Summary and Analysis
Act I — Scene 1
The Younger family lives in a cramped, "furniture crowded" apartment that is clearly too small for its five occupants in one of the poorer sections of Southside Chicago. Walter Lee wants to invest Mama's $10,000 insurance check in a liquor store venture with two of his friends. Because of her religious convictions against liquor drinking, Mama is uninterested in Walter's dream of getting rich quickly with this scheme. Ruth, Walter's wife, is so exhausted from overwork that she too is unsympathetic to Walter's obsession with the money. Mama makes it clear that part of the check will go toward Beneatha's education in medical school. At the beginning of the play, money is the focal point of everyone's conversation, leading to arguments and creating a mood of conflict. Walter leaves for his chauffeur's job, and Travis leaves for school. Ruth prepares for her job as a cleaning woman as Mama reprimands Beneatha about her fresh talk. At the end of the scene, Mama discovers that Ruth has fainted and fallen to the floor.
Lorraine Hansberry's debt to Richard Wright can be noted in the similarities between Hansberry's Walter Lee and Wright's Bigger Thomas. Hansberry's play even opens with the ringing of an alarm clock, as does Wright's Native Son. Raisin opens on a Friday morning as everyone is getting ready to leave the apartment for their respective obligations: Walter Lee and Ruth have to go to their jobs; Travis and Beneatha have to go to school.
When the alarm clock rings, Ruth is the first one up, as though it is her responsibility to make certain that everyone else gets up and ready for the day ahead. Ruth is weary and overworked, a parallel to the apartment, which is worn out and weary in appearance from "accommodating the living of too many people for too many years." The apartment consists of only two full-sized rooms, the larger one serving as both the living room and the kitchen. Travis sleeps on the living room couch. Ruth and Walter Lee's bedroom is actually a small alcove just off the kitchen, originally intended to be a "breakfast room" for a smaller, wealthier family. Mama and Beneatha share the only actual bedroom of this "apartment." The single bathroom is shared by their neighbors, the Johnsons, who apparently have a similar "apartment."
Ruth appears to be annoyed with Walter, although she does not openly admit it. At first, Walter seems too preoccupied with thoughts about the insurance check to consider what might be troubling Ruth. Their conversation revolves around money and the lack thereof; even young Travis is concerned with money, as he asks, "Check coming tomorrow?" and tells Ruth that his teacher asked the students to bring fifty cents to school today.
Walter admonishes Ruth for telling Travis that they cannot give him fifty cents, and we are immediately more sympathetic to Walter than to Ruth, for their dialogue is reminiscent of the mother in Kathryn Forbes' play I Remember Mama, who insists that children not be told when there is no money because it makes them worry. Forbes' play revolves around a mother's lie to her children about a nonexistent bank account. In Raisin, not only does Walter give Travis the fifty cents that he has requested, but Walter throws in an additional fifty cents — none of which he can afford. Travis never knows that Walter cannot afford to give him the money. After Travis leaves, Walter eats his breakfast; then, ready to leave for work, he tells Ruth that he needs carfare to get to work.
In this scene, note that Ruth's annoyance with Walter is evident in the manner in which she chooses to wake him up. She is "out of sorts" about something that is not yet clear, although it appears to have something to do with Walter. She asks Walter what kind of eggs he wants, yet she ignores his request for "not scrambled" and scrambles the eggs anyway.
The characters are so real in this scene that it is difficult to take anyone's side. When Walter expresses a desire to have the insurance money in order to invest in a business venture, he makes sense — even in his argument with Beneatha. Beneatha is a college student who will require a considerable amount of money for medical school, but the reader wonders if Beneatha's dream for her future is more important than Walter's. As far as we can tell, Beneatha has been given every opportunity to develop her potential. Why not the same for Walter Lee, who makes a strong point when he says of Big Walter (whose death has provided the $ 10,000): "He was my father, too!"
One of the key focuses in this scene is Mama's concern for her family; it especially emphasizes her all-consuming love for her grandson, Travis, as she makes excuses for the careless way in which he made his bed, while re-doing it correctly for him. This scene also shows Mama's strength as head of her household. When Beneatha displays her belligerence and "college girl" arrogance by loudly and emphatically stating that there is no God, Mama slaps her, forcing Beneatha to state aloud, "In my mother's house there is still God." Later, Mama acknowledges her awareness of a generational rift that appears to be growing between herself and her children.
When the scene ends, we are left with the feeling that everyone else is so self-absorbed that it is only Mama who senses immediately that something seems to be wrong with Ruth, although Ruth insists that she has to go to work regardless of how she feels. However, Ruth's fainting at the end of this scene is proof that she really does require medical attention.
crocheted doilies The totally bare, classic-line furniture of the fifties contrasted starkly with the furniture of the forties. In the forties, it was customary to place crocheted doilies on the arms and head rests of an overstuffed living room sofa and two sofa chairs, which were usually already covered with slipcovers. This was done in an effort to protect the furniture and to hide worn places; the country was just coming out of the Great Depression and great value was placed on one's possessions — especially if a family was poor. Having "forties furniture" in the fifties is a clear indication of poverty.
Chicago's Southside the area in Chicago in which many blacks live; referred to as "the ghetto," the poor neighborhood of Chicago.
make down bed a couch that does not convert into an actual bed but is made up at night with a bed coveting and pillow to look like a bed.
a settled woman a woman who looks older than her actual years mainly because she has resigned herself to her "lot in life."
always in his voice there is a quality of indictment a description of Walter, who has grown increasingly accusatory about the bleakness of his financial future.
affecting tea party interest Because Ruth is overwhelmed by her own concerns (mainly, that she might be pregnant), she becomes annoyed and therefore sarcastic when Walter tries to involve her in his conversation about the lives of wealthy whites. Ruth "affects" or "puts on" a tea party voice, purposely sounding pretentious in order to make Walter leave her alone.
slubborness Ruth refers to Travis' habits as being "slubborn" when she really means both "sloppy" and "stubborn." Because of Ruth's lack of formal education, she is not aware (but the audience is) that this is not a real word.
not a single penny for no caps A popular children's toy in the fifties, especially for little boys, was the "cap pistol" or "cap gun, "into which "caps" were placed, producing the sound of a miniature firecracker, making the children feel as though they were actually firing a real pistol. Ruth admonishes Travis even before he asks for money for caps, revealing her negative feelings about caps and cap guns.
fly-by-night proposition a reference to Walter Lee's idea for a business, a proposition that appears to his family to be risky, irresponsible, and unreliable.
I don't want that on my ledger A religious woman, Mama is referring to the book of checks and balances that she believes is kept in Heaven, listing all the good and all the bad that a person does while on earth.
my girl didn't come in today Ruth works as a domestic, a cleaning woman, for wealthy whites who have traditionally referred to these cleaning women as "girls" — a term that the domestics found degrading but never complained openly about for fear of losing their jobs. Even though the cleaning woman was around thirty, as Ruth is, she was still called a "girl." Even Mama's being in her sixties does not mean that she would not also be referred to as the cleaning "girl" or just "the girl," most especially when the white employers were talking among themselves.
if the salt loses its savor When Ruth says that Beneatha is fresh — and then adds that Beneatha is as "fresh as salt" — Beneatha counters with a pedantic response, a phrase from the Bible, just to show off her knowledge. Beneatha uses the quote with some pretentiousness to press the point that she knows the Bible from an intellectual point of view but that she does not believe in its religious messages. The phrase used by Beneatha is taken from three places in the Bible: Matthew 5:13 "Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour wherewith shall it be salted? It is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men." Mark 9:50 "Salt is good: but if the salt have lost its saltness, wherewith will ye season it? Have salt in yourselves, and have peace one with another." Luke 14:34-35 "Salt is good: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be seasoned? It is neither for the land, nor yet for the dunghill, but men cast it out. He that hath ears to hear, let him hear."