"A Raisin in the Sun". Is working hard enough to achieve one's American Dream?

Term Paper 2014 12 Pages

American Studies - Literature



1. Introduction

2. “From rags to riches”- What is the American Dream?

3. Two individual American Dreams
3.1 Walter Lee’s failure of his personal American Dream
3.2 Benjamin Franklin’s success- a brief comparison between him and Walter

4. Conclusion

5. Selected bibliography

1. Introduction

This term paper deals with the play A Raisin in the Sun and how the concept of the American Dream appears in the play. It will be discussed if working hard is enough to reach one’s American Dream. The play is written by Lorraine Hansberry and published in 1958. It takes place in the south of Chicago where the Younger family lives and consists of five people from three different generations. Head of the family is Lena, who is mostly called Mama, right after her we got her son Walter Lee, who will be presented in the main part of this term paper. Besides, there is Walter’s wife Ruth and their son Travis. The last member of the Youngers is Walter’s sister Beneatha. Mama embodies the first generation and is quite traditional. Ruth, Walter and “Bennie” represent the second generation, whereas Travis is the only child in the third generation. The family has been living in America in the fifth generation and has got African roots. It can be said though that Walter, Bennie, Ruth and Travis are less traditional than Mama and identify with the American way of life.

The whole family shares a small apartment in a ghetto and living together is difficult as everybody has got his or her own desire, Dream and point of view about certain topics. Especially Walter Lee expects a lot from life and the reader sympathizes with him. Misunderstood by his family Walter wants to live a better life and represents the concept of the American Dream of a person wanting to “rise from rags to riches”. Walter dreams of an office job and really dislikes being a chauffeur for a white person. He wants his son to go to the best schools and to get the best education as possible. Furthermore, he also wants to spoil his wife and get himself a nice car. But why does he fail? Why does nobody in his family support his idea of raising an own business, namely opening a liquor store? Beneatha is not even surprised about Walter’s failure. These questions shall be answered in the main part of this paper. Moreover, I quickly want to present the concept of the American Dream, especially focusing on the Dream of “Upward Mobility”. Besides, an example of a person who did rise from rags to riches will be given, namely Benjamin Franklin. What did he do to become a successful man that Walter did not do? What motivates Walter as well as Franklin and which points influence their failure or luck? In the end of this term paper there will be a final conclusion summarizing the most important aspects again.

2. “From rags to riches”- What is the American Dream?

This question will be answered in the following part of this term paper and the different Dreams of the American nation will be mentioned. Firstly, it is important to say that the expression “The American Dream” was introduced by the American author and historian James Truslow Adams in his book The Epic of America which was published in 1931 for the very first time. It is not clear though, if Adams made this term up or if he heard it from somebody else and just used this expression in his book (Cullen 4). James Truslow Adams defines “The American Dream” as “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man”, (Cullen 7) whereby it is not clear what exactly “better and richer and fuller” means. This statement can be interpreted in many ways and therefore Cullen claims: “[…] there is no one American Dream. Instead, there are many American Dreams” (Cullen 7). Historians say that the American Dream has started with the “Declaration of Independence” were it says that all people, man and woman, should be treated equally and get the chance to achieve what they think they are able to, regardless of their birth (http://america.day-dreamer.de/dream.htm). The most common aspect of the American Dream though, is the ability of becoming wealthy, if one only works hard enough (http://america.day-dreamer.de/dream.htm). Another aspect is the “Dream of living a fulfiling life” with religion being the most important aspect (Cullen 7). Besides, there is also the “Dream of Home Ownership”, where property is seen as the status symbol of the American Dream (Cullen 137, 138). Apart from that, “Education” describes another Dream because college/good education is the best condition for becoming successful in life (Cullen 7). There is a lot that can be said about all these different Dreams but for our purpose it is important to focus on the “Dream of Upward Mobility”, namely “to climb the social ladder”. That means that everyone has got the ability of becoming rich and to move from one social or economic class to another or as Cullen says: “[A]nyone can get ahead” (Cullen 60). The keywords are simple: Ambition and hard work. People who manage to become wealthy starting from scratch, are called “self-made men”. Benjamin Franklin embodies the ideal of a self-made man but his success will be explained later on.

Firstly, I quickly want to point out a couple of historical aspects and it can be said that “[i]t took a couple of hundred years for the realities of American life to shape the Dream of Upward Mobility” (Cullen 60) and that Upward Mobility was measured by economic self-sufficiency, a secure and esteemed profession and the leisure to pursue a career in politics (Cullen 61). Moreover, the Dream of Upward Mobility, particularly in the South, was actually too successful (Cullen 61) because people invested money in servants to find out that it was indeed very expensive to pay them. Furthermore, servants could also become a dangerous competition and so well-off people rather invested money in slaves. In fact, for many colonists slave trade became a major means of Upward Mobility (Cullen 61).

Secondly, aspects which matter today, when trying to rise from rags to riches are the race-issue, segregation, social capital and family structure. These terms are not going to be explained in detail but shall roughly be pointed out. Researches have shown that the larger the black population, the lower the Upward Mobility (http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/01/why-is-the-american-dream-dead-in-the-south/283313/). Even for white people who live in a black neighbourhood it is more difficult to climb up the income ladder. By segregation it is meant that poor people are isolated from the rich. They stay in ghettos with bad schools and bad jobs and do hardly have the chance to work themselves up there. If you stay around the middle class you are better off because better schools and jobs need to be provided but also institutions are made up, e.g. civic or religious groups. These groups mean a great chance and prevent people from “bowling alone” (http://www.theatlantic.com/business/ archive/2014/01/why-is-the-american-dream-dead-in-the-south/283313/). At last, family structure plays an important role, too. It is of importance under which circumstances you grow up and it does count in which class you are born to. There are people who work hard their whole lives but still never change the social class. Being born into a low class can prevent you from living your American Dream. In other words, it is a lot easier to climb the social ladder if you already have a certain position in society.

3. Two individual American Dreams

The main part of this term paper deals with the question if really everyone has got the chance to rise from rags to riches and why there is also failure connected to each Dream. Walter Lee Younger, one of the main characters of the the play A Rasin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, will be characterized, his Dream described and his failure of “The American Dream” will be shown. Furthermore, it will briefly be explained what motivates him to achieve his American Dream. At last, it will be pointed out how Benjamin Franklin, in contrast to Walter Lee, achieved and lived his American Dream.

3.1 Walter Lee’s failure of his personal American Dream

Walter Lee Younger is one of the main protagonists in the play A Rasin in the Sun. He is in his middle thirties and is described as lean and intense (Hansberry 25). Furthermore, he “[is] inclined to quick nervous movements and erratic speech habits” and there is also a quality of indictment in his voice when he talks (Hansberry 25). These characteristics show that he is not really satisfied with his life and the things he has got. His serious manner indicates that he does not have a lot to laugh about and that he is not happy with his current situation. The fact that he is nervous indicates that there is something on his mind that occupies him and also his erratic speech habits underline this thought. They could as well indicate that Walter has got a violent temper. This would explain why Lorraine Hansberry often uses only capital letters when Walter speaks, to show that he is actually not just speaking but rather shouting, e.g. when he wants his wife Ruth and his mother Lena to listen to him (Hansberry 70). His sister Beneatha, Ruth and Mama all have their own opinion of Walter but they do have one thing in common: they all care for him. Beneatha claims that her brother is crazy though (Hansberry 49), whereas Mama also maintains: “[He] done almost lost his mind thinking ‘bout money all the time” (Hansberry 52). On the one hand, his wife Ruth probably worries about Walter the most because although she does not support Walter’s Dream, she still tries to talk to her mother in-law about it (Hansberry 42). On the other hand, Walter must be indeed a very difficult person because Ruth admits: “He makes me sick to my stomach” (Hansberry 71). But apart from his moody side, Walter is also described as an attractive, young man, e.g. the neighbour Mrs. Johnson calls him a “[g]ood-looking man” (Hansberry 101).

Walter’s behaviour and his mood changes cannot be justified but tried to be explained though. Walter Lee Younger has got a Dream, his personal American Dream of Upward Mobility which makes all the things happening around him simply unimportant. Walter wants to raise his own business with two friends, Bobo and Willy, namely opening a liquor store, which fails in the end. Walter thinks big though and especially one scene in the play describes pretty well how Walter sees his future. One night he talks to his son Travis about what kind of man he is going to be when he grows up and forecasts him a bright and very different life from their current situation now. He dreams of an office job, a plain black Chrysler, a Cadillac for his wife, servants e.g. a gardener and he wants his son to have the choice to decide which school he would like to attend (Hansberry 108, 109). Moreover, he wants to put some real pearls around his wife’s neck once and also dreams of his own yacht (Hansberry 143). To sum up with Walter’s words: “[…] I [want to] hand you the world” (Hansberry 109).

His family does not support this idea from the beginning on. Maybe because they know that Walter’s goal is very unrealistic and due to that Walter feels like no one understands him. He is often annoyed by what Ruth or Mama tell him and he wants to spend time by himself quite a few times in the play (Hansberry 72). But why does Walter’s plan fail? His wife Ruth actually summarizes her husband’s Dream very well when she says to Walter: “So you would rather be Mr. Arnold than be his chauffeur” (Hansberry 34). His job is the first indication for a possible failure of his Dream. Although the concept of the American Dream claims that everyone can make it, it counts and brings advantages along when you are born into a higher class. Walter Lee was not born into a higher class and his family stays in a small flat in a ghetto and so did the generations before him. This can be proven by Mama’s statements: “We ain’t no business people […]. We just plain working folks” (Hansberry 42) or: “[…] I come from five generations of people who was slaves and sharecroppers” (Hansberry 143). Also Walter’s father was a laborer (Hansberry 147). Hence it can be concluded that Walter does not have the best education because it is pretty expensive in America. Moreover, one can assume if he had better education, he would not work as a chauffeur especially because he hates it so much (Hansberry 73). Another situation which shows his lack of education is when Beneatha’s friend George calls him Prometheus but Walter has never heard of this Greek figure (Hansberry 86). Apart from that, the family’s bad situation can be seen because they live in a ghetto. As mentioned in the concept of the American Dream it is really tough for people to work themselves up when living in a township. A further aspect which indicates his Dream to be condemned to failure is Walter’s alcohol problem. He likes to drink a lot and sometimes even so much that he embarrasses his family or stays away from work for couple of days (Hansberry 78, 104, 105). This unreliable behaviour illustrates that he surely does want to make his Dream come true but that he does not really think outside the box. Ambition, hard work and the willingness to refine oneself are important elements of success but Walter does not make the impression at all that he is willing to change something about it. Besides, Walter’s naivety contributes to the failure, too. His friend Willy, who is in charge of the money, leaves with the whole amount which was supposed to be for the shop. One could say that this is not Walter Lee’s fault at all but the way Willy is described in the play hints that he is not the most reliable and correct person. Therefore Ruth refers to him as a “good-for-nothing loudmouth” (Hansberry 32) and Beneatha’s opinion about him is not good either. So she states: “[…] a man even Travis wouldn’t have trusted with his most worn-out marbles” (Hansberry 132). The last aspect that significantly adds to Walter’s failure is racism. It is enormously more difficult to climb the social ladder when one is faced with certain obstacles that others do not have to overcome. A study has shown that “[African-Americans] are more likely to be stuck at the bottom of the ladder” and that white Americans have 22 times more wealth than blacks (http://caffertyfile.blogs.cnn.com/2012/07/11/what -does-race-have-to-do-with-achieving-the-american-dream/). Probably also Walter is aware of this fact because there is one situation in the play where he talks to his mother about rich people but only white rich people (Hansberry 74).

After pointing out the reasons for Walter Lee’s failure it shall briefly be explained why he is so obsessed with his Dream and where his motivation comes from. Without a doubt, Walter Lee is quite traditional. This can be seen when he does not support his sister in becoming a doctor. He rather thinks it is appropriate for her to become a nurse instead or even: “[…] just get married and be quiet]” (Hansberry 38). Therefore it can be concluded that he thinks the man has to be the one who earns money for the family. Clearly Walter’s motivation for his American Dream is his manhood, wherein he often feels hurt because he is not the head of the family but his mother is (Hansberry 94, 95). Hence with the realization of his Dream he wants to prove his manliness to his family but especially to Ruth and Mama.

In conclusion, it can be said that Walter Lee does dream of a better life for his family and himself but that he does not really give a hundred percent to make his Dream come true. He thinks that a starting capital of ten thousand dollars is enough to fulfil his Dream of his own business and he does not take into account that a certain amount of self-discipline also plays an important role.

3.2 Benjamin Franklin’s success- a brief comparison between him and Walter

Benjamin Franklin was born in Boston, Massachusetts on the 17th of January in 1706 and died in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on the 17th of April in 1790. His family was originally from England (Franklin 8) but as many Puritans they migrated to America from England because they wanted to re-establish their religious practice. It is claimed that “England and the Puritans had different beliefs about how Christianity should be practiced and this difference of opinion is what drove the Puritans to ahead of America” (http://voices.yahoo.com/puritans-american-dream-41506.html). Franklin’s story is not going to be explained in detail because that would go beyond the content of this term paper. The most important reasons for his success shall be pointed out briefly and a comparison to Walter Lee is drawn.

Benjamin Franklin’s motivation for his American Dream can be explained with the concept of the “Puritan work ethic”, not with his manhood as it was the case with Walter. But what is the Puritan work ethic? “[The Puritan work ethic says] that a person’s duty is to achieve success through hard work and thrift, such success being a sign that one is saved” (http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/ definition/american_english/Protestant-ethic). In terms of education Franklin was way ahead of Walter. His father sent him to a Grammar School at the age of eight years and he used to be the best in his class (Franklin 10). After Grammar School he got some more education and attended a school for writing and arithmetic, where he had problems with arithmetic though (Franklin 11). Another thing that Walter Lee possibly did not do, that Franklin did, was to learn a proper profession. Franklin’s father determined to make him a printer and he learned at his brother’s print office for several years (Franklin 13). Due to the Puritan work ethic Franklin never stopped studying or improving himself. He loved writing and especially reading and when his father told him that he “fell far short in elegance of expression” (Franklin 14), he did not hesitate but made an effort to improve it. He had his own technique of improving his efficiency and completed papers with his own sentences. Franklin himself said: “My time for these exercises and for reading was at night, after work or before it began in the morning, or on Sundays” (Franklin 14). In Hansberry’s play Walter does not do such things as reading or writing at all- the only thing he does after work is getting drunk. Franklin would have never done that and he only drank water although the other workmen loved beer (Franklin 31).



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A Raisin in the Sun Benjamin Franklin American Dream Contemporary English Literature A Survey of American Literature




Title: "A Raisin in the Sun". Is working hard enough to achieve one's American Dream?