In the play A Raisin in the Sun, one of the most important themes is the coming of age of the main characters, Walter and Benethea. In the beginning of the play, they are both very flawed and selfish characters – Walter seeks to help the family in the wake of his father’s death, but his decisions often lead to disastrous consequences. Benethea, on the other hand, must learn to make her own decisions and forge ahead in life, as well as change her already established preconceptions of race and identity.
As the play begins, the family is contemplating what to do about a $10,000 check that is coming to them as a result of the patriarch’s death. Walter, the married son of the family, wants to invest it in a liquor store that might provide financial prosperity for them for the foreseeable future. His immature worldview leads him to believe that money is absolutely everything – when Mama remarks that “Once upon a time, freedom used to be life – now it’s money,” Walter replies with “No-It was always money, Mama. We just didn’t know about it” (p. 74). He is desperate to get the rest of the family to see it through his perspective, and really, it is more about his desire for acceptance within the family than it is the acquisition of money.
Benethea, on the other hand, is fiercely independent of the rest of the family, and in fact resents them for apparently wanting to integrate into white culture. She wishes to have her own life as a successful doctor, seeking to use the money they are getting to fund her tuition. All of this stems from her desire to have her own uniquely African identity, while still wishing to remain American – this struggle is represented in her dating both a snobbish African-American man and a Nigerian, who wishes to marry her and take her back to Africa. While she does not come to a decision by the end of the play, she does become more tempered and moderate in her opinions of her family, especially Walter. She comes from a place of intolerance for him – “He’s no brother of mine” – to accepting what he decides about their living situation (p. 145).
At some point, Mama relinquishes control of the insurance money to Walter, who is ecstatic about it – he immediately fantasizes about what he and his son will be able to do, imagining himself an executive and a successful businessman. “You just name it son…and I hand you the world!” (p. 109). This is the moment when all of his adolescent dreams come true, and he really believes he can have it all. He hinges all of his hopes and dreams on this liquor store startup, which ends in heartbreak when he loses that money entirely.
Once Walter has found out that he has lost the investment in the liquor store, he says to Mr. Lindner, “We have decided to move into our house because my father—my father—he earned it for us brick by brick. We don’t want to make no trouble for nobody or fight no causes, and we will try to be good neighbors. And that’s all we got to say about that. We don’t want your money” (p. 148). This is a turning point for Walter, as he is making a strong, authoritative decision for the good of the family and accept his buyout. It denotes a measure of control over the destiny of his family, and it shows him accepting his role as the new family leader, finally replacing his father.
In the beginning of the play, he was ruled by money and obsessed with financial success – this refusal of money is then a very interesting development, as he has realized that family is more important. Even Ruth and Benethea recognize this role and accept his authority, allowing him to finally become a man. Mama says to Ruth, “He finally come into his manhood today, didn’t he? Kind of like a rainbow after the rain…” (p. 130).
Both Walter and Benethea change perspective drastically over the course of the play. Walter learns to be more selfless and less money-obsessed, deciding to look after the family’s greater interests as opposed to whatever scheme will make them the most money. On the other hand, Benethea draws herself closer to her family, learning to tolerate her brother’s decisions and way of life. She still remains fiercely independent, and it is entirely possible she will run away with her Nigerian boyfriend, Asagai, to be married and work as a doctor in Africa. Either way, she is making the decision the right way – as an adult. The coming of age of these two characters involve dramatically different goals and expectations, but in the end they come closer as a family, and they also manage to gain the respect of each other and their relatives.
Hansberry, Lorraine. A raisin in the sun: a drama in three acts. New York: Random House,