It is morning at the Youngers’ apartment. Their small dwelling on the South Side of Chicago has two bedrooms—one for Mama and Beneatha, and one for Ruth and Walter Lee. Travis sleeps on the couch in the living room. The only window is in their small kitchen, and they share a bathroom in the hall with their neighbors. The stage directions indicate that the furniture, though apparently once chosen with care, is now very worn and faded. Ruth gets up first and after some noticeable difficulty, rouses Travis and Walter as she makes breakfast. While Travis gets ready in the communal bathroom, Ruth and Walter talk in the kitchen. They do not seem happy, yet they engage in some light humor. They keep mentioning a check. Walter scans the front page of the newspaper and reads that another bomb was set off, and Ruth responds with indifference. Travis asks them for money—he is supposed to bring fifty cents to school—and Ruth says that they do not have it. His persistent nagging quickly irritates her. Walter, however, gives Travis an entire dollar while staring at Ruth. Travis then leaves for school, and Walter tells Ruth that he wants to use the check to invest in a liquor store with a few of his friends. Walter and Ruth continue to argue about their unhappy lives, a dialogue that Ruth cuts short by telling her husband, “Eat your eggs, they gonna be cold.”
Beneatha gets up next and after discovering that the bathroom is occupied by someone from another family, engages in a verbal joust with Walter. He thinks that she should be doing something more womanly than studying medicine, especially since her tuition will cut into the check, which is the insurance payment for their father’s death. Beneatha argues that the money belongs to Mama and that Mama has the right to decide how it is spent. Walter then leaves for his job as a chauffeur—he has to ask Ruth for money to get to work because the money he gave Travis was his car fare. Mama enters and goes directly to a small plant that she keeps just outside the kitchen window. She expresses sympathy for her grandson, Travis, while she questions Ruth’s ability to care for him properly. She asks Ruth what she would do with the money, which amounts to $10,000. For once, Ruth seems to be on Walter’s side. She thinks that if Mama gives him some of the money he might regain his happiness and confidence, which are two things Ruth feels she can no longer provide for Walter. Mama, though, feels morally repulsed by the idea of getting into the liquor business. Instead, she wants to move to a house with a lawn on which Travis can play. Owning a house had always been a dream she had shared with her husband, and now that he is gone she nurtures this dream even more powerfully.
Mama and Ruth begin to tease Beneatha about the many activities that she tries and quits, including her latest attempt to learn how to play the guitar. Beneatha claims that she is trying to “express” herself, an idea at which Ruth and Mama have a laugh. They discuss the man that Beneatha has been dating, George Murchison. Beneatha gets angry as they praise George because she thinks that he is “shallow.” Mama and Ruth do not understand her ambivalence toward George, arguing that she should like him simply because he is rich. Beneatha contends that, for that very reason, any further relationship is pointless, as George’s family wouldn’t approve of her anyway. Beneatha makes the mistake of using the Lord’s name in vain in front of Mama, which sparks another conversation about the extent of God’s providence. Beneatha argues that God does not seem to help her or the family. Mama, outraged at such a pronouncement, asserts that she is head of the household and that there will be no such thoughts expressed in her home. Beneatha recants and leaves for school, and Mama goes to the window to tend her plant. Ruth and Mama talk about Walter and Beneatha, and Ruth suddenly faints.
All of the characters in A Raisin in the Sun have unfulfilled dreams. These dreams mostly involve money. Although the Younger family seems alienated from white middle-class culture, they harbor the same materialistic dreams as the rest of American society. In the 1950s, the stereotypical American dream was to have a house with a yard, a big car, and a happy family. The Youngers also seem to want to live this dream, though their struggle to attain any semblance of it is dramatically different from the struggle a similar suburban family might encounter, because the Youngers are not a stereotypical middle-class family. Rather, they live in a world in which being middle class is also a dream.
Mama’s plant symbolizes her version of this dream, because she cares for it as she cares for her family. She tries to give the plant enough light and water not only to grow but also to flourish and become beautiful, just as she attempts to provide for her family with meager yet consistent financial support. Mama also imagines a garden that she can tend along with her dream house. The small potted plant acts as a temporary stand-in for her much larger dream. Her relentless care for the plant represents her protection of her dream. Despite her cramped living situation and the lifetime of hard work that she has endured, she maintains her focus on her dream, which helps her to persevere. Still, no matter how much Mama works, the plant remains feeble, because there is so little light. Similarly, it is difficult for her to care for her family as much as she wants and to have her family members grow as much as she wants. Her dream of a house and a better life for her family remains tenuous because it is so hard for her to see beyond her family’s present situation.
Beneatha’s dream differs from Mama’s in that it is, in many ways, self-serving. In her desires to “express” herself and to become a doctor, Beneatha proves an early feminist who radically views her role as self-oriented and not family-oriented. Feminism had not fully emerged into the American cultural landscape when Hansberry wrote A Raisin in the Sun, and Beneatha seems a prototype for the more enthusiastic feminism of the 1960s and 1970s. She not only wants to have a career—a far cry from the June Cleaver stay-at-home-mom role models of the 1950s (June Cleaver was the name of the mother on Leave it to Beaver, a popular late-1950s sitcom about a stereotypical suburban family)—but also desires to find her identity and pursue an independent career without relying solely on a man. She even indicates to Ruth and Mama that she might not get married, a possibility that astonishes them because it runs counter to their expectations of a woman’s role. Similarly, they are befuddled by her dislike of the “pretty, rich” George Murchison. That Beneatha’s attitude toward him differs from Ruth’s or Mama’s may result from the age difference among the three women. Mama and Beneatha are, of course, a generation apart, while Ruth occupies a place somewhere in the middle; Hansberry argues that Beneatha is the least traditional of the women because she is the youngest.