The title of Lorraine Hansberry’s debut play about 1950s Southside Chicago comes from a classic poem by Langston Hughes, and Hansberry includes it as an epigram to the play.
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
Hughes’ poem captures the essence of Hansberry’s play: dreams deferred. The Younger family’s dream as a whole centers on the American dream, but for each person, it differs a little. Although Hansberry’s play is about an African American family in the 1950s, the dreams each person harbors remain universal. The Younger’s story is one that I think most people, especially those that work hard, can relate to in some degree.
Beneatha Younger, age 20, wants to discover herself as a woman and as an African American woman. Her older brother, Walter Younger, wants a better job, one that doesn’t require his obsequious service all day long. His wife Ruth wants everyone to be happy so she can sit down and rest. And Mama wants her precious family to gather together at the end of the day and be proud of their accomplishments: she wants them to be happy.
The core of the play is the coming insurance check, a representation of the life work of the family patriarch, who has died. Each wants to use the money for their own dreams, and as Mr Hughes’ poem indicates, Hansberry explores what happens when dreams are postponed time and again.
One favorite character was Beneatha Younger. I loved how she represented a feminist in creating her dreams: she wanted to be a doctor. I loved how throughout the play she was unconventional in her relationships and decisions as she tried to figure out who she was as an African-American woman in the 1950s. She was a fascinating character, and it’s a testament to Hansberry’s writing that she seemed so real simply upon reading the play.
The most memorable scene, besides the end (which I won’t discuss since I think it’s best to experience yourself) is the discussion between Walter and his ten-year-old son as he discusses his dreams for the future. “You just name it, son,” he says, “and I’ll hand you the world” (page 109). Dreams, whether deferred or realized, touch all generations, not just one’s own.
Amanda at The Zen Leaf and Allie at A Literary Odyssey both posted last week on their buddy read of A Raisin in the Sun by Lorrain Hansberry, and I simply had to pick up the memorable drama for a reread, based on their praises. I remembered liking it in high school and I still loved it. It’s wonderfully written, it’s full of fascinating issues, and it’s a universal story that one can relate to, regardless of where you are in your own dream realizations.
You know, Beneatha was the only character I had a lot of trouble understanding. She felt very conflicted, going back and forth and trying on new identities, which makes some sense of course due to her age. But I had a hard time wrapping my head around her in general. I wonder if that would have been different had I first read the play when I was younger?
Amanda, I really liked Beneatha. I felt she was very realistic — a young woman trying to find herself in the midst of a stressful situation. When she was a preteen and a teen, my sister would try new things like that all the time, bouncing around to different classes and choosing a different “instrument” for band each year. So I think the searching for identity thing is something I can understand. I don’t know why, but I liked her.
I haven’t read this since I was in high school, either, and your post reminds me it’s probably time for a re-read (or even better, viewing a production!). I think I would appreciate it more now that I have a little more life experience.
Emily, the introduction to my volume points out that many productions omit some of the key scenes, like the hair cut since it’s hard to reproduce on stage, so yes, watching a production would be great. Hansberry does a wonderful job in capturing the action and making it come a live even when it’s not being watched!