the status quo like the Johnsons? Should he aspire to the dreams of the integrationists like his mother? Or the idealisms of those seeking an African-American identity as Beneatha does? Should he throw his ancestral dignity aside and become a taker like Wiley Harris? The defining moment of Walter’s journey is realized with these words and how they are written in the play. “And my father—(With sudden intensity.) My father almost beat a man to death once because this man called him a bad name or something” (Act 3, 1, 343-4). Even though Sidney Poitier revealed the depth of this inner struggle brilliantly in the film, for me, the written play shows this journey of Walter’s character more strongly. Just like characterization revealed Walter’s and societies’ wrestle with identity, the use of setting also portrays this struggle.   

The identity of being impoverished and wishing for a better life is revealed through setting. The setting of the performed work steps outside of the Youngers’ dingy apartment, showing the outside world that influences Walter Lee as he stands outside the white man’s business world as a chauffeur looking in, and again in the Kitty Kat bar. We also get a look at the new house, the hope of a better life. I personally thought that these scenes took away from the impact that Walter Lee was able to give in the written play when he tells of how it felt to be looking in at the white boys “sitting there turning deals worth millions of dollars” (Act 1, 2, 328). In Act 3 the moving boxes taking up most of the room also dramatize the setting of being on the cusp of entering that new world. The written setting of Act 3 begins with both Walter and Beneatha silently contemplating their plight in separate rooms, but with both seen from the audience. “We see on a line from her brother’s bedroom the sameness of their attitudes” (Act 3, 1, 9). Although the preformed play’s setting was similar to how I envisioned it with the two rooms, small kitchen, and shared bathroom with the neighbors, the gloom and the lighting in the film didn’t capture the atmosphere the written words painted. I do think that the plant, the symbol of the sad wilting life unable to grow to its potential in the apartment was used to greater effect in the film, especially with how the scene showed Beneatha in contemplation of what had befallen her, sitting at the kitchen table just inches from the sad little plant. The setting of the small worn apartment crowded with more people than it could handle in both the written and preformed works greatly enhanced the struggle for identity and wanting something better, as does the tone found throughout the play.

   The tone of A Raisin in the Sun has an underlying hopelessness with small glimmers of faith that things can be better. Act 3 begins with a hopeless demoralizing tone about how wrong was done to the Youngers so there is no hope of a better life. Beneatha says, “while I was sleeping…people went out and took the future right out of my hands! And nobody asked me, nobody consulted me—they just went out and changed my life!” (Act 3, 1, 68-70). Walter Lee mirrors her tone when he cries, “I didn’t make this world! It was give to me this way!” (Act 3,1, 256-7). That tone changes with that glimmer of faith when Asagai enters with his view of taking responsibility of your own dreams when he asks if it was Beneatha’s money, if she had earned it. The tone of the entire play takes a pivotal turn when Asagai says, “isn’t there something wrong in a house—in a world—where all dreams, good or bad, must depend on the death of a man?” (Act 3, 1, 77-8). Most likely due to the social racial climate of the time the film was made, much of Asagai’s wisdom was deleted from the film, which makes the tone of the written play so much more poignant. I believe that Hansberry intentionally directed most of Asagai’s words to her culture that doing something, even if in the long run it may be for your personal good, even when everything is hard and against you, but to take responsibility for your own dreams is better than doing nothing.

Characterization, setting, and tone come together as the final scene ends on a new beginning, moving out of the dingy apartment into a house as the Youngers seek the American dream with dignity. Are they going to find that elusive peace in their new home? That’s not a sure thing, especially with the author, Lorraine Hansberry’s own life experiences of her family moving into a white neighborhood in the 1930s and being forced out. Hansberry knew her characters were not going to have that peaceful happily ever after, yet Walter Lee’s character arc was intact. He had made his choice in who he wanted to be, good or bad, just like Asagai was making his choice, good or bad. What’s more, in following the gifts his ancestor, his father, had given him in his struggles, Walter’s and his generations struggle would make it so his children’s dreams would be closer to them. Setting is used to reveal this choice as Lena looks at the apartment and leaves, only to go back for the plant.  I like how we do not get to see the new house in the written play, how the unknown of even what it looks like adds to the uncertain future, which also is found in the tone that permeated the play which lightens with that glimmer of hope for a better future, yet also retains the solemnity of the unknown and what their choice is getting them into. But in the end, they have made a choice and are stepping out onto their path. They are doing something.


Work Cited

Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun. Literature: The Human Experience, edited by Richard Abcarian, et al., Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2016, pp. 711-81

Image: "raisins in the sun in drought" by David McSpadden is licensed under CC BY 2.0