Brief overview: A Raisin in the Sun is a play written by Lorraine Hansberry in 1959. It was the subject of a major motion picture in 1961 starring Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Claudia McNeil, Diana Sands, Roy Glenn, and Louis Gossett Jr.; and a 1989 made-for-television film starring Danny Glover and Esther Rolle.
The general gist of the story is that the Younger family, a working-class black family living in Chicago in the late 1950s, receives a $10,000 life insurance check after the family's patriarch (father) dies. While that may seem like a nice little pile of cash to do something with, especially in terms of 1950s dollars, reality quickly sets in once several surviving family members reveal their competing hopes, dreams, and goals for how the money should be spent.
Lena (Mama) wants to use the money toward a new home that the family can truly call its own. Currently, the family resides in a cramped, run-down apartment. Walter, Mama's son, wants to invest a good portion of the money in a liquor store with a couple buddies, convinced that such an investment will relieve the family's financial woes. Beneatha, Mama's daughter, wants some of the money to go toward her education. She's currently a college student with ambitions of going off to medical school and becoming a doctor.
As the story goes on, we learn that Mama makes a down payment on a home in an all-white neighborhood. The decision to purchase a home in this neighborhood is a practical financial one, as homes in the all-white neighborhood are far cheaper. She gives the remainder of what's left of the money to Walter, on the condition that he set aside $3,000 for his sister's (Beneatha) education. Walter ends up losing all the money, leaving both he and Beneatha with nothing. One of his connections in the liquor store investment ran off with the money. Meanwhile, the family encounters racial tension and harassment when the neighborhood association of the all-white neighborhood sends its representative, Karl Lindner, to try to persuade the family to accept a buy-out in exchange for not moving into the home.
In the end, the Younger family rejects Lindner's pressure and ultimately moves into the home. The family's future is uncertain, and the family never seemed to resolve its other conflicts, leaving the audience somewhat hanging and forced to speculate. But the family, despite all its troubles and the harsh realities it's been forced to face, has in the end its pride, dignity, and a home to call their own.
SparkNotes identifies three main themes in A Raisin in the Sun, including the purpose and value that dreams play in our lives, the importance and value of family life, and our obligation to stand up to racial discrimination.
Throughout the play, dreams have a major role, and they're easy for any of us to relate to and connect with. Beneatha wants to realize her dream of attending medical school and becoming a doctor. While owning a piece of a liquor store isn't necessarily the dream in and of itself for Walter, he sees it as a means for making his real dream possible - Walter simply wants to be able to adequately provide for his family and give them a good life. He's lived in poverty, and he sees the liquor store as a viable vehicle for achieving this dream of his. Mama simply wants to own a home, a place that she and her family can truly call their own and make memories in.
Family life and our obligation to stand up to racial discrimination play a prominent role in the story, as well. In the end, despite their different and often competing goals and aspirations, the family members come together as a cohesive unit to make the dream of home ownership for the family happen. The family, led by Walter, stands up to the racial discrimination that Karl Lindner represents by his pressure to try to get the family to accept a bribe / buyout in exchange for not moving into the home in the all-white neighborhood. The family asserts its dignity and its fundamental right to realize its dream and plot its future.
Perhaps another universal theme that can be discussed, one that isn't identified in the SparkNotes themes, are the two sides money can represent. On the one hand, money provides opportunity to realize many kinds of goals and dreams, and can therefore be a wonderful thing. On the other, though, we know that money can also cause divisions and greed. It has the potential to bring out the worst in people.
Following are some additional helpful resources that may help you better understand A Raisin in the Sun:
SparkNotes themes: https://www.sparknotes.com/lit/raisin/themes
SparkNotes quiz (25 questions, multiple choice): https://www.sparknotes.com/lit/raisin/quiz
Wikipedia entry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Raisin_in_the_SunIf you type in "a raisin in the sun" in the YouTube search bar, this series of short videos come up that offer nice summaries of the acts/scenes. Dr. Kristen Over is the presenter. Dr. Over is an associate professor of English at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago, and she does a great job explaining the play in a relaxed tone and easy-to-understand manner.
To help you get started, here is the Act 1, Scene 1 video:
And here is the Act 1, Scene 2 video:
The rest of the series by Dr. Kristen Over should show up on the sidebar to the right on YouTube.
Here is a brief clip from PBS's American Masters series that offers insight into Lorraine Hansberry's inspiration for the play:
Finally, here is the 1989 made-for-TV movie based on the play: