Hathaway Brown School
Instructor: Candace Hisey
Progress and Prosperity for All
Progress and Prosperity for All
As defined by Oxford Languages, the American Dream is "the ideal by which equality of opportunity is available to any American, allowing the highest aspirations and goals to be achieved." Achieving the American Dream requires drive and desire, and above all else, determination. However, there is an ongoing debate regarding whether or not everyone can truly achieve the goal of prosperity in America. In her play A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry illustrates through the Youngers the countless difficulties African Americans tackle in their journey to advancement. In a 1961 episode of Playwright at Work featuring Hansberry, she claims that "All of us are what our circumstances allow us to be," implying that one's wealth and race determine, and for African Americans limit, one's ability to achieve the American Dream. While Hansberry does illustrate the array of difficulties and struggles African Americans face in achieving progress and prosperity, in doing so, she also demonstrates their ability to alter their circumstances and transcend these boundaries through hard work and determination.
In the mid-20th century, society viewed African Americans as inferior to whites, placing them at a disadvantage in the economic sphere, and thus hindering their ability to ascend in society. Many African Americans were given inferior jobs which limited their future opportunities to succeed. In A Raisin in the Sun, Walter expresses his dissatisfaction with his job as a chauffeur. Walter exclaims to his mother, "Mama, a job? I open and close car doors all day long. I drive a man around in his limousine…Mama, that ain't no kind of job…that ain't nothing at all" (Hansberry 73). Walter's snide remark that his job is "nothing at all" indicates his disappointment in himself and his circumstances. His complaints about his job mirror his belief that he is not living up to his full potential. Walter's job serves as a reflection of himself, and if his job is nothing, then he, too, is nothing. Walter's job leaves him feeling unfulfilled, which is amplified by the fact that his job does not provide him with the means, such as capital and opportunity, to achieve his dreams. His job is a constant reminder of his failure and inability to succeed, which he expresses through his repeated outbursts at his mother. Walter has lofty aspirations of starting a business and creating a better life for himself and his family. However, due to the color of his skin, he is denied opportunities, and therefore cannot achieve his dream. During this time period, race played a critical role in determining job opportunities, which in turn serve as the foundation for a prosperous future. As a result, race largely influenced who could achieve the American Dream.
Race restricts job availability for African Americans which in turn limits their wealth. As a result, African Americans were unjustly handicapped. Their jobs provided inadequate incomes and consequently the lack of wealth necessary to succeed and prosper. Walter insists that money is vital because it creates opportunities: "Money is life" (Hansberry 74). Accumulated wealth provides choices and therefore freedom, a privilege that is a critical aspect of the American Dream. With money, Walter's dream of starting a business is feasible. Without money, options are limited and success becomes more difficult to achieve. In addition, money provides security and comfort, which is necessary to pursue more emotional or intellectual needs. Without sufficient money and therefore freedom, the Youngers must use all of their resources to secure basic needs rather than pursuing their desires. The only way to break free from this entrapment is to obtain money and thereby freedom, which in turn will provide stability, allowing them to focus their attention on their hopes and dreams. Before the inheritance check arrives, the Youngers lack money, prohibiting them from increasing their socioeconomic status. They are stuck in a loop in which "there isn't any real progress,…there is only one large circle that we march in" (Hansberry 134). Through Beneatha, Hansberry argues that progress and the American Dream are impossible to achieve for African Americans. Families like the Youngers can work hard and do everything right, but will never advance in society because they lack a crucial component mandatory for progress: money. Beneatha explains that each person marches through life with "our own little picture in front of us—our own little mirage that we think is the future" (Hansberry 134). For the different members of the Younger family, that picture contains dreams like owning a home, attending medical school, and starting a business—all things requiring money. Unfortunately, it is as if they are running on a treadmill, working hard and supposedly traveling miles, earning their way in the world, yet advancing no real distance. They can run as fast as they can, or work all that they want, but they still will not advance. Hansberry stresses that African Americans cannot escape the "circle," and therefore have no opportunity to advance in society or achieve prosperity because they lack the funds, and the ability to gain the funds, necessary to liberate themselves.
Despite the obstacles created by race and socioeconomic status, Hansberry demonstrates the ability of African Americans to push past these barriers and achieve the American Dream. Mama's husband does not accept his circumstances and lack of wealth, resulting in his impeccable work ethic. He pushes himself beyond his limits, "killing himself" while "working like somebody's old horse" (Hansberry 129). He comes home "night after night…the red showing in his eyes…[and] the veins moving in his head" (Hansberry 129). He works relentlessly with one goal in mind: bettering his family's life. He is willing to dehumanize himself, comparing his work to that of an animal, to achieve this goal. He succeeds in his endeavor, earning $10,000, the inheritance that he leaves his family. Now, money is no longer the obstacle, but rather the key to the future. Money possesses the power to grant his family's wishes. The inheritance check represents Big Walter's legacy and serves as a symbol of his hard work and determination. Walter sobs, "THAT MONEY IS MADE OUT OF MY FATHER'S FLESH" (Hansberry 128). Walter cries out these words after having lost the majority of his father's inheritance because the money is more than wealth; it is opportunity. His father worked himself to death, putting his blood, sweat, and tears into his job to provide for his family and improve their life; the money he earns is literally made out of his flesh. The money is not only $10,000, but also 10,000 days of his effort and refusal to surrender. The check, which is an extension of his father, is capable of funding his family's dreams: medical school, a business, a home. Therefore, Big Walter succeeds in changing his family's circumstances through his persistence and hard work.
The Youngers prove not only that circumstances can be changed, but also that boundaries can be broken and dreams achieved. Mama uses the inheritance money to achieve her dream of purchasing a house. When Lindner, a white representative from Clybourne Park, proposes that the Youngers refrain from moving into the neighborhood, Walter musters up the courage to announce, "And we have decided to move into our house because my father—my father—he earned it for us brick by brick" (Hansberry 148). Big Walter did back-breaking work to alter his family's circumstances and as a result provide them with the opportunity to make their dreams come true. Mama desires for so long to own a home, and now, because of her husband's grit and determination, she does. The Youngers break free from the "circle" in which they are trapped, and take the first step on the "long line" to progress (Hansberry 134). People such as Lindner and Johnson urge them to defer their dreams through threats and acts of jealousy, but Walter refuses to settle, retaining the pride of his father and his family. His father killed himself to give his family a better life, and although it came at the expense of his own life, he achieved his goal. Before Walter loses the majority of the money, there is enough to fund all of their dreams. The Youngers prove that with enough hard work and determination, the American Dream is achievable for African Americans. Asagai emphasizes this notion when he states, "And because we cannot see the end—we also cannot see how it changes" (Hansberry 134). Asagai is an optimist and argues that progress is simply a "long line;" while achieving progress may require a significant amount of time and effort, even more so for African Americans, it is possible. The future is unpredictable, and therefore people are not limited to their current "circumstances" because time allows for those circumstances to change. With discipline and persistence change will occur. This change may not be present in a single lifetime, but it will impact and better the lives of the successors. Progress is a hard-fought battle, but in time and with effort, it is achievable for all.
The Youngers showcase the ways in which African Americans are restricted in achieving the American Dream, but most importantly their ability to push past these difficulties and advance in society. They are disadvantaged in the economic sphere with regards to occupations and wealth, limiting their ability to prosper. However, despite Hansberry's intent, it is evident that African Americans can achieve success through hard work and perseverance. Big Walter's legacy was not constructed on luck; it was earned hour by hour, day by day, with hard work. The Youngers are not merely a single family, but rather a representation of all African Americans. Hansberry states that "in order to create the universal you must pay very great attention to the specific," implying that a single family's story holds essential truths about the lives of all African Americans ("Lorraine Hansberry Discusses Her Play"). Hansberry utilizes the Youngers as a model, depicting their difficulties as well as their successes. By default, according to her own goal, Hansberry proves that not only can one African American family succeed, but all African Americans can prosper. It is, however, necessary to keep in mind the sacrifices for such success. Big Walter does not personally achieve the American Dream, for he suffers and endures a grueling life, but his hard work and grit allows his family to experience the American Dream. This means that the Youngers are not merely the exception, but rather the rule, and therefore the possibilities for African Americans are endless if elders are willing to pay the price.
Change is Possible
Change is Possible
Maturity, particularly in regards to emotional development, does not require a person to forfeit critical and defining aspects of themself. During the fifteen year gap between A Doll's House by Henrik Ibsen and A Doll's House Part 2 by Lucas Hnath, Torvald undergoes a dramatic transformation. In A Doll's House, Torvald is private, controlling, and malicious. However, in A Doll's House Part 2, Torvald matures into an honest man, openly expressing his emotions with kindness and consideration. Once a closed book who concealed his emotions and opinions from Nora, Torvald develops into a man capable of openly and honestly expressing his feelings. He converts from a malevolent despot, who rules over his home with an iron fist and treats Nora like a peasant, into a caring and benevolent man, who seeks to do what is right. Torvald values his masculinity and respectability and learns that neither must be sacrificed to be righteous.
While Nora is away, Torvald develops his ability to share and express his feelings. In A Doll's House, Torvald is private and refrains from speaking and sharing important issues with Nora. After Torvald's outrageous reaction to Krogstad's letter and outburst at Nora, Nora sits Torvald down to have a discussion and says, "In eight whole years [of marriage] - no, more - ever since our first meeting, we've never exchanged a serious word about serious things" (Ibsen 182). Nora brings to light an important issue within their so-called "marriage." Torvald is a closed book. He conceals both his emotions and thoughts from Nora in an attempt to safeguard his masculinity. Torvald, acting in accordance with societal norms in the late 1800s, believes his masculinity is at risk by expressing emotion. This leads him to conform to societal standards and keep his feelings bottled up. However, in A Doll's House Part 2, there is a clear shift; Torvald is open and honest about his feelings. Torvald, no longer afraid to share and express his emotions, responds to a harsh excerpt about himself in Nora's memoir by saying, "That hurts" (Hnath 112). On the surface, this is an insignificant phrase. However, fifteen years prior, Torvald would have never spoken such words that exposed his feelings and thoughts to Nora. Torvald also learns to accept and acknowledge his feelings, which he failed to do in his confrontation with Nora upon reading Krogstad's letter in A Doll's House. This reversal and Torvald's willingness to be open about how he feels reveals how he has changed and matured into a more honest and expressive man. Torvald successfully overcomes the male stereotype prohibiting men from expressing emotion, demonstrating a man can still be masculine and respected even if he is outwardly emotional.
Torvald's newfound willingness to express his emotions dissolves the internal barrier that prevented him from connecting with others. His commitment to change allows him to be kind and caring, rather than cruel and controlling. In A Doll's House, Torvald feels the need to assert his dominance over Nora, resulting in his demeaning behavior towards her. He repeatedly addresses Nora with demoralizing names such as "my squirrel," "my sweet little songbird," and "my little song-lark" (Ibsen 110, 113, 164). Torvald's repetition of the word "my" indicates his possession over Nora. He views her as an object that he owns rather than as a human being. Torvald also dehumanizes Nora by comparing her to animals. By stripping Nora of her humanity, Torvald puppeteers Nora, reinforcing his role as autocrat, which he believes is necessary to his masculinity. His use of foul names for Nora reflects his past demeanor and showcases his grotesque persona and lack of consideration for women. In Nora's absence, however, Torvald transforms, and in A Doll's House Part 2, he is considerate and respectful of women. Shortly after Nora's return, Anne Marie comments on her loyalty to Torvald, saying to Nora, "He takes care of me. He supports me…He doesn't have to do it, the children are grown up, but he does it because he's grateful to me" (Hnath 60). In Nora's absence, Torvald evolves, becoming empathetic and generous. He has no obligation to care for Anne Marie after his children are grown, but does so out of compassion. His good deeds represent his growth and development into a moral man. Torvald also demonstrates how he has changed by obtaining the divorce for Nora, which will destroy his life. He states, "I made everything right by ruining myself…so hopefully I won't be remembered the way you remember me when I'm gone" (Hnath 115). When Torvald reads Nora's memoir, he is forced to confront and reconcile his past actions. Seeing his cruel behavior in print, as opposed to simply hearing Nora complain about him, opens his eyes to the severity of his past behavior and serves as the impetus for his decision to alter his behavior and get the divorce. Confident that he has changed, he does not want his legacy to reflect his past choices. The selfless decision to obtain the divorce jeopardizes his life, risking his job, reputation, and wealth; despite this, he does what is right, supplying further evidence that he has developed morality and a conscience.
Torvald evolves significantly in fifteen years, replacing his insincerity and hostility with honesty, thoughtfulness, and compassion. Torvald, who at first is reluctant to share his feelings with Nora, emerges as an honest and expressive man without diminishing his masculinity. Additionally, Torvald becomes virtuous, doing what is right regardless of the consequences to himself. Hnath granted Torvald the opportunity to change, a second chance he uses wisely to self-correct and grow. Oftentimes people are hesitant to grant others a second chance, questioning whether a person can really change. Torvald's transformation proves, however, that even people who seem hopeless possess the ability to change and therefore deserve the opportunity to grow and mature into respectable adults.