The family is one of the most important ideas in American life. It is with reference to the family that much political and social places itself and the family is consistently invoked as something which needs to protected, nourished and encouraged as an active bulwark in support of the country and of American values. However, the family unit itself is a deeply complicated and multi-faceted thing which often contains contradictions, conflicts and competing histories that are rarely as harmonious as they are made to look on the surface.
Several American writers in the 20th century have made these contradictions and tensions central to their work. ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ is such a work. It takes a specific family and their relationships and shows how come to embody racial, political and personal tensions which were highly present in America at the time. This paper will focus on the way that the idea of the family unit functions in the play, and will show how this unit causes the reader to reflect on almost all aspects of American life in the mid twentieth century.
From the opening scenes of the play it is clear that the family which it is portraying is embodied in the difficulties and the ideologies of American life. To begin with, they live a marginalised existence in Chicago’s south side, an area notorious at the time for its poverty and deprivation. As well being caught in the material conditions of America such as poverty and racist social structures, the family can also be seen to function in relation to specifically American values of success and happiness. This tension emerges through the relationship between Ruth and Walter. While Ruth is evidently happy with the life that the two have, Walter strongly desires to move up in the world and to leave the tiring work which he is forced to do. This desire to be wealthy is a reflection of the American dream. Walter’s aspirations are part of a real experience of individual poverty and also a reflection of the general idea that individuals should pursue happiness in material ways. It is through the conflict between Ruth and Walter that one is able to see the difficulties of life in America at the time the play was produced.
The family unit remains vital throughout the whole of the play, however, throughout this interaction is mediated and influenced by the political realm. For example, Ruth’s shock at Walter’s decision to accept Linder’s money is clearly an issue which is expressed in relation to the family and with reference to changing understanding of trust between the could which it brings. Nonetheless, it is something which is entirely related to the racial politics of the time and once again it is clear that the play is able to use family interaction as a microcosm of wider and more universal political issues and that the resulting tensions can be imagined to be a manifestation of huge amount of other struggles and debates.
This combination of social and historical struggle comes to be most obvious in the relationship between Asagai and Beneatha. While the former is convinced of the importance of preserving African heritage, the latter pursues a course of integration. This conflict takes place within and result in direct in the family unit of the play, but it also serves to represent a universal struggle at the time between arguments for assimilation within the African American population, a debate and conflict which had a huge effect on the nation as a whole.
In conclusion, the paper has argued that the family plays a crucial role in ‘A Raisin in the Sun.’ This is crucial both for the plot of the play and for its wider meaning and relevance. Indeed, it is the case that this wider meaning functions by presenting a microcosmic view of familial tension. By paying attention to these tensions it is possible to see how the family in the play, as in every other situation is a direct reflection of wider political, racial and economic conflicts, as well as being a collection intense and complex inter-personal relationships and differences. It is only as this complex entity, rather than as an easily understood object that it is possible to understand a conception of the ‘family,’ both within and without the world of the play.