Ruth’s close relationship with her mother-in-law and with her new family is comparable to the biblical Ruth, who tells her mother-in-law, Naomi, that she will travel with her wherever she goes and that “your people shall be my people.” Unlike the biblical story, though, no mention is ever made of Ruth Younger’s parents or siblings or background. We are never told from whence this Ruth has come before joining the Younger household.
Ruth is a “soft” personality type. She is not aggressive; she just lets life “happen” to her. She is the “worn-out wife” with a tedious, routine lifestyle. Hansberry describes Ruth as being “about thirty” but “in a few years, she will be known among her people as a ‘settled woman.'” Ruth has only simple dreams and would be content to live out her life being moderately comfortable. Her biggest dream blossoms only after Mama’s news of the possibility of their moving to a better neighborhood.
Ruth is easily embarrassed and tries too hard to please others. When George Murchison arrives in the middle of Walter and Beneatha’s frenzied African dance, Ruth is overly apologetic to George about their behavior. When Walter and Beneatha argue, Ruth asks Walter not to bring her into their conflict. And even though Ruth is annoyed by Lena’s (Mama’s) meddling, she still allows her mother-in-law to influence her at times about the correct way to raise Travis.
Very low key, Ruth reveals the most emotion when Mama tells her that they may not be able to move; it is only then that Ruth assertively expresses her views. Lacking education and sophistication, Ruth relies upon the suggestions, advice, and even what she thinks might be the wishes of others. She contemplates an abortion, for example, not because she wants to, but because she is worried about the additional burden she would bring to the family that she already has. Still, Ruth is not an “emotional weakling.” She never raises her voice (as Walter does quite often), but she exhibits a remarkable strength. With all of her economic and marital problems, Ruth never succumbs to despair. In her inimitable quiescence, she has a charming manner of always getting her way. She forces Travis to kiss her goodbye even though he is too angry at her to do so on his own. She persuades her mother-in-law to stop meddling with just one glance of disapproval. And she manages to save her marriage even when things look hopeless for the relationship.
Clearly, Travis is spoiled. In the first scene of the play, we watch him cleverly get what he wants (the fifty cents his teacher has told him to bring to school) from his father after his mother has emphatically stated that they just don’t have fifty cents. Earlier, Travis said that he could get it from his grandmother, which implies that she gives him whatever he asks for.
In spite of his manipulative nature, however, Travis is a likeable child because, although he might be mischievous at times, he is always mannerly. He seems sheltered and overprotected by the numerous adults in the household, yet he is a “street kid,” drawn to the life of his ghetto neighborhood. In Act I, Scene 2, Travis and his neighborhood pals are chasing a large rat for “sport.” (This scene was omitted from the original stage production and also from the original screenplay.)
Travis shows remarkable maturity by requesting permission to make some money by “bagging groceries” at the local supermarket. He is not so spoiled nor so pampered that he shirks responsibility. This scene contains, perhaps, another of Hansberry’s attempts to pay homage to the “children of the poor,” those whom she admired for their “spirit of independence.”
In this play, the educated and wealthy George Murchison represents the black person whose own self-hatred manifests itself as contempt for other blacks. George is pedantic — an academic show-off — constantly making literary allusions even when he knows that this information is lost upon his audience. When Ruth asks George what time the play begins that he’s taking Beneatha to see, he answers pompously, “It’s an eight-thirty curtain. That’s just Chicago, though. In New York, standard curtain time is eight-forty.” Such information is wasted on Ruth, who has probably never seen a play and certainly has never been to New York. Note here that Ruth asks, “What time is the show?” as if it is a movie or entertainment other than the legitimate theater.
George’s pomposity won’t even permit him to ignore Walter’s desperate lie that he knows what New York is like; “Oh, you’ve been?” George asks in order to further belittle a man whose self-esteem is already zero. When Beneatha mentions Africa, George begins immediately to recite everything he knows about African civilizations. Even though he clearly has no respect for any of the accomplishments of the black people, still George is compelled to match his knowledge against Beneatha’s.
When George and Beneatha argue just before their inevitable breakup, he warns Beneatha not to be such a serious intellectual and free-thinking “new woman.” But, when he says, “I don’t go out with you to discuss the nature of ‘quiet desperation,'” he is showing off his own accumulation of learning. The phrase “quiet desperation” comes from a line in Henry David Thoreau’s Walden: “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
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