A Study of the Personality of Walter Lee as Described in Lorraine Hansberry’s Play, A Raisin in The Sun
Success/Values: Walter Lee defines success as material and financial gain. Beneatha defines success as self-actualization, or learning about and nurturing oneself. But to their mother, Lena,success is less self-centered and lies more in creating a happy, healthy family. Lena frequently compares her children’s values to her own and her late husband’s, and finds her children to be less moral or spiritual in their hopes and dreams. She does not believe that material success will elevate the family, as Walter Lee does, instead observing that his grasping after success is damaging his family. Consider the generational differences in defining success, but also consider how Walter Lee’s and Beneatha’s notions of success resemble those of their parents.
Dreams: An important aspect of Walter Lee’s character is revealed in his interaction with Travis. He sees and admires his son’s ability to hope: Travis is young enough still to believe that the world is open to him and can be his if he wants it, with no limits. Walter Lee wants to believe in limitless possibilities, too, and he hangs onto his own ability to hope and dream. Travis’s innocence and hopefulness remind Walter Lee of his own potential for dreaming.
Walter Lee’s feelings about his dreams and Ruth’s attitude toward them crystallize in this passage. He is desperate to escape the circumstances of his life, and his dreams represent his belief that he can still change his life, in spite of his weak financial position. But the fact that Ruth does not support him drags him down; part of Walter Lee’s vision of his life is that he should have a wife who believes in him.
Walter is feeling the pressure of having so many people to take care of. He works at a full-time job, but Ruth must also work in order for the family to stay afloat. Walter Lee lashes out at his sister because he can’t say to his mother or his son what he feels he can say to his sister: that it is hard for him and Ruth to support everyone.
Dreams: Ironically, Walter Lee criticizes Beneatha for the same thing Ruth criticizes him for: having aspirations. Beneatha dreams of being a doctor one day, and her dream is actually fairly realistic, especially compared to Walter Lee’s dream of striking it rich in business. Walter Lee cannot see that helping Beneatha now will help the family in the long run because once she can practice medicine their financial burdens could be lightened substantially. Of course, Walter Lee’s pride may contribute to his blind spot; perhaps the idea of his sister becoming more successful than him is too hard for him to swallow.
Success/Values: Lena’s question reflects the division between herself and her son in terms of their values: Lena is first and foremost a Christian, and Walter Lee’s head is full of moneymaking schemes.
Success/Values: Walter Lee tries to shift blame for their poverty onto Lena in order to make her feel guilty for not supporting his proposal. He believes that the liquor store could make him rich, and that’s all that matters to him. His mother, in contrast, places morals above money, refusing to fund what she sees as an immoral business just because it could make them some money. She would prefer to be poor yet virtuous, whereas her son chooses money over virtue.
All Walter Lee can think about is the money and what he wants to do with it. He tells how Willy has filled out all the necessary paperwork for purchasing the liquor store, but Lena interrupts him, telling him he needs to talk to Ruth. Walter Lee is so self-absorbed he does not pick up on his mother’s meaning: he only wants to talk about his big plans. When Lena tries to get him to stop and listen to, he explodes, yelling that he wants someone to listen to him. Lena quietly tells him to stop yelling and that she has no intention of funding his plan for the liquor store anyway. He asks her just to look at the plans, and she says she won’t discuss it further. Walter Lee tells his mother that if she is going to be in charge of this money then she can be responsible for Travis and Ruth and the hardships they have to endure.
Walter begins to leave, and Ruth asks him where he’s going. He won’t be specific – he just wants to get out of the apartment – and Ruth says she will go with him, wanting to talk to him. He tells her he does not want her to come, even when she tells him she has got to talk to him. Lena insists Walter Lee sit down and talk to her. He and Ruth insult each other, and she runs into the bedroom, slamming the door. Lena asks Walter what is the matter with him; she says, “Something eating you up like a crazy man” (56). She says she sees him tying himself in knots about something lately, and just exploding whenever anyone tries to help. She warns her son that he may drive Ruth away.
Walter Lee is uncomfortable with what his mother is saying to him, and he tries to leave. Lena expresses her concern that he is looking for peace outside his own home, calling that kind of situation “dangerous”. He declares that he is not having an affair but that he wants to do so many things “they are driving me kind of crazy”.
Lena says she thinks Walter Lee has got a fine life, with “a job, a nice wife, a fine boy,” but Walter Lee laments the fact that his job is driving a man around all day and opening doors for him. Walter Lee calms down and tries to make Lena see what is going on inside him. He says he sees the future as “a big, looming blank space – full of nothing. Just waiting for me”.
Success/Values: Walter Lee is dissatisfied with his life. His mother thinks he has all anyone needs tobe happy, but he wants more for himself and has not been able to figure out how to get it. The idea of his life going on this way torments and oppresses him. Walter Lee goes on to talk about how he sometimes looks through restaurant windows downtown and sees “them white boys . . . sitting back and talking ’bout things . . . sitting there turning deals worth millions of dollars . . . sometimes I see guys don’t look much older than me” (58).
Walter asks George if he is not bitter too. “And you – ain’t you bitter, man? . . . Don’t you see no stars gleaming that you can’t reach out and grab? You happy? . . . Bitter? Man, I’m a volcano… Here I am a giant – surrounded by ants! Ants who can’t even understand what it is the giant is talking about”.
Walter presumes a kind of harsh camaraderie with George based on the fact that they are both African
men, and in George’s company he is unable to contain his anguish over his lot in life.
Dreams: Ruth has dreams, too, and she used to share them with Walter Lee. Those dreams are perhaps more realistic than the ones he has cooked up with Willy and Bobo, and Ruth sees practical ways of attaining them. However, she cannot seek them – or achieve them – without Walter, because he is part of them.
Dreams: Lena has made her own dream come true by buying this house, and she is trying to help Ruth and Walter realize their dreams, too, in her way. She knows Walter needs to change his life, and she offers the house as a tool for change. Lena enters, startling Ruth and Walter Lee. Walter asks where she has been, but she does not answer. Walter insists on knowing where she has been, worried that she has spent the insurance money. Travis enters, and Lena calls him to her. Suspense builds as Lena begins to explain where she has been and what she has done. Finally, she announces that she has bought a house, telling Travis that it was his grandfather who gave him the house.
Ruth is thrilled at Lena’s news, and she asks Walter to be glad, too. He remains silent. Lena describes the house, to Ruth’s great joy, and Lena turns to Walter Lee and tells him, “It makes a difference in a man when he can walk on floors that belong to him” (76). her words about pushing out and doing something bigger sound just like his words. Even though she recognizes the potential danger of moving into a white neighborhood, her desire to keep her family together overrides any apprehension she may have.
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