A Raisin in the Sun: Summary
Plot Summary with Analysis
The title for A Raisin in the Sun is taken from a line in the Langston Hughes’ poem, ‘Montage of a Dream Deferred’: ‘What happens to a dream deferred? / Does it dry up / Like a raisin in the sun.’ Bearing this reference in mind, it is possible to see immediately that this play is concerned with the quashing of ambition, and with the dangers associated with thinking small rather than big.
Summary – Act One, Scene One
The stage directions describe the Younger living room and its furnishings are referred to as ‘typical and undistinguished’ and we are told they have had to accommodate too many people for too many years. It is also possible to see that they have been chosen ‘with care and love and even hope’, but this was a long time ago and everything is worn now.
There is a kitchen in a section of the room and meals are also eaten here. There is only one window. On the left, a door leads to a bedroom which is shared by Mama (Lena Younger) and her daughter, Beneatha. Opposite this is a second room, which probably used to be called a breakfast room and is now a bedroom for Walter (Mama’s son) and his wife Ruth.
It is somewhere between World War II and the present, 1959, and the play is set in Chicago’s Southside. It is morning and Travis – the son of Walter and Ruth – is asleep on a ‘make-down’ bed. An alarm clock rings and Ruth comes out of her room into the living room. As she passes her sleeping son, she shakes him a little. She raises the shade and a dusky morning light comes in feebly. She calls to the boy ‘between yawns, in a slightly muffled voice’. She is aged around 30 and we can see that she was pretty, ‘even exceptionally so’. ‘but now it is apparent that life has been little that she expected, and disappointment has already begun to hang in her face.’ In a few years, she will be known as a ‘settled woman’.
She crosses to Travis and gives him a rousing shake and tells him it is 7.30. He sits up at last and is described as ‘a sturdy, handsome little boy of ten or eleven’. He goes to the bathroom out in the hall and it is explained in the directions that this is shared by ‘another family or families on the same floor’.
Ruth then crosses to her bedroom and calls her husband three times to get him out of bed. She reminds him that if he does not use the bathroom after Travis, Mr Johnson will be in there. The fourth time she tells him she starts to go into their room and then returns to the kitchen apparently satisfied he is rising.
He comes out in his pajamas, ‘which are rumpled and mismated’ and he is described as ‘a lean, intense young man in his middle 30s’. He is ‘inclined to quick nervous movements and erratic speech habits – and always in his voice there is a quality of indictment.’ He asks why she was yelling him if Travis is still in the bathroom and then asks if the check is coming today. She tells him ‘they’ said Saturday and today is Friday and then says she hopes he is not going to start talking about them not having any money.
She asks what kind of eggs he wants and he says ‘not scrambled’. With this, she starts to scramble eggs. He looks at the newspaper and says how another ‘A-bomb’ was set off yesterday and she shows ‘maximum indifference’. He then complains about Travis taking a long time and says he should get up earlier. She responds by turning on him: ‘It ain’t his fault that he can’t get to bed no earlier nights ‘cause he got a bunch of crazy good-for-nothing clowns sitting up running their mouths in what is supposed to be his bedroom after ten o’clock at night.’
He says the things that he wants to talk about with his friends are not important to her and he crosses to the window as he smokes a cigarette. He points out how people are ‘running and racing to work’. He then tells her she is looking young this morning, just for a second, and she tells him to shut up and leave her alone. At this point, Travis comes out of the bathroom and Walter leaves the living room to go in after him.
Analysis – Act One, Scene One
The stage directions emphasize how the Younger family live squashed into a small apartment. Four adults and one child live here and Travis has to sleep in the living room. The only light, which is described as feeble, comes in from one window and this highlights further how the family are living in restricted circumstances.
The strained relations between husband and wife (Walter and Ruth) are made evident as they snap at each other and this is seen to be worsened by the cramped conditions. They argue about getting up in time to use the shared bathroom and how Travis is kept awake when Walter talks to his friends. Their antagonism towards each other is also shown when Walter’s voice is described as always having a ‘quality of indictment’ to it and we are told that Ruth makes scrambled eggs for him when he specifically asks her not to.
Their lack of money, which is demonstrated by their small worn home, is given another dramatic edge when Walter makes the first of many references in the play to the arrival of the check. This check is of great importance as it potentially offers the family an opportunity for change.
When Travis returns from the bathroom, he sits down and gleefully mentions how the check is coming tomorrow. Ruth tells him to take his mind off money and he says how he needs 50 cents for school. She informs him that she does not have it and he wonders if his Grandmama or father will give it to him. She tells him to be quiet and he is for several seconds, but then asks if he could carry some supermarket groceries for a little while after school. She orders him to be quiet and he jabs his spoon into his cereal bowl ‘viciously’ ‘and rests his head in anger upon his fists’. She tells him to make up his bed and he obeys stiffly.
Travis turns to leave with ‘sullen politeness’ and she mocks him a little about the anger he has shown her. He turns to her and when she laughs he crosses to her and allows her to embrace him. ‘In the face of love’, he shows a new aggressiveness and asks again if he may carry groceries. She says it is cold in the evening and Walter enters at this point and asks what Travis wants to do.
She explains and Walter says she should let him. Travis spots an ally and explains he has to as ‘she won’t gimme the fifty cents’. Walters asks why and she says it is because they do not have it. He then asks why she is telling him this and he gives Travis the money ‘but his eyes are directed to his wife’s’. She watches both of them with ‘murder in her eyes’ and Walter stares back with defiance. He suddenly reaches into his pocket again and without looking at his son he gives him another 50 cents. Travis leaps up and clasps his father around the middle with his legs and ‘they face each other in mutual admiration’. Walter slowly looks round to his wife and he catches ‘the violent rays’ from his eyes. He draws his head back as if he has been shot.
When Travis leaves, Walter tells Ruth what he and Willy Harris were talking about last night. She says immediately (as a refrain) that Willy Harris is a ‘good-for-nothing loudmouth’. He reminds her that she said the same about Charlie Atkin. He had wanted Walter to go into business with him in his dry-cleaning firm and is now grossing over $100,000 a year. She folds her head on her arms and he rises and stands over her. He says how she is tired of everything. She does not look up or answer and he continues and says she moans and groans all the time, but ‘wouldn’t do nothing to help’. He says a man needs a woman’s support and that Mama would listen to her.
Walter then demonstrates how Ruth should let Mama know about the deal and he will give her the details of the proposition that he, Willy and Bobo have figured out. She says ‘Bobo?’ with a frown and he explains they have a little liquor store in mind. It costs $75,000 and they have worked out that they will need $10,000 each and couple of $100 to pay out so they will not have to spend their lives waiting for a licence. She asks if he means ‘graft’ and he frowns impatiently at what he sees as women not understanding the world.
She tells him to leave her alone, stares at him and then tells him to eat his eggs. He straightens up and says, ‘that’s it. There you are. Man says to his woman: I got me a dream. His woman say: Eat your eggs.’ He repeats this point two more times and brings his fist down on his thighs. She says softly, ‘that ain’t none of our money’ and he does not listen or look at her. He says how this morning he looked in the mirror and thought how he is 35 years old, has been married 11 years and has a boy who sleeps in the living room. Very quietly he says that all he has to give him is ‘stories about how rich white people live’.
Wearily, she claims he never says anything new: ‘So you would rather be Mr Arnold than be his chauffeur. So – I would rather be living in Buckingham Palace.’ He says that this is what is wrong with ‘the colored woman in this world’. He argues that they ‘don’t understand about building their men up and making them feel like they somebody’. She is hurt and says how there are ‘colored men who do things’ and he replies, ‘no thanks to the coloured woman’; she answers that as she is a ‘colored woman’ she cannot help herself. He mumbles that he is of a group of men, ‘tied to a race of women with small minds’.
The antagonism between Ruth and Walter is heightened in this section of the play and as they talk it becomes increasingly apparent that the effects of racism have divided the sexes here. Walter blames Ruth for quashing his ambition, and yet Ruth’s caution may be understood as having its roots in pragmatism and in the limited opportunities available for the African American in a racist society.
When interpreting their argument in relation to the title, however (which claims that the deferral of dreams leads them to shrivel like a raisin in the sun), Ruth’s limited yet practical view may be interpreted as unwittingly contributing to the effects of racism.
Beneatha enters and is described as being 20 years old and ‘as slim and intense’ as her brother. Her speech is a mixture of ‘many things’ and different from the rest of the family in that ‘education has permeated her sense of English’, but there is still an influence of the South and the Southside (of Chicago).
The Johnsons have gone into the bathroom before her and she sits at the table ‘a little defeated’. Walter asks how school is coming on and she becomes impatient as he keeps asking her this. She plans to be a doctor and he asks if she knows yet how much this will cost.
Ruth tells him to leave Beneatha alone and he mentions to Beneatha about the check that is coming tomorrow. Beneath turns on him with sharpness and says it belongs to Mama, and so it is up to her to decide what to do with it. Walter replies bitterly that she is ‘such a nice little girl’ and refers ironically to how she just got her Mama’s interests at heart, as Mama can always take a few thousand and help her through school. Beneatha says she has never asked anyone around here to do anything for her and he implies the line between asking and accepting is not wide.
After Beneatha asks him if he wants her to quit school or drop dead, he tells her to stop acting holy and points out that he and Ruth have made sacrifices and asks why she cannot do something for the family. She drops to her knees to thank everybody and asks to be forgiven. Walter enquires, ‘who the hell told you you had to be a doctor?’ and points out that she could be a nurse like other women, ‘or just get married and be quiet’.
The brother and sister continue to argue as she tells him again that the insurance money belongs to Mama and picking on her (Beneatha) will not make Mama invest in the liquor store. She says, ‘God bless Mama for that!’ and calls him a ‘nut’ and he hears her. He retorts: ‘The world’s most backward race of people.’ She implies that he thinks he is a prophet who would lead them from the wilderness to the swamps. He slams out and then returns and says he needs money for the carfare. Ruth teases him with warmth and gives him 50 cents.
He exits and Mama enters. She is in her early 60s and is described as ‘beautiful’. Her speech is ‘as careless as her carriage is precise’ and her bearing is compared to that of the women of the Hereros of Southwest Africa. She opens the window, brings in a feeble little plant, feels the dirt and puts it back on the sill.
She moves to Travis’ bed that he has ‘sloppily made up’ and blesses his heart for trying. Ruth says he does not try at all as he knows Mama will ‘come along behind him and fix everything’. Mama replies that he is a little boy and then asks what she fixed for his breakfast. Ruth says angrily, ‘I feed my son, Lena!’ Mama claims she is not meddling, but then says she noticed how he had cold cereal all last week and he should have something hot when it gets this chilly. Ruth is furious and tells her she gave him hot oats.
Beneatha leaves for the bathroom and after asking what the fuss was about earlier, Ruth tells Mama that she knows as well as she does. Ruth asks what she plans to spend the money on and says how Walter has his heart set on the store. When Mama says they are just ‘plain working folks’, Ruth points out that, ‘ain’t nobody business people till they go into business’ and adds that Walter needs this chance, and people are always going to drink liquor.
Mama says she does not want this on her ‘ledger’ (come Judgement Day) and changes the subject. She notices Ruth looks sick and tells her to stay off work, but Ruth argues that they need the money.
The conversation returns to the check, which is for $10,000 and Ruth says she should take a trip with it and forget about the family. Mama throws her hands up at this idea. She lets Ruth know that she has not fully decided yet, but some will go towards Beneatha’s fees and is thinking of getting a two-story house somewhere with a yard for Travis to play in. Some of the insurance money could be used as down payment and they could all chip in.
Beneatha is introduced in this section and from the outset we are told that she is the educated one in the family. As with Walter, she has ambition and it is telling that he attempts to quash her dream in favor of his own. When he argues that she should become a nurse or marry as other women do rather than become a doctor, he plays his part in trying to defer the dream of another. At this stage, he is unable to see that her aspirations are as valid as his and he uses patriarchal thinking as a framework for his argument.
Their mother, Lena (who is mostly referred to as Mama throughout the play), also appears for the first time here and her first action involves tending the feeble plant on the window sill. Her care for this plant is a significant motif of the play and this comes to symbolize hope against adversity.
While Ruth does the ironing, she studies Mama furtively and says how they have paid enough rent for this ‘rat trap’ to buy four houses by now. Mama becomes reflective and remembers the day she moved in with Big Walter. They had only been married for two weeks and did not plan to stay for more than a year. They dreamed of moving to Morgan Park, but it never happened.
Ruth keeps her head down and says, ‘yes, life can be a barrel of disappointments, sometimes’. Mama recalls the time she lost a baby, little Claude, and how her husband was so down she thought she would lose him too. She supposes that this is why he worked himself to death: ‘Like he was fighting his own war with this here world that took his baby from him.’ She adds that there was plenty wrong with him, but he loved his children and thinks this is where Brother (Walter) gets his ‘notions’ from.
Beneatha returns and after cursing the woman upstairs for the noise she makes vacuuming her apartment, she says she will be home late as Madeline is starting her guitar lessons today. Mama and Ruth look up with the same expression and Mama criticizes her for flitting from one thing to another (such as horse riding, drama and photography). Beneatha says she does not flit and claims she is experimenting with different forms of expression. When Mama asks what it is that she wants to express, she replies angrily, ‘me!’ The other two women look at each other and laugh raucously.
Mama then changes the subject and asks Beneatha who she is going out with tomorrow night. She says she is seeing George Murchison again, but adds that she thinks he is shallow. Ruth points out that he is rich, but Beneatha says she would not understand (as she married her brother). Beneatha explains she would not marry George and his family would not like this either: ‘The Murchisons are honest-to-God-real-live-rich colored people, and the only people in the world who are more snobbish than rich white people are rich colored people.’ She then says she is not worried about marrying yet and if she does, she is going to be a doctor first (which George thinks is funny).
She continues and explains everybody had better understand this. Mama agrees and adds, ‘God willing’. Beneatha says drily that God has got nothing to do with it. After being reprimanded, she tells them she is sick of hearing about God. Further arguments ensue, and Beneatha says there is only man, ‘and it is he who makes the miracles’. Mama rises slowly and slaps her and orders her to repeat after her that in her mother’s house ‘there is still God’. Beneatha complies the second time she is asked to do this. Mama walks out of the room and Beneatha says her mother is a tyrant. She then picks up her books and exits.
Ruth goes to Mama’s door and says Beneatha said she was sorry. Mama comes out and goes to her plant and says her children frighten her: ‘There’s something coming down between me and them that don’t let us understand each other and I don’t know what it is.’ Ruth tries to soothe her and says they are just strong willed. Mama looks at her plant, sprinkles water on it and says she has to admit Bennie and Walter have spirit: ‘Like this little old plant that ain’t never had enough sunshine or nothing – and look at it ...’
Her back is to Ruth and she does not see that Ruth has had to stop ironing. Ruth leans against something and puts her hand to her forehead. She tries to not let Mama see her distress and says how she sure loves that plant. Mama agrees and says it is the closest she has come to having a garden. She asks Ruth to sing and turns to see her slumped in a chair in a state of semi-consciousness.
In this section, the plant that has survived despite the lack of sunshine is admired by Mama and is compared to her children as having the same sort of spirit. Although it barely thrives, its continued existence is a reminder of how necessary it is to battle to survive.
However, Mama earlier saw Beneatha’s spirit as evidence of a split between her and her children. The divisions between the two generations are made clear as Beneatha refuses to thank God – or believe in Him – as her mother wishes her to. Whereas Mama appears to be more acquiescent, her children question the position they are expected to be grateful for.