The Walter Lee Younger Character Analysis

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Lorraine Hansberry’s classic play A Raisin in the Sun has continued to stay relevant since its conception due to its many political themes, such as racism and feminism. One lesser explored concept in the play is Hansberry’s portrayal of leadership in the family structure. This theme is explored through the dichotomy of Mama and her son Walter and their conflicting ideas of what the role should entail. While it is easy to see him as simply an incompetent drunk, there are deep complexities within Walter’s role that ought to be explored. Walter Jr. does not exemplify the qualities needed to lead a family throughout the play, which can be seen by his character and actions, his ideology, and his contrast with Mama until he redeems himself during the story’s climax.

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From his introduction, the audience is given a negative impression of Walter. In his second line of the play, right after waking up, he asks if his mother’s $10,000 check has come, and his wife Ruth’s agitated response leads us to believe he is fixated on the money. All we need to know about who Walter is can be seen in this first interaction; he smokes before breakfast, makes rude comments, and keeps his family awake at night talking to his friends . His actions already show his self-centeredness and how discontent he is with his life. Walter hates his job as a chauffeur, hates living in a small apartment, hates being poor, and hates his lack of power. We don’t see much that he doesn’t hate, in fact. The one thing he does show interest in is his dream of opening a liquor store and becoming a stereotypical business executive. Of course, to fulfill this dream he is relying on his mother to give him $10,000. Walter’s confident attitude is really a veil for his ignorance. Writer Johnny Vaccaro sees Walter Jr.’s dreams and attitude as a “get rich quick” way of thinking, and notes Walter’s lack of effort he plans to put into his scheme while still expecting to become rich through his investment somehow. He becomes so consumed by his materialistic dream that it puts a wedge between him and his family for most of the play.

Walter’s pride and self-entitlement can be seen to cause him to look down on others or try and control them for his goals. He puts down his sister Beneatha for her dream of becoming a doctor, telling her to pursue something more realistic, like nursing, or simply becoming a housewife. In part, this is because he fears Mama will use the funds for her school instead of for him, and so he is willing to hurt Beneatha emotionally as long as he achieves his goal. It seems obvious that he does not believe in his sister, and he shows it in a non-loving way. Professor Julie M. Burrell of Cleveland State University similarly argues that Walter is extremely controlling of his wife Ruth and expects her to do whatever he wants and support everything he does. When talking of his desires Walter states, “…Yes, I want to hang some real pearls around my wife’s neck… I tell you I am a man—and I think my wife should wear some pearls”. Walter’s wishes for Ruth involve him making her his trophy wife to show off how great and rich he is or will become . Ruth’s only explicitly stated dream is to have “a safe and clean home away from the southside,” an idea which Walter will not entertain. Walter believes that by imposing his dreams and desires on Ruth she would be happy, but the opposite is achieved as he ignores what she truly wants.

The head of any family ought to be responsible and trustworthy, or else they are not qualified to lead. Walter clearly is lacking in this area, as he displays how irresponsible he is several times. His most frequently problematic shortcoming is his alcoholism. Anytime things are not going his way, he turns to the bottle and his distasteful behavior becomes even worse. We see him disrespectfully portraying an African tribal man, which embarrasses his family in front of George, then proceeds to tell their guest he is wearing “faggoty-looking white shoes”. Instead of facing hardship, Walter escapes his problems through alcohol, a poor quality for a leader to possess. Margaret B Wilkerson of Theatre Journal explains how his irresponsibility hits a new low with his handling of the money Mama finally gives him. Not only does Walter lose the portion he was given, but also Beneatha’s money that was supposed to be deposited in a savings account. Essentially, he steals thousands of dollars from his sister, which is promptly stolen from him. His appalling behavior continues when in a desperate attempt to recuperate his losses, Walter plans to sell the house Mama purchased against the will of the family. Up to this point, Walter’s decisions and attitude show that he is selfish, naïve, and completely incapable of making decisions for the family.

Walter’s ideology is another contributing factor to his failure as a leader. George Mosher, Director of the Goodman Theatre, questions the validity of Walter’s beliefs; “Is Walter right when he says money is all that matters? How important is economic success in securing rights for a minority group? Such goals give you power, but do they also corrupt you?”. Walter’s problem is not that he hopes to be successful, but that it consumes him. We can see, however, through his conversation with his son Travis, that his heart is at least somewhat in the right place concerning his reasoning behind his goals. His view of the future in which he is a successful businessman reveals what he really hopes will come with success; that his wife will love him more, he can give his son a better education, and his family will generally be happier. To the outside reader, it is obvious that his methods and end goals are not what the rest of the family desires and his attempts to achieve them are a wedge in his relationships. In Mama’s eyes, using the money of Walter Sr. for a liquor store would be extremely disrespectful to his legacy. Instead of making Ruth happier, Walter’s zeal has blinded him to her real feelings. Beneatha is hurt by his lack of belief and willingness for Mama to support her goals with the money. Walter’s willingness to sacrifice the pride of his family for monetary gain would have been a horrible influence on Travis if it weren’t for his last-minute change of mind.

Walter detests his socio-economic role in life, and in a way, is fighting for his rights by trying to work his way up from the lower class and gain power. This approach, however, is individualistic in nature, only bettering the status of Walter and not his race as a whole. Instead of taking an honorable approach to social justice, he plans to simply pay for privileges. As Wilkerson says, “the ‘unprofitable’ values of integrity, justice, and freedom” go against what Walter truly desires. In the film version of a Raisin in the Sun, Walter even parallels his dreams of escaping poverty and his class to Mama’s escape from the oppressive South during her childhood. It seems unfair to compare the two as equal, considering Mama was likely poorer than Walter and faced much more physical and emotional hardships. Though Walter was born with the freedom that she had to fight for, he devalues what she went through by implying that the struggle to become wealthy is just as important.

Mama is the foil to what Walter should be as a leader in a Raisin in the Sun. The two are complete opposites in terms of character and values. “Once upon a time freedom used to be life – now its money,” says Mama in rebuttal of Walter. In contrast to Walter, Mama is not bothered by the family’s social and economic conditions. All she wants is to grow a garden, and in a similar manner nurture her family and watch them mature . When Ruth suggests Mama should treat herself to a vacation in Europe, Mama declines. It is implied that she is happy at home with her family and does not desire such lavishness She has a realistic worldview, which is shown as she makes the practical choice of buying a house for the family instead of risking the money like Walter.

While some readers and critics have labeled Mama as an emasculator that tries to keep Walter from making decisions for the family and inhibits his growth, the opposite is in fact true. Mama knows what true masculinity and leadership look like in the form of her deceased husband, Walter senior. Mama would like more than anything for Walter Jr. to lead the family, but she knows that he is incapable; “You are a disgrace to your father’s memory,” she says of him. Walter should know what it looks like to be a responsible father, but he got lost somewhere along the way of becoming one. Until Walter can learn to prioritize what is important, Mama is better as the head of the family, but she cannot hold that position forever. According to Frank Ardolino of the University of Hawaii, Mama’s efforts and time spent waiting for Walter to realize his potential as a leader is symbolized by her plant that she grows and does her best to make bloom. Mama doesn’t like the idea of Walter purchasing a liquor store, but when she gives in and lets him have a share of the money, it is because she fears that if she does not support him, he will be destroyed emotionally. She has done seemingly all she can do. The last option that she has is to let him try and live his fantasy.

The theft of Walter’s investment is possibly the best thing that could have happened for the Younger family. It is because Walter fails his dream and is forced to face the real world that he realizes Mama has been right the whole time. When he prepares to grovel at the feet of a white supremacist neighborhood in front of his family, something clicks inside him. He cannot in good mind sell out the pride of his heritage in front of his son. From here on out his whole attitude is changed, and his family shows a newfound respect for him. “He finally come into his manhood today, didn’t he?” says Mama. Finally, Walter has matured and fulfilled his father’s shoes.

“What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up, like a raisin in the sun?… or does it explode?” This line of inspiration for the play summarizes perfectly the Walter Lee Younger character analysis. His dream has been dangled in front of him for so long, driving him mad, and when he finally grabs onto it, everything crashes down around him. In his brokenness however, he is rebuilt, and turns from his pride and selfish lifestyle. He embraces his father’s ideology instead of running from it. His behavior turns from the opposite of Mama’s and becomes closer to what she believes. Walter has been redeemed, and Mama’s approval shows that he has finally become ready to lead his family properly. 

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