American Dream, a world for better people with better providence and resources for all as envisaged by the founding fathers of the United States of America, drove people from across the world to seek their fortune into the land of dreams and fortune maker. Literature, art or music, they mirror the condition of the society and get manifested through words, colors and tunes. The concept of American Dream and its manifestation through literature during the post-modern and post-colonial era was not an exception. Precisely, in the American literature the concept of American Dream with its pros and cons in various strata of society evolved out from time to time.
Loraine Hansberry, one of the eminent African-American writers, wrote the play ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ in the year 1959. With all the vow of equality since ages, America was not able to establish the term to its truest sense has been well depicted through the play. Experiences of the two generations of the Younger family and their struggles and challenges encountered owing to the laws pertaining to the labor and housing discriminations in America have been made very explicit in the play. The black populace in America genuinely suffered from a hollow vision of American Dream due to the discriminative policies taken by government in the areas of work and stay. The agendas are different for two generations but the oppression remains the same and the contrast of experience in the case of Big Walter Lee as evoked through Mama’s voice in the play with that of Walter Lee’s perspective of American dream as a younger generation definitely helps to build a coherent and concise panorama of American Dream in the Afro-American society of the United States.
‘A Raisin in the Sun’ tries to throw light on the racial issues and impact of those issues on the notion of American Dream covering the agony of almost two generations. This essay intends to present the conflict and contradiction of generations manifested through the comprehension of American Dream by Walter Lee.
A Raisin in the Sun: American Dream through the Eyes of Walter Lee
A close introspection into the plot of the play ‘ A Raisin in the Sun’ launches its readers into a plethora where they get the opportunity to comprehend the hardships and the challenges encountered and undertaken by the African–American labor class from 1920s to 1950s. One must definitely take into consideration about the fact that Loraine Hansberry has covered a great span of time in her play, ‘A Raisin in the Sun’. Walter Lee (younger) is present in the play and the readers are aware of his activities, dreams and pursuits through his physical appearance. However, the storyline of the play starts from the dreams and life of the Big Walter Lee whom the readers get to know through the eyes of Mama as she narrates the life trajectory of her deceased husband. On the other hand, the protagonist of the play Walter Lee is striving hard to achieve his dreams which are woven within the nexus of material pursuit like most of the Americans during 50s and 60s.
When the play ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ is judged thematically, American Dream appears to be, one of the poignant themes related with the play. Nevertheless, to understand the concept of American Dream interplaying and manifested within the plot of the play, one will have to gaze through the trajectory of each character and their reactions towards their dream inherent in the play. The plot of the play indicates as well that the central conflict which evolves in the play forms its base on the notion of Walter Lee towards American Dream. Middle-class ideologies pertaining to materialism grasp Walter at the outset of the play itself. The concept of a self-braid man who starts life from a scratch and reaches the pinnacle of wealth, glory and power becomes quite pernicious with the concept of American Dream as regards to the predicament of Walter Lee in the play. Walter Lee seems to be his own boss in the play. A concept of free will for man and liberty was envisaged through the perception of American dream as envisioned by Walter Lee in the play. The stubbornness of Walter Lee gets expressed from the Act I, scene I itself when Ruth refuses Travis to pay money Walter forcibly pays it and with a complete defiance to Ruth’s instructions “Walter (To Ruth only) Why you tell the boy things like that for? (Reaching down into his pants with a rather important gesture) Here, son” (Hansberry and Nemiroff 31). At this, Ruth stares at both of them with astonishment and disgust in her eyes. To which Walter’s further reaction was, “Walter (Without even looking at his son, still staring hard at his wife) In fact, here’s another fifty cents …..Buy yourself some fruit today or take a taxicab to school or something” (Hansberry and Nemiroff 31). With these gesture, attitude and words of Walter, it becomes evident that he is quite bully in terms of following any instructions from any other, be it his wife even. Also, he wants to assume himself as the head of the family and tries to ensure that his family would be under complete material happiness and no other person should get any worries or concerns about the poverty in the house. This again justifies the hollow pursuit of silver lined American Dreams prevalent during the 50s and 60s inside the black quarters of America.
The first part of the play also indicates a hollow pursuit, a relentless spirit to earn money by any means. Walter Lee is envious of the dry-cleaning business of Charlie Atkins which fetches him good fortune. Here the morale associated with the high flaunting ideals of American Dream becomes very hollow at the outset of the play itself. In order to provide a better life to his family, Walter needs to make money and he takes the business venture of the Liquor shop despite objection from his Mama on moral grounds or questioning from Ruth, his wife on the character of his partner in the venture. Ruth is disgusted the ways of Walter Lee to earn money and she actually thinks that this mad chase for money by Walter Lee is eclipsing the entire family eventually. Walter Lee is not satisfied with his means and his life at the new neighborhood. He aspires a life like the whites at his neighborhood full of luxury and financial solvency, “Walter (At the window) Just look at ‘em down there….Running and racing to work” (Hansberry and Nemiroff 27) (URL: http://www.amazon.com/Raisin-Sun-Lorraine-Hansberry/dp/0679755330 ) He is mad after making money and Hansberry assures at this point of the play deliberately that opening a liquor shop for Walter is just a means and not the end. Walter is mad after achieving his goals and for that he justifies every means as correct and upright. For Walter, with money comes great power and comfort. For him, the material aspect of his dream gains a very firm ground with growing days in his life. This chase for wealth is an integral part of the American Dream as envisaged by Walter Lee in the play ‘A Raisin in the Sun’. Walter Lee here voices the spirit of all those black American men during the post World War II era who dreamt of a happy and comfortable future. But to attain that they never hesitated to take many short cut means.
Another perception of American Dream by Walter Lee got manifested through the life he desires to have for his son. Staying in a white neighborhood, he aspires to possess the life of the white people around. Under this light, he wants to fulfill his unfulfilled dreams and aspirations through his son. He wants him to give proper education and for that he wishes to send him to one of the best schools in the locality. Walter is proud about the fact that Travis is his son, “Walter: (After him, pointing with pride) That’s my boy.” (Hansberry and Nemiroff 31). And then his urge to give his son a better living, a better infrastructure rather just putting him off to sleep quietly everyday in the living room with the stories of the white people, “Walter: (Not listening at all or even looking at her) This morning, I was lookin’ in the mirror and thinking about it … I’m thirty-five years old; I been married eleven years and I got a boy who sleeps in the living room
(Very, very quietly) and all I got to give him is stories about how rich white people live. ..” (Hansberry and Nemiroff 34).
From this statement, it becomes evident that Walter wishes a life like that of white people which he assumes as better than his rather than just telling stories about their life to his son and dreaming about his in a futile way throughout his life.
Walter Lee is ready to take the refuge of unfair means for attainment of better living which forms the crux of his concept of American Dream. However, at the same plane, he does not want those comforts only for himself. He is completely a familial man; he loves his wife irrespective of his grievance against her of not being able to inspire him for being a rich man. Walter Lee thinks that white men become so successful because their wives give them a huge mental support, a virtue lacking in black women according to Walter Lee. He envisions that the black women should also rise up to the level where they can walk hand-in-hand with their spouse. Walter loves his wife, Ruth and passionately allures her all the time and wants to give her best deals around, “Water: That is just what is wrong with the colored woman in this world . . . Don’t understand about building their men up and making ’em feel like they some-
body. Like they can do something” (Hansberry and Nemiroff 34).
The most pertinent manifestation of American Dream from Walter Lee’s perspective was his desire to be independent and take care of his entire family. He did not want his son or sister to pine for small things. He never wanted his wife or mother to go out and work to meet their small necessities. He always had a big dream and wanted a better life without confining himself into any narrow limit or periphery. To attain this, he needed means and he wanted his Mama to give him the ten thousand Dollars with which he would establish the liquor shop. Pursing Mama dies not help Walter at all, he breaks down with the following statement, “Walter: I want so many things that they are driving me kind of crazy . . . Mama look at me.” (Hansberry and Nemiroff 73).To this statement, Mama replies, “Mama: I am looking at you. You a good-looking boy. You got a job, a nice wife, a fine boy and ….” (Hansberry and Nemiroff 73).
Walter Lee at this point makes apparent that he is not satisfied with his meager life and to do something bigger he needs to choose means that he feels is correct. Walter Lee wants to come out from the benevolent and omnipotent guidance of his Mama and claims to architect his own destiny. To consistent guidance of Mama, Walter Lee answers her back, “Walter: I’m a grown man, Mama” (Hansberry and Nemiroff 71).This statement is an aggressive expression of Walter Lee’s ambition. Nevertheless, on the other plane, it can be also granted as his assertion to trust him. He wants to make belief his entire family that he is able to take responsibilities and his plunge into various ways of doing things better are not always wrong.
Walter’s Determination to Achieve American Dream
A Raisin in the Sun captivates a very significant time frame in America pertaining to the racial dynamics and race relations operating between the period after World War II and before the publication of the play in 1959. There was a total contradictory situation prevailing during the time. On one hand, when the American’s were sent to the front to fight the World War II in order to establish an aura of justice and equal rights across the globe, back at their own land, there were extreme racial discrimination prevailing which actually indicated a total ambience of hollow pursuit and hypocrisy around. Hansberry wanted to uphold all these through her writing. And, to project this perfectly she made a microcosmic representation of the dreams and desires of blacks in America through the tale of one family. Walter is desperate to provide a better living to his family, being a father, a husband and a son he found it as his absolute duty to keep his family happier and for that he understood that the only means to attain this is through material gain. Another reason for Walter’s desperation to achieve his dreams of being financially stable was the reason for their non-acceptance as a Negro family in the new white neighborhood. For Walter, the equation became very clear at the beginning of the play itself when Mr. Linder arrives at their new house and quotes, “….I say , that for the happiness of all concerned that our Negro families are happier when they live in their own communities” (Hansberry and Nemiroff 118).
Walter thought that with money power, respect will follow automatically and to establish the identity of his own self along with his family, he equated the concept of American Dream with the material pursuit.
A Raisin in the Sun is a play that does not confine itself to the context of racial discrimination only. However, it is also a story of dreams and desires and the way one is forced to tread myriad paths of life to reach their goal under compulsion and confrontation with many external challenges. Babacar M’Baye in the essay, “Discrimination and the American Dream in Lorraine Hansberry’s ‘A Raisin in the Sun” rightly observes regarding the dream of Walter Lee: “On the one hand, this dream seems to be feasible and full of possibilities- like the hopeful image of an exploding raisin with “crust and sugar over”. Yet, suggested in the image of a drying raisin that could “fester like an old sore and run,” this dream is hard to attain when forces of segregation, racism, intolerance, and violence defer it” (Bloom and Hobby 175).
Walter Lee’s perspective of American Dream is definitely guided by racial conflict, under which the meaning of the phenomena invariably appears under a different light.
Bloom, Harold. and Blake Hobby. The American Dream. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2009. Print.
Hansberry, Lorraine. and Robert Nemiroff. A Raisin in the Sun. New York: Vintage Books, 2004. Print.