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A Raisin in the Sun: Literary Critique Completed by University of Outline I. Introduction II. A raisin in the Sun and Chicago Setting A. Analyzing plot relevance B. Genre and style’s relevance to Chicago setting C. Readers’ appeal III. Conclusion A Raisin in the Sun is structured according to a conventional scheme during which tension builds until the climax. Generally, fiction and drama that follow this format begin with an exposition that introduces the major characters and themes, continue through a complication during which readers speculate about the eventual outcome, reach a climax that is the point of greatest emotional interest, and conclude with a denouement in which loose ends are wrapped up. Most plays are divided into acts, or contain blocks of action, and each act may be further divided into scenes. When plays are produced on stage, changes in acts are conventionally signaled with the lowering of a curtain. Although many of us read plays more often than we see them performed, we should nevertheless keep in mind some significant distinctions between drama and fiction. For a fiction writer, a significant choice is point of view: Should the story be told from an omniscient (or all-knowing) point of view, or by one person, whose view is limited? For a playwright, these are moot questions because no character’s thoughts are revealed directly, and there is seldom an actual narrator. This paper analyzes the Chicago (though not entirely evident) settings of the play as illustrated by its structure, indirect references, and style.

 

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Although people are tempted to read A Raisin in the Sun autobiographically because Lorraine Hansberry grew up in Chicago between the two world wars, her circumstances differed significantly from those of the Younger family. However, some incidents in her background probably did contribute to her choice of material in the plays she wrote. Direct references to the play’s setting in Chicago are rare in A Raisin in the Sun; the plot could be transported to virtually any major northern city with very few changes. This is not a criticism of the play but rather a comment on the pervasiveness of segregation in American cities during the 1950s (Carter 56-62). The first minor reference to the play’s setting in Chicago occurs when Walter reads a newspaper article about Colonel McCormick, a man for whom Ruth expresses little sympathy because she believes he is insulated from the problems she experiences. A historical figure, McCormick was a prominent Chicago resident for whom the city’s convention center, McCormick Place, has been named. The Tribune, which Walter reads, was at the time and is still considered the more reputable of Chicago’s newspapers. Later in the scene when Beneatha enters, the stage directions comment on her accent, which has been influenced by her higher education as well as by her mid-western rather than southern upbringing. Nevertheless, the stage directions indicate that her accent is “south side”, suggesting that she substitutes the “d” sound for “th”, an accent as easy to recognize (and parody) as traditional Brooklynese.

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In Act Two, scene two, the characters make several additional references to Chicago, generally to criticize white power-brokers; but again, the setting could be moved to a variety of other cities without significant change. On the other hand, Chicago has often been considered notorious for the intensity of its segregation. More than residents of many other cities, those of Chicago have continued to practice de facto if illegal segregation, though some neighborhoods (particularly those populated by well-educated professionals in newer apartment buildings) have been successfully integrated (Washington 111-114). The city’s public housing projects, including the Robert Taylor Homes on the south side, are crowded, violent, and predominantly black. North of the river the neighborhoods are much more predominantly white. Until recently Chicago city politics were known to be among the most corrupt in the nation, and its public school system remains among the most inadequate (Phillips 88). Yet business opportunities for African Americans have increased; no longer would a man like Walter Younger be limited to owning a liquor store, for there are currently more than 10,000 black-owned businesses in Chicago. Of course, this is still a small percentage of all of the businesses owned in the city. Because of Chicago’s history and position as one of the few major mid-western cities, it has provided the setting for many works of literature in addition to A Raisin in the Sun, as well as a home for many contemporary writers.

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Several of the novels and stories that rely on Chicago for a setting, especially those written prior to A Raisin in the Sun, present the city as a particularly brutal place for poor people or new immigrants (Carter 56-62). Although publishing centers in the United States have tended to be located on the east coast, most prominently in New York, and although much classic American literature features New England settings, a literary tradition has also grown up in and around Chicago. As one would expect, the concerns of Chicago writers--and mid-western writers generally--often differ from those of writers from New England or the Deep South. In particular, many writers address the place of Chicago as a major city surrounded by a much more agricultural environment. Because such cities tend to attract people looking for work, the industrial concerns of Chicago are reflected in its literature. Often, this literature takes the form of protest against working and housing conditions or against the plight of the urban poor. Writers, in other words, take on the battles of the urban poor, people who themselves do not have easy access to the mass media, in an attempt to evoke outrage from a national audience. Like many cities at various points in American history, especially when large numbers of immigrants arrived during the nineteenth century, or when rural American citizens migrated to cities during World War II, the population of Chicago grew more quickly than its infrastructure, a fact that contributed to these poor conditions.

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The documents that examine Hansberry’s experience in Chicago and representations of Chicago from a variety of perspectives. First, Margaret Wilkerson discusses some of the facts she discovered--and the strategies she used--while researching Hansberry’s life. What is more Nathan Hare discusses a race riot that occurred in Chicago in 1919, placing that event in the broader context of race relations in this country. The next set of documents feature excerpts from diverse works of classic literature. Three are novels set in Chicago--Sister Carrie, The Jungle, and Native Son. Another is one of Carl Sandburg’s most famous poems, which celebrates the city. The other, Jane Addams Twenty Years at HullHouse, is an autobiography primarily concerned with Addams’s experience as a social worker during the late nineteenth century.

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