Symbolism in A Raisin in the Sun
Symbolism is a powerful tool. It is used to add additional, perhaps even hidden, meaning to something. Even a seemingly mundane work of literature can become exotic and profound with the application of symbols. Although some have more conspicuous meanings, the final interpretation is left to the readers. Music, movies, theatre, literature, art, religion and just about everything else is full of this secret language that is unique for each audience member; it is how they can constantly be reinterpreted. Lorraine Hansberry’s play, A Raisin in the Sun , is absolutely teeming with symbolic meanings that take it from a play about a single family, to a play about the struggles of an entire race.
The setting of the play is the Younger family’s apartment in Southside Chicago, sometime between 1945 and 1959. That era was in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, and it was full of oppression and segregation for African Americans. During the exposition, a great deal is discovered about the characters, their possessions, and how the play applies to the conflict of the era. Many of the characters hold a strong symbolic meaning, and Walter Lee Younger is no exception. He is the symbol of hope and ambition, dreams and desires, passion and fury. When taken at face value, all of those characteristics are applied towards his own success and the well-being of the family. Walter declares: “I am much warrior!” and the impression is that he is drunkenly caught up in a performance (Hansberry 641). However, when the symbolic motive is accounted for, he is a warrior for a whole race, combating injustice with hope and dreams.
Travis is another character that represents far more than his part in the play. He is a minor character, but the prominent meaning behind his persona is the future of the Younger family. His father proclaims, “just name it, son… and I hand you the world!” after his rendition of his vision of their future (Hansberry 659). If one takes into consideration the previous point about Walter, Travis is even more than the next generation of the family. It is easy to take the meaning one step further and say that Travis represents the future of the entire African American race.
An important and probably overlooked symbol in the play is the eggs. They appear as just one more thing that Walter does not get his way with, but they are far more. It becomes evident in the dialogue between Walter and Ruth, in which Walter states, “Man say to his woman: I got me a dream. His woman say: Eat your eggs” (Hansberry 616). The eggs represent his hope, dreams, and ambitions. The egg is an idea newly forming in his mind, but it never turns out the way that he wants. Also, it symbolizes Walter’s children. He always wants the best for Travis, who is young and fragile and new, like the egg. However, he can no more protect Travis or the unborn child, nor give them what he wants to, than he can get his eggs cooked the way he desires. If Walter is the hope and dreams of the entire race, and Travis is the future, then the eggs are an amalgamation between the two. They are the dreams of what the future may become; although being scrambled and heated through conflict, eventually they come to fruition.
Mama is the quintessential African American lady of that era; she is a stock character. Although she is also flat-static, it is that steady faith and loyalty that lends her character suchstrength. More importantly she is the keeper of the plant. The plant is a symbol for the dreams of the Younger family, but also for all black people in the country. Mama, as the characterization of faith, is the keeper of these dreams. According to Michelle Thompson on a Princeton blog dedicated to Mama’s plant as a symbol, Mama “continues to have faith in her plant, because she recognizes the plant’s stubbornness to grow” (Thompson). For the first part of the play, the plant is outside, as if it is a dream out of reach, brought in only for the small amount of nourishment (faith and hope) required to keep it alive. When the family is all packed up and ready to move, Mama brings it inside, like the dream is almost upon them. However, when Walter loses the money, the plant returns outside, once again like a dream deferred. It is important to note that it stays alive, and Mama always stubbornly tends to it, just as she keeps her dream.
Mama’s dream is to move into a house, and she purchases one with “a whole lot of sunlight” for her plant (Hansberry 650). The house just so happens to be in a neighborhood where “there ain’t no colored people living,” and so the dream is to break down segregation (Hansberry 650). The sunlight is the hope that keeps the plant, the dream, alive. Another important part of this multifaceted symbol is the new gardening tools which are given to Mama. As the keeper of faith and tradition, she is given tools by the younger generation to cultivate the dream and allow it to grow and spread.
A very apparent symbol in the play is the life insurance check. The check represents hope, but it is a false hope. Before it even arrives, it nearly tears the family apart. Once Mama puts the down payment on the house, it crushes Walter for three days. When she entrusts him with the rest of the money, he becomes almost maniacally happy. Then it devastates the whole family when they find out that the money is all gone, stolen by Willy Harris, who is the personification of the criminality of the human spirit and the demolition of dreams. Money is the root of all evil. It is a destroyer of societies and a corruptor of souls. Money and greed were the reason why slavery began in the first place, and continued to reign for so long. Glenda Gill, professor at the University of Texas at El Paso, states that she and her colleagues “look upon this money as the deus ex machina of the play” (Gill 227). The problem with that view is that the money does not really solve the family’s problems, but merely gives them a different set of issues to deal with.
The check enables Mama to put a down payment on a house, the hope of the family. It is their ticket to better lives. Again, the hope is false. With the hanging threat expressed by Mr. Linder and the bombings in the newspaper, their supposedly better lives are in jeopardy. Additionally, without the money in savings, it will be much tougher for them to make the payments on the house and still afford food and other things, including the new child. Professor Lloyd W. Brown, member of the Comparative Literature Program of the University of Southern California, points out that “the long term socioeconomic problems have not been solved” (Brown 244-245). This is true for both the Younger family, and the African American population, in general. While they were no longer slaves, black people were segregated. Even after there was no more segregation, the struggle for equality was not over; there was still discrimination and poverty.
A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry is, on the surface, about an African American family and their conflicts. On the other hand, the play has a transparent implication that parallels the Civil Rights Movement. There are many aspects of the play that are symbols for the dreams of African Americans of the era, the struggles that they faced, and the methods with which they combated injustice. This play was written in the cusp of an age which irrevocably transformed the most powerful country in the world. The beauty of the cipher of symbols is that the meaning changes each time it is decrypted. For these reasons A Raisin in the Sun will continue to be taught and re-examined for the foreseeable future.
Another powerful piece of symbolism within the play is the deal that Mr. Lindner offers the Younger family. The deal he offers is a nonspecific sum of money in order for the family to stay outside of his neighborhood, as if to say to them to stay within the shackles of segregation. Mr. Lindner’s deal is, as Dr. Martin Luther King says in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, “the tranquilizing drug of gradualism” (King 105). Or perhaps it is better expressed by Langston Hughes in his poem “Harlem” as “crust[ed] and sugar[ed] over – like a syrupy sweet” (Hughes 406). Either way, it is a deal to appease them into tolerating injustice, as it is one tiny step, one small benefit to keep them satiated for a while. It is almost like a deal with the devil, in that it is something that they strongly desire (money), but that will bring them long term, though not an eternity of, suffering if they choose to accept it. The climax is in one of the last scenes, when Walter shows that he is a round-dynamic character by refusing the offer of money, a strong indication of how his values changed throughout the play. The hardships of their unknown future will be endured, and probably be an improvement upon the wracking torment of the past.
Brown, Lloyd W. “Lorraine Hansberry as Ironist: a Reappraisal of A Raisin in the Sun.” Journal of Black Studies. 4.3. 3 March 1974: 237-247. JSTOR. Web. 2 June 2011.
Gill, Glenda. “Techniques for Teaching Lorraine Hansberry: Liberation from Boredom.” Negro American Literature Forum. 8.2. Summer 1974: 226-228. JSTOR. Web. 2 June 2011.
Hansberry, Lorraine. “A Raisin in the Sun.” Literature the Human Experience. Eds. Richard Abcarian and Marvin Klotz. 9th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007. 609-683. Print.
Hughes, Langston. “Harlem.” Literature the Human Experience. Eds. Richard Abcarian and Marvin Klotz. 9th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007. 406. Print.
King, Martin Luther, Jr. “I Have a Dream.” Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and the Civil Rights Struggle of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Ed. David Howard-Pitney. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2004. 103-107. Print.
Thompson, Michelle. “A Raisin in the Sun: Mama’s Plant.” AAS-209 (3) Survey in African American Literature. Princeton University. 4 April 2007. Web. 2 June 2011. <https://blogs.princeton.edu//AAS-209-3/2007/03/a_raisin_in_the_sun_mamas_plan.html>.