1. What are the dreams of the main characters—Mama, Ruth, Beneatha, and Walter—and how are they deferred?
Mama dreams of moving her family out of the ghetto and into a house with a yard where children can play and she can tend a garden. Her dream has been deferred since she and her husband moved into the apartment that the Youngers still inhabit. Every day, her dream provides her with an incentive to make money. But no matter how much she and her husband strived, they could not scrape together enough money to make their dream a reality. His death and the resulting insurance money present Mama’s first opportunity to realize her dream.
Ruth’s dream is similar to Mama’s. She wants to build a happy family and believes one step toward this goal is to own a bigger and better place to live. Ruth’s dream is also deferred by a lack of money, which forces her and Walter to live in a crowded apartment where their son, Travis, must sleep on a sofa.
Beneatha’s dream is to become a doctor and to save her race from ignorance. The first part of her dream may be deferred because of the money Walter loses. Her dream is also one deferred for all women. Beneatha lives in a time when society expects women to build homes rather than careers. As for saving her race from ignorance, Beneatha believes she can make people understand through action, but the exact course she chooses remains unclear at the end of the play.
Walter dreams of becoming wealthy and providing for his family as the rich people he drives around do. He often frames this dream in terms of his family—he wants to give them what he has never had. He feels like a slave to his family’s economic hardship. His dream has been deferred by his poverty and inability to find decent employment. He attributes his lack of job prospects to racism, a claim that may be partially true but that is also a crutch. Over the course of the play, his understanding of his dream of gaining material wealth evolves, and by play’s end, it is no longer his top priority.
2. What does Mama’s plant represent, and how does the symbol evolve over the course of the play?
Mama’s plant, which is weak but resilient, represents her dream of living in a bigger house with a lawn. As she tends to her plant, she symbolically shows her dedication to her dream. Mama first pulls out her plant early in the morning. In fact, it is the first thing that she does in the morning; thus, at the beginning of the play we see that her plant—and her dream—are of the highest importance to her. Mama admits that the plant has never had enough sunshine but still survives. In other words, her dream has always been deferred but still remains strong. At the end of the play, Mama decides to bring the plant with her to their new home. In doing so, she gives a new significance to the plant. While it initially stands for her deferred dream, now, as her dream comes true, it reminds her of her strength in working and waiting for so many years.
3. How does the description of the Youngers’ apartment contribute to the mood of the play?
Because all of the action of the play takes place between its walls, the Youngers’ apartment determines the play’s entire atmosphere and feel. The residence is very small, with one window, and the Youngers—especially Walter—feel trapped within their lives, their ghetto, and their poverty. Hansberry creates a stage that helps to illustrate this feeling of entrapment. The lack of natural light in the apartment contributes to the sense of confinement, and the tiny amount of light that does manage to trickle into the apartment is a reminder both of the Youngers’ dreams and of the deferment of those dreams. Similarly, the furniture, originally chosen with pride but now old and worn, symbolizes the family itself. The Youngers are overworked and tired, and their dreams are trampled under the conditions of day-to-day existence, though they retain a core of pride that can never be entirely hidden.