Opposite Takes on the “American Dream” in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman
Money is one way to achieve one of the “American Dreams.” The “American Dream” is different for everyone and that dream for most people depends on how they were raised. There are many plays that critique the “American Dream” but only two will be focused on, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman; these two plays have opposite views of the “American Dream” and two very different families. Miller’s play presents a very pessimistic view of the “American Dream” and perhaps all the “American Dream” is just a myth and can no longer be achieved. Lorraine Hansberry’s play on the other hand presents a play in which shows that the “American Dream” is alive and can be achieved, achieved by anyone. A Raisin in the Sun presents an optimistic view of the future and the “American Dream.”
Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun deals with an African-American family in the ghetto of Chicago. The Youngers receive a life insurance check for 10,000 dollars. Each member of the family has their own idea of how the money should be spent. Walter Lee wants to invest in getting a liquor store; in theory this would help his family improve their future. Lena Younger, along with Ruth Younger, wish to buy a house with a yard in hopes of leaving the ghetto; this would give Travis, Ruth’s and Walter’s son, a better upbringing, one outside of the ghetto. Walter’s sister Beneatha wishes to use the money to pay for her college tuition so that she can become a doctor. Walter Lee’s father’s death is what propels the situations throughout the play. Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman presents a middle class white family that is struggling to move up in the world. Willy Loman is the primary protagonist of the play and believes that through a good personality and being well-liked one can move up the ladder life and reach success. Willy’s beliefs have been engrained into his two sons, Biff and Hap; the result of Willy’s beliefs has caused one son to be unsuccessful due to his actions and the other son is on verge of repeating the same life as Willy. Both of the plays have a strong theme of the “American Dream.” Hansberry’s brings forth the optimistic view while Miller’s play shows a very grim outlook on the dream.
Walter Lee wishes to be more than just another man’s driver. He wants more for his wife and his son. Walter realizes that he can never be anything more, he can never move up in his position as a driver nor can his wife move up in her position as another woman’s maid. The insurance money has the ability to alleviate the problem of being static. In order for Walter to feel like a man and in order for Walter to achieve his dreams he must create a business himself. Creating a business will give him stability, money, and assurance that he is the head of the household. Walter is frustrated because he cannot ever achieve this goal, head of the house; his dream is thwarted by Mama because she takes authority more than Walter. Starting a business will alleviate the problem of authority and place Walter into the masculine role. Walter does not want to work for another man which is a big contrast to what Willy Loman believes.
Miller’s protagonist Willy Loman believes that being well liked can achieve anything in the business world, but not once does he ever mention owning his own business. Willy only thinks about moving up in the company at which he already works. Walter has a bigger dream and knows what it takes. Walter also knows that he might fail and even says, “Invest big, gamble big, hell, lose big if you have to, you know what I mean” (Raisin 2.1). Walter knows that taking a chance might mean losing everything. Willy represents someone that is stuck in the old ways, unwilling to change. Walter should have a tougher time succeeding because of his race, whereas Willy, in theory, should not have a difficult time succeeding. Miller’s play presents an America where no one, not even white people are able to move up. However, Hansberry’s play shows that anyone can succeed and have the “American Dream.”
Hansberry’s play shows an “American Dream” for all Americans. The social implications are not as great in Miller’s play, but the end goal is still happiness. Lee Jacobus argues that A Raisin in the Sun shows all the traditional values of the “American Dream:” This play illustrates the American dream as it is felt not just by African-Americans but by all Americans: If you work hard and save your money, if you hold to the proper values and hope, then you can buy your own home and have a kind of space and privacy that permits people to live in dignity. (Jacobus 1214) Willy Loman wanted to be well-liked and the Younger’s just wanted to live somewhere with more dignity. The apartment that the Younger’s occupy shows the indecency in which they are surrounded, which alludes to the horrible circumstances that surround their entire race. As soon as Ruth finds out that Mama bought a house she rejoices, “my time—to say good-bye—to these God-damned cracking walls!—and these marching roaches!—and this cramped little closet which ain’t now or never was no kitchen” (Raisin 2.1)! To Mama and Ruth living in that place was indecent; it belittled them. Walter’s and Ruth’s son did not have his own room; he had to sleep on the couch in the living room. The Youngers are worse off than the Lomans; that’s not to say that one worked harder than the other, but possible greater motivation and a better understanding of the “American Dream” did the Youngers have. Arthur Miller’s play can serve as a reminder that the “American Dream” is just a dream and will not always come true no matter how hard one works. On the flip side there is A Raisin in the Sun which gives reason to believe that the “American Dream” is alive and real.
Both Miller’s and Hansberry’s plays have the death of a father which brings hope in both plays. In Death of a Salesman Willy believed that the life insurance would help his son Biff. Willy does the ultimate sacrifice because he believes that Biff has a better chance to succeed with the money. Biff has the ability to let his full potential shine and be out from under his father’s shadow. The audience does not know what ever happens to Biff, but at least there is some hope at the end of the play. In A Raisin in the Sun Walter Sr.’s death gives the Youngers the ability to make a better life. Walter Sr. worked his entire life in order for his family to have a better life; his death was the final payment which would allow his family the chance to live their dream. Death gave both families hope; however, in Miller’s play there was not much hope until the end, but in Hansberry’s play hope is seen through the majority of the play. Walter and Ruth are talking about coming together and how things do not have to be so hard; speaking of the past Ruth says, “Honey…life don’t have to be like this. I mean sometimes people can do things so that things are better…you remember how we used to talk when Travis was born…about the way we were going to live…” (2.1). Ruth and Walter both had hope that they would achieve their dreams and help pave a better future for Travis. The “American Dream” is alive even before Walter Sr.’s death and prospers after because of his hard work. In both plays death brings hope and strengthens the idea of the “American Dream.”
As stated earlier, the dream in Hansberry’s play can be applied to all Americans white or black. Many critics criticized Hansberry for writing the play in this fashion, but no matter what Walter Lee strives to get out of the ghetto and achieve his dream. Walter’s dream is to be independent, a dream in which Darwin Turner claims to be widely accepted by whites, “Resenting his economic dependence upon his white employer and his mother, he defines manhood as the ability to support and provide luxuries for a family—a concept certainly accepted by most white Americans” (Turner 5). This notion that only whites want to be independent is absurd because independence is the same as freedom. Slaves wanted freedom; the next thing for them to want would be independence in order to ensure their happiness. The “American Dream” is not just for one race but for all people that come to and are born into the United States of America.
Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman both have a strong sense of the “American Dream;” both have their own views on the reality of the dream, but only one gives an optimistic view in its ending, A Raisin in the Sun. David Cooper believes this to be an extremely uplifting play and states, “It is a play about distress, futility, and tragedy, but also about hope and pride and what kind of conviction and commitment it takes to bring hope out of hopelessness, courage out of fear, and idealism out of fatalism” (Cooper 59). Many critics believed that Walter Lee was aspiring to be like the oppressive white men who were over him, but the “American Dream” is not just for those men; it is for anyone, even African-Americans. In Miller’s play a pessimistic view of the “American Dream” is seen and it is not until the end that a little glimpse of hope peaks through for Biff. The audience however, still does not know what will come of Biff which causes the ending to be abstract, like a dream or a myth; this ending leaves a pessimistic outlook on the “American Dream.” Hansberry’s play ends with Walter Lee stepping into his manhood and achieving his dream, leaving hope.
Cooper, David D. “Hansberry’s A Raisin In The Sun.” Explicator 52.1 (1993): 59. Academic Search Complete. Web. 9 Dec. 2013.
Jacobus, Lee. Bedford Introduction to Drama, 3rd ed. Boston: Bedford Books, 1997.
Mays, Kelly J. “A Raisin in the Sun.” The Norton Introduction to Literature. 11th ed. New York: W. W. Norton &, 2013. 1911-974. Print.
Mays, Kelly J. “Death of a Salesman.” The Norton Introduction to Literature. 11th ed. New York: W. W. Norton &, 2013. 2109-176. Print.
Turner, Darwin T. “Visions Of Love And Manliness In A Blackening World: Dramas Of Black Life Since 1953.” Black Scholar 25.2 (1995): 2. Academic Search Complete. Web. 9 Dec. 2013.
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