A Raisin in the Sun is centered around the persistent deferral of the Younger family’s dreams. The Youngers are a working-class Black family with various dreams of upward mobility. Walter wants to take control of his life, restore his sense of masculinity, make his family proud, and eventually take on a new role as head of the Younger household. Beneatha wants to finish her education and become a doctor, and in the meantime to figure out what kind of a woman she truly is. For their part, Mama and Ruth each want to provide a suitable, comfortable environment in which the entire Younger family can thrive.
However, everyday realities of economic hardship and racial prejudice threaten to stall each of these dreams. Even at the end of the play, when the family finally gets to move into the new house in a better neighborhood, the future remains uncertain. Thus, the play implicitly repeats the questions included in the Langston Hughes poem from which Hansberry took her title: “What happens to a dream deferred? / Does it dry up / Like a raisin in the sun?”
The play begins with a sense of exhaustion and frustration, with everyone bickering and struggling to carry on. Although the anticipation of the insurance check arriving in the mail infuses the Younger family with a renewed sense of energy, the check itself fuels further conflict. $10,000 may be a substantial sum, but it isn’t enough to go around. That is, there isn’t enough to move the family out of the slums and pay for Beneatha’s education and fund Walter’s liquor store venture. The sense of competition and entitlement increases the tensions among the Youngers.
To compound the fighting further, several events occur that inspire yet more uncertainty. First, Mama puts a down payment on a house. Although it had indeed been the plan to move into a better neighborhood, Mama invests in a house located in a white, middle-class neighborhood. Given the widespread racism in Chicago (as elsewhere in the United States), as well as Mrs. Johnson’s ominous news that a Black family in another white Chicago neighborhood just got bombed out of their new house, the idea of moving into Clybourne Park gives all the Youngers pause.
Second, and as if to confirm the Youngers’ fears, a white representative of the Clybourne Park Improvement Association pays the family a visit. Lindner has been sent to convince the family not to move into their house after all. He claims that “Negro families are happier when they live in their own communities,” and he makes veiled threats against the family’s safety should they not allow the Association to buy the house back from them.
Third, Mama entrusts the remaining insurance money to Walter, effectively making him the head of the Younger household. Mama’s gesture of trust enlivens Walter and gives him confidence. However, he immediately hands the money over to Bobo, who in turn gives it to Willy to take to Springfield, bribe government officials, and secure a liquor license. Instead of carrying out the plan, Willy runs away with the money, leaving Bobo, Walter, and the rest of the Youngers to face financial crisis.
Finally, in the midst of these unfolding challenges, Ruth discovers that she is pregnant. This not only means another mouth to feed, but also that Ruth soon will not be in a condition to work and contribute to the family financially. An already difficult economic situation threatens to get worse. Ruth seriously considers getting an abortion. Even though this act might prevent an added financial burden, it also causes spiritual discord in the family. Mama objects strenuously for religious reasons, and Walter seems equally horrified.
All of these compounded crises come to a head at the end of Act II. The Youngers appear to reach the very depths of despair, and Mama laments that her husband’s legacy will now come to nothing. As it happens, however, the events of the third act indicate that the Youngers have further to fall. Walter, who begins Act III in a state of shock, eventually emerges from this state with a new scheme. He wants to summon Lindner back to the apartment and put on a degrading show in order to squeeze the maximum amount of money out of the Clybourne Park community. When Lindner arrives, however, Walter abandons his plan and refuses Lindner’s offer to buy back the house. This gesture restores Walter’s sense of dignity and honor of his father’s legacy. In the end, the Youngers move out of the apartment and into the new house. Although their choice to move indicates a sense of hope, none of the other complicating issues have actually been dealt with by the end of the play, so the family’s future remains uncertain.