The Character of Walter as both Protagonist and Antagonist of the Play “A Raisin in the Sun”
Hansberry’s play “A Raisin in the Sun” deals with several themes including racial tension, oppression, family conflict and the fulfillment of dreams. The character of Walter as the protagonist of the play also serves as a form of antagonist. Many of the plays themes and plot developments centre on Walter while it is also as a result of Walters weaknesses and actions which cause the family further adversity and problems. Walters character goes through a significant transformation through the play. At the beginning he is portrayed as weak, selfish, materialistic and belligerent, while by the end of the play his selfishness seems to have waned as he puts the needs of his family ahead of his own. In doing so, he gives the play its structure and reflects the conflict and tensions which were relevant at the time.
The character of Walter is introduced to the audience as a man of weakness and selfishness and several of the social and economic obstacles faced by the Younger family are manifested in Walters attitude. Though Walter admits that he wants the best for his family, his version of having the best is utterly materialistic and revolves around making money in as little time possible, “I’ll pull the car up on the driveway . . . just a plain black Chrysler, I think, with white walls—no—black tires . . . the gardener will be clipping away at the hedges” (Hansberry 2.2). His dream of becoming rich quickly through an investment in a liquor store is in fact a personal dream as the dreams of his family members are different to this in many ways and he grows increasingly restless throughout the play. Despite his mothers protestations and desire to spend their insurance cheque on a house which would greatly benefit the family as a whole, Walter is adamant that he invest the money, and does so despite these familial objections. His sister wants to spend money on tuition for medical school, but he even mocks this as she is a woman and he cannot see the merits of spending the money in this way. Walter reflects the view in the 1950s that women should stay at home and only men should be educated, an obstacle Beneatha must constantly fight against. Though he does dream of his son going to college, this is still a selfish dream as he appears to think that this will reflect favourably on himself.
Walters weaknesses are highlighted from the very beginning of the play. When his son Travis asks for money which he cannot afford to give him, he actually gives him double the amount he required. This leaves Walter short and he must ask Beneatha for money to get to work. This is extremely emasculating and emphasizes the fact that he is foolish and also hypocritical. Though he does not support Beneathas choices and her dreams of becoming a doctor, he still asks her for money. In addition, when his wife Ruth admits to be considering abortion, he says nothing. Ruth is an extremely moral character and believes that having the baby will put untold financial pressure on the family which they cannot cope with. This shows that Ruth puts the needs of the family as a cohesive unit, ahead of her own needs even under these circumstances. Walter on the other hand is incapable of doing this.
Walter believes that money is the solution to all of the family’s problems. When he invests the money against his family’s wishes, and then foolishly loses it, he is beaten by his mother for taking away her dream of a secure family home. It takes this revelation, adversity and uncharacteristic behavior of his mother, for Walter to realise and understand that it is the needs of the family which must come first and not his own personal desires. Even Walters dream of making money for the family initially involves moving to a black neighborhod. Walter is content to live within a culture that excludes him and even mocks him, which is evident in his description of his dream to his son Travis. When he is offered money not to move into an all-white neighbourhood, he contemplates taking it, but ultimately realises that his family deserve the right to freely choose where they live without being dictated by others or societal pressure, “[W]e 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” (Hansberry 3).
The character of Walter acts as both protagonist and antagonist for the play and the character undergoes a significant transformation by the end. From a selfish, misguided and foolish patriarch, Walter eventually realises that he must put family needs ahead of his own although it takes a massive blow to the family, of which he is directly responsible for, for him to understand this. In this way, Walters attitude reflect many of the themes of the play and his transformation and development give the play its structure.
Hansberry, L. A Raisin in the Sun. New York: Vintage Books, 1994. Print.