When a reader first meets Walter’s character in the play A Raisin in the Sun, they may be immediately turned off to him. After all, his first few lines suggest that he is self-centered and even a bit rude, especially when he bickers with his wife and asks about the incoming check. However, there is an explanation for his constant pushy behavior. Walter’s negative attitude stems from his dissatisfaction with his life. When he explains that he has “got a boy sleeping in the living room”(34) he implies that time is slipping away from him, and that he wishes their living situation was better, an idea that is repeatedly referred to by many characters in the play. Even Mama feels this way when she describes her dreams back when she and her husband first bought the house, yet none of her dreams ever happened(45). This goes to show that the way Walter feels-that he missed out and that his life is incomplete-is not completely unreasonable.
Early on in the play, when Walter is arguing with Beneatha, he insults her goal of becoming a doctor and tells her that she could “go be a nurse like other women-or just get married and be quiet…”(38). His comment has two meanings. One of them is a bit more obvious: Walter does not believe that Beneatha has what it takes to be a doctor and should not waste her time, and instead she should take the easy way out by becoming a nurse or marrying rich. The other meaning is that regardless of whether or not Beneatha is smart enough to be a doctor, years of school are a hassle, especially because of the family’s financial situation. Walter’s heart could be in the right place when he says this because he wants better for his sister, and maybe taking the easier path could improve the quality of her life. However, at this point in his life, Walter is incapable of expressing his caring emotions the right way because of the years of hard work that have worn him down emotionally.
In addition to the written play drawing a raw and bitter picture of Walter, the movie version of A Raisin in the Sun portrays him this way as well. In the same scene, the line “-or just get married and be quiet” from the book is changed to “-or just get married and shut up” in the movie. This line was most likely changed to make Walter seem a lot more angry with Beneatha. In reality, he is not necessarily angry at Beneatha, but rather he is angry at the situation and taking it out on his sister. Ultimately, this is still wrong, but it helps us understand where Walter’s anger is coming from and that it is somewhat justified, meanwhile in the movie, it simply makes him look mean.
Later on in the play, after Mama tells Walter to take a share of the money for his liquor business, his whole demeanor changes. He tells his son that this business is going to change “our lives”(108) not just his own life. He wants to be able to tell Travis that he can “be whatever is [he] want[s] to be”(108). He does not just want the money for himself. He wants to continue making money so that he can provide a lot more for his family than in the past. There is no denying that Walter spends most of Act I and II either looking for money or acting out because he does not have money. However, once this issue is resolved, he is much happier. His relationship with Ruth also shifts, as is evident when she cheerfully describes her movie date with Walter and how they “was still holding hands” even after the movie was over(112). When Walter and Ruth first got married, they were a lot younger. Years of working long days and raising a child while always worrying about their financial situation wore them out. Having one of these worries lifted off of their shoulders has brought them back to what they probably used to be years ago, implying that Walter was not always the mean and ungrateful character that was shown to us early in the play.
Discussion Question #1: How is the way Walter is portrayed in the book similar and different to the way he is portrayed in the movie?
Discussion Question #2: What are your values, and how do they compare to Walter’s values in the play?