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A Raisin in the Sun | Study Guide

Lorraine Hansberry

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Act 1, Scene 1

Professor Kristen Over of Northeastern Illinois University provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Act 1, Scene 1 of Lorraine Hansberry's play A Raisin in the Sun.

A Raisin in the Sun | Act 1, Scene 1 | Summary



On Friday morning at 7:30, Ruth Younger awakens in the Youngers' small apartment. Although the apartment was originally furnished with love and care, the furniture has grown old and worn-out. Five people are crowded into a few rooms, with little natural light. Ruth wakes her son Travis and husband Walter. Since many building residents share a hallway bathroom, they all have to hurry in the morning.

Walter reads the paper and remarks that another bomb went off. Ruth listens indifferently. Walter protests that the important things on his mind aren't important to her. While Walter is in the bathroom, Travis requests school money from his mother, who says they don't have it. Travis later asks his father who conspicuously gives him more money than he requested. Then Walter and Ruth argue over Walter's proposed investment in the liquor store. When Beneatha wakes she and Walter fight over her desire for money for medical school. Beneatha points out that the large settlement check the family's going to receive the next day is their mother's money, not theirs.

After Walter leaves Ruth and Mama discuss Walter's investment plan. Ruth supports his ambition, knowing Walter has "his heart set on that store." Mama, whose religious convictions forbid drinking alcohol, is reluctant. "We ain't no business people," she tells Ruth. When Ruth asks how Mama will use the money Mama says she hasn't decided. She does, however, plan to set some aside for Beneatha's education and perhaps buy a small house. She reminisces about her late husband, with whom she planned to purchase a home.

Ruth and Mama gently mock Beneatha for taking guitar lessons since Beneatha has pursued and abandoned many artistic hobbies. They then discuss Beneatha's suitor George Murchison, saying his wealth ought to satisfy her. Beneatha dismisses George as "shallow." She says, to Mama and Ruth's astonishment, she may not even marry.

When Beneatha says that "God hasn't got a thing to do with" her becoming a doctor, the mood gets tense. Beneatha asserts that she does not believe in God and only people "[make] miracles." Mama slaps Beneatha and has her repeat, "In my mother's house there is still God." After Beneatha leaves Mama confesses to Ruth that she no longer understands her children.

As Mama waters her plant Ruth collapses into a chair in a faint. Mama runs to her, alarmed.


Hansberry sets the stage with a vivid description of the Younger apartment, a story unto itself. She employs this technique throughout—giving highly specific physical descriptions and stage directions. She also provides insight into each character's emotional state and the psychology behind their interactions. The commentary gives A Raisin in the Sun added depth, putting the characters in both familial and historical contexts.

The condition of the furniture and belongings reflect the state of the apartment's occupants. The carpet, like the residents, is weary. The furniture, like the residents, is overworked, only concerned with "living itself." By adding that "the landlord's lease would make it seem" that the small kitchen area is a room, Hansberry implies that the Youngers are overcharged for their insufficient space. Though the play's location is specific, the year is not—time may pass, but the circumstances of black residents of Chicago do not change. (This theme is picked up later when Beneatha discusses the impossibility of true progress in Act 3.)

Ruth's scene with Walter hints at trouble in the wider world, "another bomb," which most likely refers to an atomic bomb test. Ruth's lack of surprise shows that violence and the threat of another war occur regularly. Ruth and Walter's bickering first seems like typical marital discord but is soon revealed to have deeper roots. For instance, Ruth immediately tenses when Travis brings up money.

Travis's "masculinity and gruffness" when she denies his requests shows that he's growing up, though he's still young enough to appreciate being his mama's little boy. Walter, recognizing this growth in his son, gives Travis money they can't afford to encourage independence—and to assert his own independence from Ruth. The desire of men to leave a legacy, particularly one of financial stability, is a recurrent theme linked to Walter's character arc and the future he wishes for Travis.

When Ruth uses the word graft to describe the bribes Walter expects to pay to get a liquor license, she's referencing a larger motif that will reappear in the play: dishonest or illegal uses of money. The discussion foreshadows the eventual downfall of Walter's business plan (which occurs when Willy steals Walter's money). Ruth's tired "You never say nothing new" indicates Walter has had grandiose but vague ambitions for a long time; the settlement money means they might come to fruition.

Walter's masculinity ties into his disdain for the "small" mind of "the colored woman." In the first act this misogyny (hatred or contempt for women) ties into his own confusion about his role in the world. On cue the audience meets Beneatha, a woman with dreams as big as her brother's and a plan to achieve them. Walter clearly resents Beneatha's costly goals since he believes they take money directly from his family's finances. He puts his dreams above hers because he believes men should be breadwinners (urging her to "be a nurse like other women"). He's also thinking from a practical standpoint: he has a child and she does not.

Hansberry uses the description of Beneatha's speech to indicate how she's both different from and similar to the rest of the family. The "influence of the Southside" dominates: Beneatha is above all else a resident of that Chicago neighborhood and a member of her family. However, Beneatha is the only Younger not to speak regularly in African American Vernacular English (AAVE). Through Beneatha the play explores the linguistic concept of code switching, or speaking in different varieties of the same language—often tied to a regional or racial vernacular. The way characters speak reveals a great deal about their allegiances. For example, as if to emphasize her superior education Beneatha repeatedly uses literary and biblical allusions (references) to make her points, such as calling Walter a would-be "[prophet] who would lead us out of the wilderness."

Though Ruth wants to talk Walter out of the liquor store, she ends up making his case to Mama in a subtle way similar to the manner Walter suggested earlier. Ruth indicates that she's listening to Walter more than he thinks—and that, despite her misgivings, she would like better circumstances for the family. Mama seems either resigned to or comfortable with their current status. She's clearly familiar with how to negotiate in a domestic service position, advising Ruth to tell her boss she has the flu ("something white people get, too"). But to Mama a vacation doesn't seem attainable even with more money; she thinks she needs a higher status in the world for the right to vacation in Europe.

Mama's description of Big Walter as a good man who "couldn't never catch up with his dreams" indicates that she wants her children to have more hope, although she's not sure how to help them—their dreams are strange and foreign to her. Home ownership is the pinnacle of achievement in Mama's eyes, a goal tied to the American dream. She sees her children pursuing extra and excess, liquor stores and hobbies. When her daughter shows disrespect to God, the aspect of life most sacred to Mama, she wonders what's gone wrong. Ruth, though closer in age to Beneatha than Mama, identifies more with Mama's practical goals—perhaps because she's a mother too.

Beneatha approaches the question of God logically, differently from her mother. In a generational shift she refuses to approach marriage as a transaction, and her disdain for "rich colored people" suggests she's not becoming a doctor for the generous salary.

The "No Ways Tired" spiritual Mama requests shows up at the beginning of Act 2, Scene 3 when Ruth sings it before the move.

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