Walter Lee Younger (“Brother”)
Essentially, this play is the story of Walter Lee Younger, sometimes called “Brother.” Passionate, ambitious, and bursting with the energy of his dreams, Walter Lee is a desperate man, shackled by poverty and prejudice, and obsessed with a business idea that he thinks will solve all of his economic and social problems. He believes, for example, that through his business idea, he will suddenly accumulate all the money he will ever need. Then, with this sudden accumulation of capital, he will improve himself socially and will be looked up to by others — all the people who, he believes, do not think much of him as a man.
He will, he believes, finally be able to provide material necessities and even luxuries for his wife. Walter asks in desperation why shouldn’t his wife wear pearls. Who decides, he wonders, which women should wear pearls in this world? However, Walter proves throughout the drama that he does not possess the entrepreneurial skills necessary to succeed in business. His education is sorely lacking, a fact made most clear in his confrontation with George Murchison. When George says, “Good night Prometheus,” Walter not only does not know what “Prometheus” refers to, but he actually thinks that George, just that moment, made up the word.
The word “Prometheus” fits Walter’s fiery personality. Prometheus, the god who was punished for bringing fire to mortals, was chained to Mt. Caucasus, where every day an eagle tore out his liver, which grew back each night. Prometheus’ suffering lasted for thousands of years — until Hercules killed the eagle and freed Prometheus. As a parallel, Walter, too, is chained, and likewise, his obsessive dream restores what his frustrations devour. Sadly, Walter never sees any way out of his economic distress other than the liquor store, which his mother opposes solely on moral grounds. Nowhere in the play does Mama indicate that she would not give Walter the money for some other business idea; it’s just that she resists the idea of his selling liquor. Walter’s singular obsession causes him to lose sight of his possible alternatives and of a compromise that might have led to his goal of economic independence. Walter’s chauvinism is evident immediately when he tells his wife, Ruth, that for a fleeting moment, she “looked young . . . real young . . . but . . . it’s gone now.” Walter Lee is older than Ruth, but, to him, looking young is important only to a woman. However, it is, perhaps, the disturbing realization of his own aging that prompts his sarcasm, for shortly after these remarks to both, he admits that he has been contemplating his own aging, without having realized any of his dreams, when he says, “This morning, I was lookin’ in the mirror and thinking about it. . . . I’m thirty-five years old; I been married eleven years and I got a boy who sleeps in the living room.”
Walter’s chauvinism is further apparent when he questions Beneatha about her decision to become a doctor: He asks why she couldn’t just become a nurse or get married “like other women.” When he comes home after a drinking bout with his friends and Beneatha is dancing to the African music, he says, “Shut up” to Ruth, just before joining Beneatha in the dance. Walter is obsessed with getting money so that he can buy “things for Ruth”; he is unaware that treating Ruth more kindly and with more respect would be more appreciated and valued than any “gifts.”
After Walter foolishly entrusts all of his mother’s remaining money to his unscrupulous buddy, his shame turns to self-hatred, the only emotion that permits him to consider selling out his race and accepting Lindner’s offer. It is a proud moment when Walter, mainly because Travis is watching him, cannot bring himself to relinquish his remaining dignity for Lindner’s offer of money.
Mama (Lena Younger)
Although Mama is a strong motivational force in this drama, she is not its focal point, as many earlier critics assumed. Raisin actually tells the story of Walter Lee — granted that his is a story greatly influenced by Mama. A proud woman, Lena Younger does not have much material wealth, but she walks tall, exudes dignity, and carries herself, as Hansberry says, with the “noble bearing of the women of the Heroes of Southwest Africa [a pastoral people],” as though she walks with a “basket or a vessel upon her head.” Her children are her life; she refers to them as her “harvest.” With no significant dreams of her own, she lives vicariously through her children, for even her dream of having a house is motivated only by her desire to make living conditions better for her family. She says, upon receiving the $10,000 insurance check, that, for her part, she’d just as soon donate the entire sum to her church.
Because Mama seems to be accustomed to suffering and enduring hardships, the Lindners of the world cannot disturb her inner peace, for she has previously suffered the death of a baby and, more recently, the death of her husband of many years. Her strong faith and deep religious convictions give her the psychological and physical mettle she needs in order to rise to life’s challenges. At her lowest point, she asks God to replenish her waning strength and is immediately possessed of a more compassionate perception of Walter Lee’s folly.
Mama’s old-fashioned and conservative views are evident when she speaks of her husband’s past “womanizing” and chauvinistic behavior as being something that she could overlook. Mama actually believes that accepting such behavior is a woman’s lot in life. Ruth, however, is only slightly more liberated as she, too, would accept such behavior in her man, but she would at least address the problem. Beneatha, in contrast, represents a new, liberated generation of women; she would never accept such behavior in a man and would, perhaps, have spoken out against Mama’s lack of spunk in dealing with a sexist mate had Mama reminisced about life with “Big Walter” with Beneatha instead of Ruth.
Mama’s single weakness appears to be her all-consuming love for her grandson, Travis, which causes her to spoil him and causes her also to act in a somewhat meddlesome manner with her daughter-in-law. Mama impresses us with her strength, but this strength appears to have been sublimated during her marriage. It seems that only after the death of “Big Walter,” when Mama has to become head of the household, that she can summon the herculean strength she exhibits throughout the drama.
As her name suggests, Lena’s entire family “leans on” her and draws from her strength in order to replenish their own.
Because Beneatha is the most educated of the Youngers, she sometimes seems to be obnoxious and self-centered; especially in the early scenes, she freely verbalizes her views in a household that has difficulty understanding her perspectives. She favors her African suitor over her rich boyfriend, much to the puzzlement of her family.
Even though her family is clearly poor, Beneatha has no reservations about feeding her ego. We learn that she “flits” from one expensive hobby to another as her mood dictates, even though it often seems that the family could use the money spent on Beneatha’s horseback riding, her camera equipment, her acting lessons, and her guitar lessons for other, more financially relevant things.
Beneatha’s “schooling” is a privilege that Walter Lee has not had, yet Beneatha appears to believe that a higher education is her right. Everyone in the family is making a sacrifice so that Beneatha can become a doctor — a fact pointed out by Walter Lee as they clash in the first scene of the play. Yet beneath what seems to be selfishness, Beneatha’s strengths are her spirit of independence, the fact that she is a “new woman” who refuses to accept the traditional, spineless female role, and the fact that she is so knowledgeable about Africa that her self-esteem is enhanced. Beneatha’s search for her identity is a motif carried throughout the play; the closer she gets to Africa via her relationship with Joseph Asagai, the more she develops into a pleasant, likeable, and less egocentric person.
Beneatha’s relationship with her mother is largely one of conflict because of their many differences, but it is not a strained relationship, for even after her mother slaps her for her blasphemous talk, Beneatha later hugs and thanks her mother for understanding her dismissal of George. She clearly loves her mother even if they do not always agree. Beneatha is opinionated, especially in her dealings with her brother, Walter Lee; she clearly lives up to her name, an obvious pun, for, especially at the beginning of the play, everything and everyone seem to be “beneath her.”
An African student, Joseph Asagai courts the attentions of Beneatha. In trying to win her affections, he is persistent but never overbearing. He flatters her with gifts (something that George Murchison has not done); in addition, Asagai’s gifts are not meaningless trinkets but are things that are both useful to and desired by Beneatha — such as the Nigerian robes he clearly has gone to a lot of trouble to obtain. Asagai’s compliments to Beneatha are sincere and therefore believable. His peaceful ways and calm manner give Beneatha an appreciation of his views even when they disagree. Contrasted with George Murchison’s abrasive put-downs of Beneatha and George’s insistence on retaining his narrow-minded views, Asagai appears as Beneatha’s savior from the potential tragedy of her eventually becoming George’s wife.
Asagai is charming, mannerly, personable, and quite intelligent; in spite of the cultural differences between him and the Younger family, he appears to “fit in” more with them than does George Murchison, who argues with Beneatha in front of her family and then clashes with Walter as he leaves.
Asagai is zealously idealistic about the future of his country and has even expressed his willingness to sacrifice his own life for the independence of his country. And, although Asagai has been afforded a Western education, his basic beliefs are grounded in his own African culture, which was, as of 1959, somewhat chauvinistic and old-fashioned. This creates an undercurrent of tension in his relationship with Beneatha, but it is something that Hansberry hints that might be overcome.
Asagai is helpful and concerned about the welfare of others. He volunteers to assist in the move to Clybourne Park and offers much-needed consolation and good advice to Beneatha when she is at her lowest. He counsels Beneatha spiritually and emotionally, helping her to get back “on track” as she rails against her brother’s foolishness in having lost the money.
Asagai’s philosophy runs counter to the Western perception of success at any cost. He questions, for example, the satisfaction of receiving money through misfortune while calling it “success.” He contrasts this view with his own that “making it” via insurance money gained through misfortune is not really “making it.” Asagai’s character gives Beneatha political focus and nourishes her idealism. Being a true African, Asagai is grounded in his “Africaness” while Beneatha is trying, almost too hard, to connect with an African past that she knows so little of. It is Beneatha and not Asagai who is constantly singing the praises of Africa.
The name of Hansberry’s African character is taken from the word “assegai,” which means a short-handled stabbing spear, famous in the successful ware of Shaka Zulu.
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