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Passion! Passion is what both Lorraine Hansberry and John Steinbeck have in common. Their two major works, A Raisin in the Sun and The Grapes of Wrath, respectively, focus on the human struggle, love and dreams, which in turn are symbolized through the ideas of matriarchal images, prodigal sons and daughters and nature as an icon of dreams.
In both these works, the mothers play the most important role in the development of the plot. They represent the pillars of strength and they are the ones that hold the family together and the hope alive. In Lorraine Hansberry's work, Mama is a widow, mother of two children and the head of the household: "There are some ideas we ain't going to have in this house. Not long as I am at the head of this family." (Hansberry 51) Mama is aware of the high position she is awarded in the family, since her husband is dead and she is left in care of the family. Qualities like independence and strength surround her and give her and air of authority. She takes charge when others hesitate and she gives courage to the insecure. "You just got strong willed children and it takes a strong woman like you to keep'em in hand, (Hansberry 52) her daughter-in-law tells her at one point. This symbolizes the love and respect she carries for her, but also the power that Mama radiates over the whole family.
Mama's virtues are reflected, not only through other people's reactions or her own actions towards others, but by the author's own opinion as well: "Her face is full of strength. She has, we can see, wit and faith of a kind that keeps her eyes lit and full of interest and expectancy...Her bearing is perhaps most like the noble Hereros of Southwest Africa-. (Hansberry 39) The author personally involves her feelings into her work, as it is a representation of her own life and almost autobiographical. For that reason, the stage directions are so much more than that. They not only portray the physical aspect of the setting and characters, but go deep into the heart and soul of the people represented by the characters. They are much more personalized. They do not give the beholder the opportunity to form an opinion, but more, they imply what the reader's reaction should be.
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Mama is not rich, far from it. She does not have a happy life, yet she carries herself with pride and dignity. She has dreams, and even though most of them did not come true, it is not because she did not try hard enough. On the contrary, it is because she "just aimed too high." (Hansberry 140) It's not because she did not have hope, but because she hoped too much, for too many years; she had high expectations. This confers Mama a certain sense of nobility and respect even if she does live in the poor west side of Chicago. Without her to hold the family together, the others would have lost the hope a very long time ago. She helped keep the hope alive.
If Mama was a monument of strength, Ma "seems to know, to accept, to welcome her position, the citadel of the family, the strong place that could not be taken." (Steinbeck 61) Even though she is not a widow and there are male figures in her family, Ma takes the authority position over all of them, as she has an immeasurable strength. Ma is not a happy person, yet she feels fulfilled because all she needs is her family. She is not educated. All her decisions are based on experience, as she learned everything the hard way. All her knowledge is derived from rough encounters with poverty and lack of basic necessities. However, it is those experiences that give her the strength and will power to go on: "Her face was not soft; it was controlled kindly. Her hazel eyes seemed to have experienced all possible tragedy and to have mounted pain and suffering into a high calm superhuman understanding." (Steinbeck 61) This is how the woman is viewed directly by the reader. The family knows what she's been through, yet the reader can almost guess it all with a simple look into her eyes.
Ma makes swift decisions and she stands by them at any time. She is always self-aware and when there is something that has to be done, no matter the cost, she will be there. Even if it is painful or hard for her, she will always think of her family first because that's all that matters to her: "When somepin happens that I got to do somepin, I do it...They all depend on me..." (Steinbeck 93) The family knows and appreciates all that Ma does for them. However, sometimes, even members of the family are amazed at her Herculean power and will to survive in such a cruel world: "The family looked at Ma with a little terror at her strength." (Steinbeck 163) Ma is always protective and an all-knowing pillar of strength, the one that keeps the family together.
In conclusion, in both works there is a very important motherly figure, who plays an extraordinary strong role in certain issues. She has an amazing capacity to understand certain issues, as well as the ability to hope, struggle and strive in order for the other members of the family to fulfill their dreams in life. They both have a dream of their own. Mama wants to have a house with a little garden at the back, and Ma wants a small white house on an orange ranch. Also, they are both striving so that their families have a better life and get a greater chance at fulfilling their dreams. Through the motherly figure, the idea of human struggle is powerfully reflected on the reader.
Another major concept in both Hansberry and Steinbeck's works is the unconditional love idea, which is best represented by the prodigal sons and daughters in the works. This is when one of the characters falls out of, usually, the mother's good graces, leaves home for a while or looses hope for an instant, and then comes back to his/her senses, regains the mother's love and the ability to dream again.
In A Raisin in the Sun, Walter identifies himself with the prodigal son the most, however, Beneatha has some moments of disobedience as well. She is punished and quickly reconvenes her monotonous, poor, yet restless life: "You think you a woman Bennie - but you still a little girl. What you did was childish - so you got treated like a child. (Hansberry 52) Beneatha is the prodigal daughter who acts like a renegade. She denies God, the most sacred concept in Mama's house, therefore she is punished. In the end however, she is forgiven and comes back into Mama's good graces.
Regardless, the person that most resembles the prodigal son is Walter. From the very beginning he is pictured as a lazy, ungrateful drunkard. Even though he is unlike the rest of the family, in the sense that he is a nonconformist, he has ambitions. His ambitions though, are not dignified in Mama's eyes, as she does not consider a liquor store a proper business. When he is finally given the chance and opportunity to do something with his life and Mama puts her trust in him, he stumbles and falls, bringing shame and misery onto his family. He looses all the money, and Mama, unable to believe it and stunned with shock, starts releasing all her anger on him: "Mama stops and looks at her son without recognition and then, quiet without thinking about it, starts to beat him senselessly in the face." (Hansberry 129) In a fit of furry, she start beating him, doing more of a psychological damage that a physical one. Walter becomes the runaway prodigal son.
Even with her mind clouded by anger and disbelief, Mama does not loose hope in her son. She knows that he cannot disappoint her that much, since he, belonging to the same strong family, possesses the same strong will and determination as her. "We have decided to move into our house because my father - my father - he earned it for us brick by brick," (Hansberry 148) Walter says standing up for his family, knowing that they have nothing left, yet being proud to have regained his self-respect. When the whole family awaits ruin and gives up the little house, the prodigal son returns; Walter surprises them coming to his senses and not loosing hope for a brighter tomorrow.
Usually, the prodigal son concept consists of two parts: the runaway and the amazing come-back or the forgiven return. In The Grapes of Wrath, Tom's story begins directly with the second part. However, the reader gets a small mental picture of what had happened before, in order for the prodigal son to make his mysterious return.
It is said that Tome killed a man, in self defence, and was sent to jail for it in McAlister. At the same time, the reader gets a taste of his good character, when it is mentioned that, on the grounds of his good behaviour, he was released after only four years. When asked in the beginning about his situation, he is confronted with the present and his uplifted spirits can be noticed in the way he answers, "All the way going home now." (Steinbeck 25) Even if Tom is happy to be back from his wandering, his parents' approval is very necessary, especially his mother's, since she is the authority figure in the family: "Ma, would you say I was a bad fella? Oughta be locked up like that?" (Steinbeck 150) When his self-esteem is low or threatened or he needs a spiritual boost, his mother's opinion is always comforting and extremely important. The returning son needs to be reassured by his mother that he is still a member of the family and will not be treated a s an ex-convict. His mother's approval means everything to him and makes the difference between self-acceptance and self-denial.
Tom's father is less in tuned with the kind of encouragement Tom needs. In contrast to the mother, who feels the need to praise her son and give him the attention he missed in the four years he was gone, the father bases his comments on honesty and truth. He does notice a change in Tome and he honestly feels that, his son has reached a new level of maturity that must be commended upon: "There's Tommy, talkin' like a growed-up man, talkin' like a preacher almos'." (Steinbeck 164) The father is proud and relieved to know that he has an heir that has the potential to be something big and that will not disappoint the family, as a strong leader and a constant fighter.
The unconditional, unstoppable and irreversible love of parents towards their children, is magnificently emphasized through the prodigal son and daughter concept. In A Raisin in the Sun Walter looses all the family's money and with it, his self esteem and self respect. He plans to tell the sales agent that they are willing to sell the house, when he suddenly has an overwhelming "attack" of dignity. He refuses to sell the house and so the prodigal son falls into the mothers good graces once again. In The Grapes of Wrath, the reader is only partially introduced to the running away part of the concept. It is merely mentioned that Tom has been in jail for four years. The reader does not know at this point if his parents are going to take him back or not. Later on, we notice the love and affection that both mother and father still carry for their son after so many years, the love that didn't falter for a second and was undoubted till the end. The prodigal son returns.
Saving the best for last, the third and most important connection between the two works, is the idea of dreams. It's good to notice that in both of them, the person keeping the dream alive is the mother. Why? Because she does not loose hope, no matter what life brings in the way. The dream is a common one - a little house to be made a home - and is expressed in very similar ways, with the aide of nature and natural colours and fruits.
In A Raisin in the Sun the hope is green and mostly represented my the little garden that Mama is always praying for: "You should know all the dreams I had about buying that house and fixing it up and making me a little garden in the back." (Hansberry 45) The garden is associated with natural purity, new life and hope, since plants have to start a-new in a garden. However, nature is used both ways in the play. It is used to both describe a dream or hope whenever the idea of a green garden is mentioned, and to describe desperation at the thought of loosing or not fulfilling the dream. "...This little old plant that ain't never had enough sunshine or nothing...look at it..." (Hansberry 52) Mama tells her daughter-in-law to better describe the dream that, even though was never put into action until now, managed to grow and expand just like the flower grew without sunshine.
The title, on the other hand symbolizes the idea of a lost dreams, a dream deferred. A raisin is a sour dried up fruit. When left in the sun, it shrivels up and becomes smaller and smaller. The raisin is an analogy of the dream of the family. "In the Sun" is under the struggles of life. What happens to a dream subjected to the struggles of life? It shrivels up just like a raisin and it can be lost forever. In this case, though, it is not. Mama makes sure that she not only helps grow it in her heart, but also plants the seed in her family, in her garden of people and of love: "Well, I always wanted me a garden like I used to see sometimes at the back of the house sown home. This plant is as close as I ever got to having one." (Hansberry 53) The little plant is the initial dream that grew into a garden, which means it became reality. Mama always dreamt of having a little house, yet she never had the money or courage to put her dreams into action, until now. Hope is green, fresh and alive now.
In The Grapes of Wrath, the idea of dreams is also represented in two parts. Hope is defined by brightness, the colour white and oranges, while the ugly thought of failure is referred to with the help of grapes. California is pictured as a land of dreams by practically everybody in the East, but especially by the Joad's: "But I like to think how nice it's gonna be, maybe, in California. Never cold. An' fruit ever'place, an' people just bein' in the nicest places, little white houses among the orange trees. I wonder - that is, if we all ger jobs an' all work - maybe we can get one of them little white houses." (Steinbeck 72) The white house symbolizes purity and a new start. Oranges are always associated with orchards, farms and fertility, meaning fulfillment of dreams.
Just like in Hansberry's work, the title reefers to dreams deferred and unfulfilled. A grape can be sour or sweet. When left in the sun, by the same token as the raisin, it shrivels up and dries. It symbolizes the dream of a family in search of a better life. No matter how alluring it may be, the grape is none the less the equivalent of disaster and unhappiness, maybe even death. "I'm gonna pick me a wash tub full of grapes an' I'm gonna set in'em, an' scrooge aroun', an' let the juice run down my pants," is grandpa's dream. Its downfall is described through the fact that the dream remains only that for grandpa, since he dies before even reaching California.
The hope is not lost. The Joad's go on, as one family, with one journey, towards one dream - finding happiness and going back to living a bright normal life in the rich land of California. Pa, referring to Rosaharn's baby, says "Gonna get'im bore in a orange ranch, huh? In one a them white houses with orange trees all around." (Steinbeck 77) Once again, oranges are associated with white houses and dreams coming true. White and the idea of birth/rebirth suggest purity, fertility and the coming back to life. It is the family's desire to become alive again after being spiritually killed and deprived of everything by the land-eating tractors. "Ma got her heart set on a white house" (Steinbeck 146) and that is a dream dignified with hope and admiration, with the help of nature that usually gives people strength to go on with their lives, no matter what the circumstances.
The final and most important common aspect of both works is the idea of dreams expressed with the help of nature, plants and fruits. It is important to notice that both mothers wish for a little house of their own with a little piece of land. In Mama's case this expressed through the little plant, and in Ma's case, it is represented through the oranges and the different images of green and nature. Also important to notice, the opposite of their dreams, is their fear of not attaining those goals. This is expressed mostly through the images of sour, shriveled and dried up raisins or grapes. The nature and bright colours, referred to in both works, are actually representations of the passion and dreams that all of the characters carry beyond reality and deep into their hearts.
Both Hansberry and Steinbeck reveal common main ideas in their works, like the human struggle, love and dreams. The most important thing to notice, however, is the fact that all three themes are commonly represented by the same concepts of motherly figures, prodigal sons and daughters and nature, respectively. These recurring images are what bring the two works together and tie the two authors simultaneously, with the same literary string.
Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun. New York: Signet, 1988.
Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. New York: Viking, 1939.
Potter, Rosanne G. and Struss, Joe. ISU Play Concordances. 28 Oct. 1993. Iowa State University. 2 April 2002 http://www.public.iastate.edu/~spires/concord.html>.
"The Lorraine Hansberry Page." Online. AOL. 27 May 2000. http://www.accd.edu/sac/english/bailey/hansberr.htm