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The symbolism of the plant in “A Raisin in the Sun”

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One might ask how the scientific facts of the functional purpose of a plant would connect to a literary piece, especially the well-known play, A Raisin in the Sun, written by Lorraine Hansberry. The plant in the text symbolizes the foundation for the family, honest hope, and Mama’s dreams. Symbolism is not a definition of an item, but represents something specific other than itself. Much like Mama’s plant, it represents many meaningful ideas with supportive evidence throughout the text. The plant standing alone may seem like a generic addition to the setting of the Younger household, but when it is observed in a deeper analytical approach; the symbolism of it in itself holds such importance to this traditional work.

The roots of any plant have a specific role that partakes in its foundation and growth, which directly correlates to Mama’s nurturing character in the text. The roots are the center of the beginning in the growth of each plant. It’s key functions stem along the lines of absorption of water and minerals; which feed the plant. They are the anchors, which keep it grounded and sturdy and above all they are the main essentials and focus for photosynthesis. Although the scientific definition creates questioning how this can relate to the work A Raisin in the Sun, it is apparent at how Mama’s role has a very obvious connection to the roots of the plant. Her matriarchal role associates with these roots in such a clear manner in this literary piece. As she is the head of the household in more ways than one, her love and care for her family is uniquely similar to her care for her plant.

In Hansberry’s first description of Mama’s character, it is determined that she represents the roots of the family. “Her dark-brown face is surrounded by the total whiteness of her hair, and, being a woman who has adjusted to many things in life and overcome many more, her face is full of strength” (Act 1, scene 1, 11.) Her strength is clear and undoubtedly promising, much like the roots of the plant: grounded and strong. Hansberry’s first description of Mama holds a lasting flavor to the audience. She has well-deserved and respected authority in the Younger household.

The roots of the plant have a clear representation of Mama’s motherly influence toward the Younger family. Throughout the text there are many examples of how Mama gives out her hand and heart to protect her family. Specifically, from the beginning she has Beneatha’s education on her mind. As the ten thousand dollar check is coming shortly, Mama discusses with Ruth about her plans with what is going to happen with the money. She affirmatively “speaks now with emphasis (Act 1, scene 1, 8) regarding where the money will go stating, ” some of it got to be put away for Beneatha and her schoolin’-and ain’t nothing going to touch that part of it” (Act 1, scene 1, 9). The financial foundation she hopes to give to Beneatha is a clear example of how she always has her family’s best interest at heart.

Mama has a nurturing, matriarchal and respectable ego, which nonetheless is connected to the symbolic meaning of the roots. Roots are meant to be sturdy, grounding and a central source of retaining water and minerals; everything a plant needs to survive. Mama is the same way. She is sturdy, grounding for the Younger family and gives off hope and energy. When she somewhat roughly critiques Ruth’s mothering in regards to Travis and his breakfast, it affirms that she does not only relate to the roots of the plant, but they express her. Toward the end of the text, Beneatha mockingly asks her Mama, “you going to take _that_ to the new house?” Strong and sturdy just like the roots, Mama shouts, “It expresses ME (Act 1, scene 1, 16)!” As the roots symbolize grounding and growth, moving up the plant only further progresses the ways in which Mama’s role has a different meaning for each part of the plant.

Moving up the plant, the stem is as important to the growing process as any other part, symbolizing strength and Mama’s role in the text. By definition, the stem’s purpose is to hold that plant upright, strong, and sturdy. It also functions as transportation for minerals and food to the other parts, much like how Mama conveys her strength and wisdom throughout the family. When one imagines a stem of any plant, whether it is a large tree in a forest, or a small plant in a windowsill, the same illusion and symbolism comes to mind. The symbolic nature that a stem holds up heavy branches above qualifies as strength and stability. Mama is not solely one part of this plant, but all parts in different contexts. The lack of light that the plant gets lessens the chances of its survival, but the neither plant nor Mama give up. Discussing about her “children and they tempers,” Mama then addresses that if her “little old plant don’t get more sun than it’s been getting it ain’t never going to see spring again” (Act 1, scene 1, 40). The “light” symbolizes the energy the plant needs in order to grow, and her family desperately needs the same. Mama knows that her family needs a shot of hope to have any chance at happiness. The lack of light on her plant is much like the lack of hope within her family. Although there is negativity, she stands tall, much like a stem to continue moving forward towards their dreams.

Hope is a strong word that I believe is the only thing greater than fear. Mama and the Younger family hold onto that little bit of hope to get to where the need to go. Mama’s sturdiness and consistency throughout the text in regards to holding the family together, and giving a good scolding when needed keeps the idea of hope afloat. The first introduction of Mama shows her walking toward her “feeble little plant growing doggedly in a small pot on the windowsill” (Act 1, scene 1, 39). When a plant is weak, everything starts to wilt, similar to the exhaust of holding on to that hope. It is easier to give up, than to keep fighting. She keeps her hope above ground for herself, but always for her family also.

Mama never gave up on the plant and never gave up on hope. She treated the plant as if she were tending to her family in their rugged and difficult living situation. She knows that if she takes great care of her plant and successfully keeps it alive, she can do the same with her family. At the end of the play, her family starts to pile out of the old house, and the last thing she does is grabs her plant to with her (Act 3). It is no longer just a decoration, but it symbolizes hope. She wants to bring this hope to the new house so they can continue to believe in it. It also symbolizes a new beginning for the family, and how the family will thrive in this new experience.

There is a universal idea of dreams depicted through the text. Mama, of course, plays a large role as the branches of the family, reaching out and continuing to push the family has a whole to reaching their dreams. Branches are utilized in a way much like the stem, but much more toward the symbolic meaning of growth and stability. Each branch has it’s own individual purpose of keeping the plant protected, and emerging from what was once roots, to becoming more prosperous. In a discussion Mama has with Ruth, she states “Seem like God didn’t see fit to give the black man nothing but dreams-but He did give us children to make them dreams seem worth while” (Act 1, scene 1, 46). Mama reminds Ruth that although times are hard, she now has children to keep striving for those dreams. This also exemplifies Mama’s unique matriarchal role of keeping the family together, and their dreams in sight.

These branches act as dreams themselves, continuing to grow and become closer to becoming true. Her reference to how the children makes dreams “worth while” also alludes to the importance of her children, and the plant’s branches acts as a way of protection for all of them. Dreams for any character in the text seem to be out of reach. Mama’s character acts as a buffer to encourage dreaming, if not for her own children, but for her grandchildren. She makes a direct reference to how her plant symbolizes her dreams. This is the only thing she holds onto and treats it as if the plant was her dream. She says to Ruth, “Well, I always wanted me a garden like I used to see sometimes at the back of the houses down home. This plant is close as I ever got to having one” (Act 1, scene 1, 53). The Younger family has dreams like everyone else, but Mama’s emotional investment in her plant says that nothing is impossible.

Throughout the play the plant is weak, gasping for light, and fighting to stay alive. Like any dream, the person must fight rigorously to reach their goal. Mama takes care of her plant like she does for herself, her family and her dreams. She nurtures it with water, gives it the utmost sunlight possible through the tiny kitchen window, and keeps it close to her heart. Always keeping her family in mind her dreams consist of “a little old two-story somewhere, with a yard where Travis could play in the summertime” (Act 1, scene 1, 44). Again, her dreams evolve around the well being of her family in its entirety. None of her dreams reflect only herself, because her role is to hold up her family, like a stem holds up a plant. Her morals, decisions and dialogue individually reflect the importance of her family, and her traditional values.

Mama’s plant may have symbolized her role, the foundation she built, their hopes and dreams, but more importantly it described the beauty of Mama individually, and the Younger family holding onto that light. The plant is so much more than a symbol. In the play, there is relation and connection to each aspect of the plant with each obstacle they face. The roots of the plant were clear in describing Mama’s foundation she had set for her family. A plant with minimal light has to fight to stay alive and hold onto hope, much like the Younger family was forced to do. Finally, the image of a plants branches reaching outward like dreams completed the symbolism of the plant in its entirety. Struggles turned into dreams, conflict turned into resolution, and darkness turned into light. Are the biological functions of a plant represented through Mama’s role in the text? Absolutely. Broken down into a general science, I see now that the plant is so much more than just an object in a window, but it is the enlightening hope for the Younger family’s dreams.

Works Cited

Hansberry, Lorraine. _A Raisin in the Sun_. New York: Random House, 1958. Print.

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