A Raisin in the Sun | Study Guide

Lorraine Hansberry

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A Raisin in the Sun | Act 2, Scene 1 | Summary

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Summary

On Saturday evening of the same day Ruth is ironing when Beneatha emerges from her bedroom in full Nigerian costume. Beneatha plays a record with a Nigerian folk song and starts to sing along and dance. Walter enters, intoxicated, and begins an impassioned monologue about African warriors and leaders. As Beneatha periodically interjects an African war cry as a refrain, Walter's monologue becomes more majestic and compelling.

George Murchison, Beneatha's wealthy suitor, enters and the spell is broken. George tells Beneatha to change out of her costume. Beneatha reveals her natural, unstraightened hair, which stuns Ruth and George. Beneatha defensively calls them "assimilationist Negroes." George mocks her tendency to "lecture" on Africa and her interest in her heritage. While Beneatha shouts back about his ignorance, Ruth pushes her into the bedroom and then makes cordial small talk with George.

When George admits casually that he goes to New York a few times a year, Walter makes fun of George's elitist tendencies and expensive clothing. Walter mentions that he has big business plans and would like to talk to George's father, a wealthy investor. George casually dismisses the request. Hurt, Walter snaps at George about the uselessness of his education and his failure to have bigger dreams. Walter calls himself "a giant—surrounded by ants!" Beneatha comes out in a cocktail dress, which George approves of, and she and George leave for the evening.

Ruth tries to calm Walter down, but Walter reiterates that no one in his family understands him. After making bitter, attacking comments to Ruth, including the wounding remark that black people "don't know how to do nothing but moan, pray and have babies," he becomes more subdued. Ruth sadly admits that they are at a low point in their marriage. The two talk softly about what has gone wrong. Ruth says she wants to be close to Walter and adds tentatively that their life doesn't have to be this way.

Mama suddenly returns after having been away all evening. She's cryptic when Ruth and Walter ask where she's been. Walter fears she's spent the insurance money. When Travis comes in late Ruth prepares to spank him, but Mama calls him over and tells Travis she's bought a house. Ruth is thrilled; an angry Walter says nothing.

Ruth presses Mama for more details. Mama describes three bedrooms and a yard—hesitatingly referring to the new baby—and reluctantly mentions that the house is in Clybourne Park. Both Ruth and Walter are shocked because Clybourne Park is a white neighborhood. Mama says the house was the best she could get at the lowest price. After thinking for a moment Ruth decides she'll be glad to leave the small, dirty apartment. She circles the room and pounds the walls in celebration. She also decides, silently, to keep the baby.

Mama pleads with Walter to understand what she's done. Walter, hurt, says she's the head of the family and can do as she likes, but she's destroyed his dream.

Analysis

This is the climactic act of the play, when Mama makes a decision that will change everyone's lives. Hansberry ties the theme of newness and discovery into Beneatha and Walter's performance of the Nigerian song. Beneatha's use of an "oriental fan" shows that she's combining different cultures even as she strives not to assimilate. "Butterfly" refers to Madame Butterfly, a Japanese geisha well known in popular culture.

Pearl Bailey, to whom Hansberry compares Ruth, was a black actress in the 1940's and 50's known for her wit, sly humor, and warmth. This is one of many indications that there's more to Ruth than meets the eye. She's the most subdued of the main characters, but in many ways Ruth is the family's backbone.

"Back to the past" contrasts with Walter's looking into the future in the previous scene. While his imagined future shows businessmen and a white world, Walter's past shows a proudly black world. At first when he joins in Beneatha's singing, he isn't taking it seriously. He uses African stereotypes such as spears and lions, later treating these tropes as the embodiment of a masculine warrior culture—the way a man proves his manhood. For Walter, struggling to prove his manhood through the American culture's language of money, the song and chant are empowering. He's intoxicated in the scene, indicating the control alcohol has over his life.

Beneatha is more empowered through the recitation of a different language and the transformation of her hair. She's trying on a new identity, one she seems to like. Not coincidentally the song is interrupted by George Murchison, a black man who has embraced many aspects of the dominant white culture—wealth, snobbery, and status symbols. In contrast to Walter's majesty and the "greatness" he wants to prepare for (Beneatha even refers to Walter as "flaming spear"), George represents the American world Walter wants and can't gain access to.

George belittles Beneatha consistently and doesn't appear to respect the rest of the family due to their poverty. He patronizingly calls Walter "black brother" and dismisses Beneatha's outfit as theatrical and her hair as ridiculous. Natural, unstraightened hair is a point of both pride and contention for black women, and for Beneatha, angry on behalf of her family, the comments about her hair hit hard. George and Beneatha have an argument that mirrors Mama and Beneatha's in the first scene—George understands her references more than Mama does, but he doesn't respect them.

Ruth is the only family member who wants to impress George, in the way she sits (folding her hands) and in her offers of hospitality. George doesn't want beer, a working-class drink, and would rather talk about the theater than about the bombs and their relevance to the weather. Because of his class status George is more protected from violence than the Youngers, even though he's also black. Walter recognizes this and grows angrier at George, who makes the family he takes such pride in feel inadequate. He too attempts to offer George a drink, but while Ruth was motivated by civility to a guest Walter is engaged in a contest over his territory.

In this scene Walter attempts to assert himself first as a warrior, then as a businessman. Both attempts fail. Walter can't understand why George doesn't share his bitterness—why a black man, even when he has all the outer markings of success, doesn't long for something better. The audience senses that Walter's longing is about more than money. He wants respect and a legacy, and he wants support from his family. He mocks George's academic posturing more harshly than he mocks Beneatha's, suggesting that he does understand the spirit of his sister's goals if not the method she uses to achieve them.

Womanhood is equated with peace, hospitality, and civility in this scene, while manhood is equated with conflict. Beneatha is an advocate for the equality of the sexes, but she's still been socialized as a woman. Like Ruth she is willing to make momentary compromises to preserve the peace, such as putting on the cocktail dress and going out with George, whom she clearly dislikes. Walter's "moan, pray and have babies" comment to Ruth throws the gender distinctions into sharp relief. He realizes that while he's been desperate for support, he hasn't seen the support his wife is willing to offer him. His contempt for servitude extends to women though he loves and respects the women in his life—one of many contradictory aspects of his character. Once Walter and Ruth talk earnestly, Ruth admits that she has dreams like Mama Younger had once. She's also dreaming of a house for her family, emboldened by Travis (even as she's ambivalent about the new baby, who will tighten their finances). As the audience will soon find out, Mama's purchase of the house has helped Ruth toward this goal—Ruth is a reflection of Mama's younger self, a woman who loves a hardworking, ambitious man and struggles to be close to him. Mama wants a better fate for Ruth than a settlement check.

Despite Walter's posturing in the scene it is Mama who ends up asserting the most authority. She has taken action. She speaks directly to Travis, knowing the significance of the youngest generation to propel the family into the promise that Walter discussed in the previous scene. "She bought you a house," she says to Travis, implying that the home and future truly belong to him. Although Mama is aware of the implications of buying a house in a white neighborhood, she is the most hopeful member of the Younger family. This is the way the world is, she seems to realize; neighborhoods will integrate and everyone will learn to get along. She's survived worse.

Ruth's reference to "MY TIME" leads to her own dance of empowerment, similar to Walter's earlier in the scene. In the domestic sphere that's limited her for so long, she begins to dismiss her surroundings, pounding the walls—metaphorically kicking them down. She asks about sunlight, indicating sunlight's representation of hope. She makes her own powerful decision about the future: she's going to continue her family.

Walter feels emasculated: women are making the decisions, and there's nothing he can do about it. Walter deals with extreme stress by being truly awful to the people he loves. Hansberry emphasizes the importance and challenges of family through these characters—why do Walter, and occasionally Beneatha, lash out at the people who are on their side? Even a loving family has many, many complexities, as Walter and Ruth observe when they talk about how relationships look different from the outside than they do within. He does, perhaps, want the new baby and even the opportunity represented by the house. But he wants those things on his own terms. He's harsh and honest with Mama, who appeals to his male authority. Now she's the one talking about something bigger, something more. Roles are shifting, and the audience isn't sure who's the head of the family now.

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