Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun

Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun. Vintage Books, 1995.

Summary of Work
Ruth and Walter Younger, their son Travis, and Walter’s sister Beneatha and mother Lena all live together in a small, two bedroom apartment on the South side of Chicago. Walter’s father has died, and after months of waiting, they are expecting an insurance check for ten thousand dollars. It is all Walter can think about, and over breakfast, Ruth tries to keep order as Beneatha and Walter fight about what will be done with the money. Ruth is acting strange, and she is particularly hard on Travis when he asks for money he needs for school, and harder on him when he asks to be able to deliver groceries after school in order to make the money himself. Walter gives his son $1 and sends him on his way, much to Ruth’s dismay. Walter wants to go into business with his friends to buy a liquor store, and he is upset that Ruth is always so worried about money but won’t let him do anything to change their situation. He is insistent that his mother will give him the insurance money to go into business. He leaves for work, Beneatha leaves for school (she is in college and wanting to become a doctor), and when Lena comes out, she starts fussing over Ruth and then talking about how she doesn’t know her children anymore. Ruth collapses.

She goes to the doctor and learns she is pregnant, and she is devastated. However, the next day, the check comes, and everyone starts out happy. Lena tells Ruth that she’s thinking about putting some money away for Beneatha so that she can go to school, and then trying to decide what to do with the rest. She thinks she might buy a house. Walter is angry that she won’t invest in the liquor store scheme, and he goes to leave, but Lena makes him stay, trying to get him to listen to Ruth’s important announcement. He just yells at Ruth, and she goes in her room. Lena tells him that Ruth is pregnant, and Ruth comes out to talk about it. She talks to her family about her trip to the doctor, and lets slip the wrong pronoun, indicating to Lena that Ruth actually went to see the woman who would help her get an abortion. Ruth confirms this, stating that with how Walter is acting and the financial state they are in, it doesn’t make sense to bring a child into the world. Lena, feeling like her world is falling apart, leaves the house with the check that has come in the mail.

When Lena returns, she’s bought a house, but in the white area of town rather than the black area. The family doesn’t know what to say, worried about what will happen. Beneatha, meanwhile, has been going out with different men. One, George, is the son of one of the richest men in town, and the family would like to see her keep dating him and potentially marry him. But Beneatha likes Asagai, the Nigerian who is in Chicago going to college to learn about democracy so he can bring revolution to his country. He brings her a beautiful Nigerian set of clothing, and she puts it on, and he comments that her hair isn’t natural, and that’s sad. She goes to the hairstylist and has it cut off. When she returns, all dressed up, she starts dancing how she imagines a Nigerian woman would dance, and Walter walks in and sees her. He is drunk, and starts wildly dancing as he imagines an African warrior would dance. It is this scene that Ruth and George walk in on, and George is flabbergasted at her dress and her hair. She comments that it’s natural, but she goes to change clothing for their date. Walter, still drunk, sits down, sullen. He makes crude comments about George and about how he dresses, and then they leave. Walter continues his bad attitude to Ruth, but they get talking, and he starts making up with her.

Lena, meanwhile, sees how sullen her son is, and she decides to give him the remainder of the money, the 6500 dollars, to invest as he sees fit, as long as he puts 3500 of it in a bank account for Beneatha. He is ecstatic, and becomes a completely different man. He even takes his wife to the movies and dances the Slow Drag with her. The kids get their mother a set of gardening tools to work with, since she now has the space to garden that she always wanted. They all get ready to leave by helping pack, when a man comes to the apartment to tell them that the white community doesn’t want them there, and they are willing to pay them more than they paid for the house to sell. The children are upset, and they tell him no and to leave. A neighbor also comes over with a newspaper to scare them by showing them the headlines of black people’s homes getting burned when they move into white neighborhoods. Not long after that, Walter’s friend comes around and tells him that their other friend and business partner has run off with all the money. They are broke. Walter is dumbstruck, especially because he didn’t follow his mother’s direction and invested the whole of the 6500 dollars rather than set aside the 3500 for Beneatha.

Everyone is upset and angry at Walter for his poor judgment. They start talking about needing to stay in the apartment now, because they cannot afford the mortgage without that extra money. Walter calls the man from the Homeowners Association in order to accept the offer for the house. Lena is sad and tells him that he ought to be ashamed of himself, and that his father wouldn’t recognize the man he’d become, because he wasn’t a man. And Walter won’t listen. Instead, he puts on a parody of what he’ll say when the man comes, choking himself up with the words as he says it. When the man actually comes, he realizes that he cannot do it, and he regains his dignity and tells the man that they are going to keep the home and that the white community will have to deal with them moving in.

Lena and Ruth talk about how they just watched Walter learn what being a real man is as they get ready to take the moving boxes down and direct the movers on how to carry the furniture. Beneatha talks about how Asagai has proposed to her and that she is thinking of accepting so she can move to Nigeria with him and be a queen, and both Lena and Walter talk to her about how she is too young to be getting married and that she should stay here and marry someone rich, like George. She is upset and still talking about it when she leaves the apartment. Lena is the last one to leave the apartment, happy and yet nostalgic about her husband. She grabs her plant, which has struggled to survive in the apartment environment, and turns the light off on the space.

Discussion of Work
This play explores themes of poverty and discrimination in Chicago: the abysmal conditions of the kitchenettes that black families are forced to live in and pay ridiculous rent for; few economic opportunities; discrimination from the economically wealthy black elite; racism from even poor whites in similar economic situations; and pipe dreams such as the “Back to Africa” movement and better economic situation through education.

The play also explores the meaning of gender roles and expectations within black families. Ruth is as much a breadwinner as she is a housekeeper, and her decisions are what goes for the whole family, often making her husband feel like less of a man when it comes to financial decisions and decisions regarding his own life choices. And yet what Walter comes to understand about his role is that it is owning up to mistakes, standing up and supporting his family both emotionally (when they learn they will be having another child) and physically (when he must stand up to the white HOA representative and when he tries, and fails, to stand up for and do what’s right by his mother’s trust and insurance money). Children’s roles are a main focus of the play, both with Ruth and Walter’s little boy and with Walter and Beneatha as Lena’s children. There is a level of obedience and respect that is expected, and when not shown, it in effect collapses the family unit because the people with the life experience and wisdom are not heeded (Beneatha disregarding marriage advice and basic life advice; Walter disregarding financial advice and friend advice; Ruth disregarding childbearing advice).

For the purposes of my dissertation, dancing features in this play in two separate instances: when Beneatha puts on the Nigerian robes, and when Walter and Ruth slow drag in the living room. The first instance highlights a particularly problematic obsession with Africa and the need to hearken back to African roots. African Americans, while certainly their culture does have African roots, is not African. And the imitation African movements come off as not only false, but disrespectful and comical. Just as Beneatha does not fit within the Nigerian culture that Asagai would have her assimilate to, African Americans cannot magically regain “Africanness” by dressing in native garb and attempting African dance ritual. The second instance highlights what happens when Walter becomes happy about his life prospects again and takes Ruth to the movies and then comes back home with her, still elated about his financial gain. A blues song is playing in the background, and they dance in the living room, much to Beneatha’s chagrin. Still hooked on the idea of going back to Africa, she cannot fully accept or appreciate her own culture, which Walter and Ruth have embraced both in music and physical movement. The space demonstrates that these dances are done in multiple spaces and for multiple reasons, whether they be to release sad or happy emotions, to engage in romantic entreaties, to engage in social convention, or other reasons altogether. The acceptance of the space, dance, and moment create a level of happiness and authentic cultural experience that the African dance scene lacks in its farcical display.

Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio

Anderson, Sherwood. Winesburg, Ohio. 1919. Dover, 1995.

Summary of Work
Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio is a novel that contains a series of short stories interwoven to create a picture of the town, its history, and its residents. The story is framed by the brief introduction of a writer who, upon reaching old age and spending most of his time in his room, has a dream/vision where he sees truth created and then people walking past and picking up a truth or two, some as many as a dozen, and then going about trying to live their lives by those truths, and in turn becoming corrupted because they take the truth and turn it, and themselves, into a falsehood, a grotesque. The idea is that a truth clung to fiercely creates all sorts of problems for people and can destroy happiness and lives. The whole of the novel functions with this frame.

The stories range from tragic to hilarious in nature. Wing Biddlebaum is the first character that we meet. He is talking to George Willard, the young and naive reporter for the newspaper in town, and George always wonders about Wing’s hands, but has enough respect for the man to never ask. Wing has the fastest hands for picking produce in the town, but he is always insistent on trying to hide his hands, as if he is ashamed of them. His past is tragic. As a schoolteacher, he is affectionate and caring for the boys in his classroom, but upon one boy deciding that the man’s hands were making sexual advances rather than more of a fatherly care, the townspeople become enraged and one comes into the classroom and beats him bloody. Afterward, the townsmen come to his house with intent to hang him, change their mind and let him run, but then decide after all that they want to hang him. He gets away, changes his name to Biddlebaum, and lives a life in Winesburg after his relative dies that he had been living with.

Doctor Reefy is an older man who is known for having had a very young wife. The story goes that she came to him one day after a suitor had gotten her pregnant and she didn’t know what to do. He decided to try to help her as he could by offering her company and advice, and after she miscarried the child, the woman found that she very much loved the doctor, and married him. He was known for keeping thoughts on small pieces of paper, which he would read to her, and then put them in his pockets and roll them into balls and then throw them away when they were fully rolled. A year after they married she died of illness.

Elizabeth Willard, George’s mother, is the wife of Tom Willard, who runs the hotel in town. The hotel was her father’s, and she feels trapped in the town, unloved and unseen, never having been on an actual adventure. She hates her husband and her life, and wants her son to have the adventures she never had. There are later stories about her telling of her affair with Doctor Reefy, of her father’s giving her 800 dollars to live a different life than the one she had, and her inability to tell anyone about it so her son could have the money before she died.

Doctor Parcival is one who believes in living life with little amounts of work and going around hating people and feeling superior to them. When he refuses to help during an accident that leaves people dead, he, terrified, tells George that people will be after him for it and that everyone is Christ and ends up crucified in the end. Louise Trunnion is a woman on the poorer end of town that sends George a message that he can meet her one evening. He goes and they spend an evening together, and they figure no one has to know about it.

Jesse Bentley is a boy from a farmer’s family who goes away to become a preacher but must come back to his family when all his brothers are killed in the Civil War. He goes back with his wife and he becomes very industrious, but everyone is unhappy under him, including himself, despite his extreme success. He talks to God and is convinced his mission is to be like the Israelites of old and to conquer the Philistines around him by buying up all their farms, and he is convinced he needs a son, David, to help him. His wife delivers a child, Louise, and dies in childbirth, and Jesse is upset more at the birth of a daughter than his wife’s death. Louise receives no love from anyone, and in an attempt to find love, married Mr. Hardy. She is still very unhappy and is more unhappy when she has a son, David. She is vicious and cruel to everyone, including her son. One evening her son runs away to try and get to his grandfather because he doesn’t want to go home, and he gets lost. A search party is sent out, and when he is found and taken back to his mother, he is surprised by her warmth and care and concern. When her father states that he would like David to come live on the farm with him, everyone is even more surprised when she agrees. David loves the farm and gets the love his mother denied him, but Jesse is still insistent that he is God’s chosen. The first time he takes David out to the woods to pray, David becomes terrified and runs from the man who no longer looks like his grandfather. He gets over it, but years later after Jesse has become the most successful farmer in town, he gets it in his head that he needs to offer a burnt offering to the Lord with David. They get a lamb and tie it up and go to the same spot in the woods. While Jesse gets a fire going, David unties the lamb’s feet and waits for Jesse, but is determined that both he and the lamb will run when needed. When Jesse pulls out a knife to kill the lamb, David thinks that Jesse is going to kill him, and he runs with the lamb. David finds a rock, puts it in his sling, and hits Jesse square in the forehead with it, knocking him out. David thinks he has killed his grandfather and runs away, and when Jesse wakes up, forever after he states that he lost David due to his pride.

Joe Welling is a man who runs around with all sorts of funny stories and ideas, and he falls in love with a woman who is part of the scariest, meanest, toughest family in town. When they come to tell him to stay away, he wins them over with his strange ideas, obliviousness, and charm. Alice Hindman waits for a lover that will never come back. Wash Williams was made a cuckold by a wife and he hates all women for it and spends his days as a telegraph operator in Winesburg after that. Seth Richmond is quiet and doesn’t feel he fits into the town. He loves Helen White, but determines that he cannot be with her because he isn’t part of the town, and he decides to leave to find a better life. Tandy Hard is a young girl who’s name is given to her by a drunkard who is passing through town. The Reverend Curtis Hartman is married and a good reverend, but he is tempted when he sees the schoolteacher partly naked and reading a book through his open window, which is stained glass with a picture of Christ with a child. He breaks a hole in the corner of the glass so he can “overcome temptation,” but he is never able to. He sees her naked, praying, and crying in her room one cold night when he has nearly frozen himself to death waiting in the bell tower to see her and walked with no shoes through the cold to do so, and he runs to George Willard and says that God has saved him and shown him new ways. Kate Swift is a teacher who is unmarried, bound to be an old maid, but who cares about her students and in a motherly and womanly way loves George Willard and tries to guide him but also fails because she loves him but doesn’t feel she can be with him. Enoch Robinson spent time in New York City and became an illustrator for an advertisement company, but he leaves his wife and two children to be with himself and his imaginary friends. He is happy in his small hallway-like space until a neighbor starts talking to him and he realizes she’s ruined everything because she understands him. He moves back to Winesburg a bitter and lonely old man.

Belle Carpenter loves the local bartender but does not feel like she can just see him because of her social station. So she sees George Willard, but isn’t really interested, and George knows it and is unhappy. George makes one more attempt to woo her, but the bartender has come by earlier to tell her not to see him, and so she uses that as an opportunity to make the bartender jealous. George is shoved out of the picture and his pride is wounded. Elmer Cowley feels like his father and his whole family are queer and that they will never understand that is how the whole town sees them and their little shop. He feels like he needs to let the town know, and particularly George Willard, that he isn’t queer like his family, and after several failed attempts, decides to leave town, and before he goes, he beats up George Willard. Ray Pearson reflects on his life and how if he hadn’t had gotten his girl pregnant he wouldn’t be married, and that perhaps he shouldn’t have gotten married in the first place because it wasn’t his responsibility to take care of a woman after he got her pregnant. He is going to tell a fellow farmhand this in regard to his same situation, but then determines that it is a lie and the farmhand decides to marry the girl he has gotten pregnant. Tom Foster is a boy who comes to Winesburg with his grandmother and does odd jobs around town. He tries things once so he knows what it is like and then never does them again.

Helen White reflects upon her time with George Willard and determines she has some sort of affection for him after spending time with city folk and academics and determining that she doesn’t like their company. She and George spend an evening together, and out of it they gain a mutual respect for each other. They never sleep together, but instead laugh and occasionally kiss and then get serious as they think about life. They do not get married, but instead George leaves the city in search of a job as a reporter in a bigger city, perhaps Cleveland or Chicago.

Brief Note on Themes
The themes of this work deal very much with the idea of the grotesque as outlined in the beginning of the book, but it also describes much of small town life in the Midwest and deals with the relationships between people in small towns as well as the mentalities and personalities that come with that town. The strongest, most overt themes come in the stories that deal heavily in religion, making commentary about how seemingly good things and religious upbringing and study can lead to a warped sense of reality and disaster for families and individuals as they lose their way by getting caught on certain particulars of religion. The idea of getting caught up on small things rather than seeing a bigger life picture is, in fact, what hooks all of these stories together outside of their happening in the same town.