Marxist Literary Analysis of A Raisin in the Sun
“Money is life. Once upon a time freedom used to be life – now it’s money” (Hansberry, 74). The quote from Mama portrays the Youngers, a typical African American family living in Chicago in 1959, in their struggle to break free from the endless cycle of poverty. The family’s attempt to achieve a better life is hindered by many barriers: money, businessmen, and even themselves. Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun can be interpreted the best through the Marxist literary perspective because the themes of the play correlate directly with the theory’s three main areas of study. Economic power is an eminent issue seen in the Younger’s desires to escape poverty and actualize their own version of the “American Dream”. The constant arguing between Walter Lee and his mother Lena Younger reflect the Marxist study of the conflict between materialism versus spiritualism. Lastly, the class conflict is evident through the play in the form of racial discrimination from Karl Linder and Mrs. Johnson towards the Younger Family.
Purdue Owl defines the Marxist literary theory as a school that “concerns itself with class differences, economic and otherwise, as well as the implications and complications of the capitalist system” (Brizee et al). This theory is based on the beliefs of Karl Marx and philosopher George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Marx predicted that there would one day be a revolution led by the proletariat to overthrow the suppressive bourgeois, ultimately resulting in an equal society. Material dialectic is the school’s main thought process; which states that material realities such as the economic base in society drove historical change as opposed to philosophy or religion. The theory tends to look at struggles between people, usually economically or socially, and relate them to the conflicts between the proletariat and bourgeois.
The play begins with a description of the Younger family’s apartment; which enhances the understanding of how little the family actually has. The furniture is depicted as tired, old, and had to “accommodate the living of too many people for too many years” (Hansberry, 23). The apartment symbolizes the cramped and oppressed conditions that the Younger family have to face by those who are economically superior to them. Coming home to this depressing, dreary, and dismal atmosphere takes its toll on every member of the Younger family, especially Walter Lee. Being a chauffeur to a rich white family, he gets a reminder everyday of what life could be like for him and his family. Everyone is emotionally affected by the lack of money. The family’s attitudes mirror most of the emotions of the African American people of the time. “People were eaten by their oppression. All wanted to fit in someone else’s shoes” (Arrojo). The entire Younger family is frustrated by all the constant dead ends along their journey for a better life. Walter and his wife, Ruth, don’t have the loving relationship that they used to; now all they do is constantly argue over money. Moreover, Beneatha and her brother, Walter, relentlessly bicker about Beneatha’s dreams to become a doctor. The ten thousand dollar check was largely anticipated by the family, especially by Walter. “Walter views money as a means to success. He goes so far as to connect money with life” (Price). He dreams of providing his family with the carefree life they deserve; however, that life can only be achieved with an excess of money. To Walter, it seems nearly impossible to be able to achieve his goals. “His dream has been deferred by his poverty and inability to find decent employment” (Price). The check is seen by Walter, as well as the rest of the family, as a last chance to free themselves of the misery of poverty and accomplish their dreams. That is why the Youngers are so devastated when they discover that Willy Harris, Walter’s secret business partner for the liquor store, has run off with the rest of the check. All the hopes and aspirations of the family had disappeared right before their eyes.
Spiritualism and materialism are complete the antithesis of each other. Mama best represents spiritualism because of her constant effort to bring happiness to the entire family and her persistence in up keeping her Christian faith. “She believes in striving to succeed while maintaining her moral boundaries” (Nirumala, 5). Her spiritual limits lead her to reject her daughter Beneatha’s unchristian comments about God and her daughter-in-law Ruth’s decision of aborting her second child. When Mama decides to buy the house, she doesn’t do it just to achieve her own dreams; Mama does it help her family attain their dreams and escape the depressing atmosphere they are currently in. “We was going backwards ‘stead of forwards— talking ‘bout killing babies and wishing each other was dead…When it gets like that in life—you just got to do something different, push on out and do something bigger” (Hansberry, 94). On the other hand, her son Walter is a direct portrayal of materialism. “He wants a world of luxury, immediately without work… Walter is money-driven” (Price). One of Walter’s main reasons for having a materialistic mind set is to create a better future for his son Travis. As a parent, he feels like he isn’t doing his job because he can’t give his son the life that he deserves. Walter complains that, “all I got to give him is stories about how rich white people live…” (Hansberry, 34). Throughout the play, Walter and Mama are constantly clashing because of their opposing ideals. For example, when Walter explains to Lena his plan about opening a liquor store, Mama completely despises the idea. She is so against her son’s idea because it goes against her Christian faith. “Well—whether they drinks it or not ain’t none of my business. But whether I go into business selling it [liquor] to ‘em is, and I don’t want that on my ledger this late in life” (Hansberry, 42). However, the most dramatic incident between the two was when Walter Lee was considering accepting Karl Linder’s offer to be paid to move out of the new house. His decision violates everything that Mama stands for. All the pride from the past five generations of the Younger family would be gone if Walter let a white man tell him what to do. This is not how Walter sees it. He perceives it as another opportunity to invest and make his family rich like he has always wanted. However, just before he accepts the offer from Linder, Mama slaps some sense into her son and he begins to shift away for the materialistic belief. “…his pride, work, and humanity become more important to him than his dream of money” (Nirumala, 21).
Class conflict within the play is seen in the large amount of racism between characters. This was a typical attitude in 1959 Chicago; it was one of the most segregated cities in the United States at the time. In the play, “the Youngers live in a segregated neighborhood and work as ‘servants’ to white people, Ruth being a housemaid and Walter as a chauffeur” (Hales, 2). The most notable act of class conflict occurred when Karl Linder comes to the Younger’s house and offers to pay them not to move into the all-white neighborhood known as Clybourne Park. His reasoning was: “It is a matter of the people of Clybourne Park believing, rightly or wrongly, as I say, that for the happiness of all concerned that our Negro families are happier when they live in their own communities” (Hansberry, 118). Linder was trying to discourage the Younger family from breaking out of the mold that white people had set for African Americans. “They want to exert their power by preventing any black families into their neighborhood” (Price). Through the Marxist literary criticism, this action is seen as an attempt by the bourgeois, in this case Karl Linder, to keep the proletariat, the Youngers, from rising up and taking over. The rich white people are scared that if enough African Americans reject the life they are told to live, there is a possibility that they will rise up and over take the white elite. The Marxist theory also describes a revolution, during which the proletariat will unite against the bourgeois and defeat them. The Youngers win the revolution against Linder when they refuse to accept his bribe and move into Clybourne Park, despite the community’s discontent. Class conflict can also be seen through a discussion between Mrs. Johnson, the Younger’s white neighbor, and Lena Younger. In their conversation, Mrs. Johnson comments on how wonderful Booker T. Washington was and how “he was one of our great men” (Hansberry, 103). Lena Younger doesn’t agree with Mrs. Johnson’s comment because Booker T. Washington preached assimilation. Essentially, Johnson was trying to tell the Younger family to assimilate into white society and start acting like the way society believes that they should act.
In the end, despite all the challenges that Younger family faced, together, they were able to start on the path to getting what they wanted. The Youngers achieved the revolution that Karl Marx described in his literary theory. That is why Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun, can be best understood through the Marxist perspective. All of the events aspects of the theory can be seen within the themes of the play: economic conflict, materialism versus spiritualism, and class conflict. The play proves that when a family unites, they can conquer anything and be more successful than if they were trying by themselves.
Arrojo, Bea. “Farhanitrate Prerajustication: MARXIST CRITICISM: A RAISIN IN THE SUN.” Farhanitrate Prerajustication, 24 Jan. 2013, arrojomariebeatriz.blogspot.com/2013/01/marxist-criticism-raisin-in-sun.html. Accessed 22 Nov. 2016.
Brizee, Allen, et al. “Purdue OWL: Literary Theory and Schools of Criticism.” Welcome to the Purdue University Online Writing Lab (OWL), 21 Apr. 2010, owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/722/05/. Accessed 30 Nov. 2016.
Ghani, Hana’ Khalief. “I Have a Dream—Racial Discrimination in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun.” Home-Academy Publication, Academy Publisher, 2011, www.academypublication.com/issues/past/tpls/vol01/06/05.pdf. Accessed 1 Dec. 2016.
Hales, Emily. “A Raisin in the Sun: Concept/Vocabulary Analysis.” Novelinks, 2009, novelinks.org/uploads/Novels/ARaisinInTheSun/Concept%20Analysis.pdf. Accessed 22 Nov. 2016.
Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun: A Drama in Three Acts, Random House, 1959,
Kelly, Amanda. “Character Analysis: Walter Lee Younger.” University of Michigan, 14 Apr. 2003, www.umich.edu/~eng217/student_projects/araisininthesun/walter.htm. Accessed 2 Dec. 2016.
Nirumala, R. “A Raisin in the Sun.” Rnirumala | Great Teachers Share, 2014, rnirumala.files.wordpress.com/2012/10/a-raisin-in-the-sun.pdf. Accessed 28 Nov. 2016.
Price, Lindsay. “A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, Analysis and Activities:: Spotlight: E-News from Theatrefolk.” Play Scripts for High Schools & Middle Schools – Theatrefolk, Mar. 2011, www.theatrefolk.com/spotlights/a-raisin-in-the-sun-by-lorraine-hansberry-analysis-and-activities. Accessed 28 Nov. 2016.
Tynan, Kenneth. “A Raisin in the Sun – Dictionary Definition of A Raisin in the Sun | Encyclopedia.com: FREE Online Dictionary.” Encyclopedia.com | Free Online Encyclopedia, 23 May 1993, www.encyclopedia.com/arts/educational-magazines/raisin-sun. Accessed 2 Dec. 2016.
Wilkerson, Margaret B. “A Raisin in the Sun: Anniversary of an American Classic.” Cardinal Hayes High School, 12 July 2008, www.cardinalhayes.org/ourpages/auto/2007/2/8/1170966148839/A%20Raisin%20in%20the%20Sun%20Anniversary%20of%20an%20American%20Classic%20by%20Margaret%20Wilkinson.pdf. Accessed 22 Nov. 2016.
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