A Comparison of the Characters Walter from Hanberry’s and The Narrator of Baldwin’s
Published 16 Feb 2017
In Lorraine Hanberry’s literary work entitled ‘A Raisin in the Sun’, there is a character named Walter who acted the role of both a protagonist and antagonist dreamer. He is a 35-year-old chauffeur, and has this passion of becoming rich in Chicago that was sometime in the 1950s. Together with Willy Harris (the one who persuaded Walter into opening up a liquor store), Walter Lee Younger wanted to use the $10,000 insurance of his father, as he tries to find a quick way of solving the financial and social problems of the black Younger family.
In James Baldwin’s literary work entitled ‘Sonny’s Blues’, however, the narrator of the short story acts as Sonny’s rationalistic schoolteacher brother who lived a life that is very different from Sonny’s. Despite being both an African-American citizens of U.S.A. back in the 1950s, their views and characters hold very opposite ranks, since the narrator appears to be a teacher of algebra, while Sonny is a jazz pianist who has become addicted to drugs and the dark corners of Harlem. The narrator has not experienced Sonny’s way of life because his life is one that is of the middle class, but he manages to understand his brother in the end.
Considering both Walter Lee Younger and the narrator or brother of Sonny, there are more similarities than differences between the two male characters. They both appear to be very intelligent and wise at the start of the story, yet in truth they are as numb and as intolerant as the other characters. In the end, the two become more accessible to what others believe and long for.
The Side of Walter Lee Younger
Worldliness and Practicality
MAMA: Son—how come you talk so much ‘bout money?
WALTER: Because it is life, Mama!
MAMA: Oh—So now it’s life. Money is life. Once upon a time freedom used to be life—now it’s money. I guess the world really do change …
WALTER: No—it was always money, Mama. We just didn’t know about it.
Walter’s meaning of ‘life’ happens to land on money and worldly matters. For him, money ‘is’ life and without money, there is no life. Walter is practical in the sense that he occupies himself with what he considers as essential to survival, such as food, clothing, and money. This comes into opposition with what Mama Lena believes in—simple things like freedom, love, and a happy home. Despite this character of Walter, he is also far from being practical, since his idealism extends too far and wide as having to dream of having a “black Chrysler with white walls” (James 32), a two-story house, and a wide garden—wide enough to have the need of a gardener.
Idealism and Optimism
WALTER: You wouldn’t understand yet, son, but your daddy’s gonna make a transaction . . . a business transaction that’s going to change our lives … I’ll pull the car up on the driveway … just a plain black Chrysler, I think, with white walls—no—black tires … And—and I’ll say, all right son—it’s your seventeenth birthday, what is it you’ve decided? … Just tell me, what it is you want to be—and you’ll be it … Whatever you want to be—Yessir! You just name it, son … and I hand you the world! (James 32)
Walter’s extremely high hopes of becoming rich and renowned are the thing that causes trouble between him and his family. His broadminded wife, Ruth, understands that having to achieve his dreams may give him the satisfaction, confidence, and the happiness that, she believes, she is not capable of giving him anymore. Almost everyone understands that Walter’s passion for money is tremendous, but when he decides to stand up against Mr. Lindner and the white inhabitants of Clybourne Park, and then refuses the buyout, the opposite happens to him. He is not money-oriented anymore but family-oriented. Everybody takes pride on him.
More open to family
WALTER: [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. (James 38)
The best moment happens when Walter decides to stand up and fight for his family, his race, and his identity. His narrow-mindedness shifts ahead and upward, making him understand that nothing is better and more important than having to stand up for one’s dignity and right. Standing firm and upright, Walter finally becomes a real, grown man. This is very opposite to the Walter at the start of story, whom Ruth always instructs that he should eat his eggs. Their leaving the apartment shows that the black Younger family has finally learned to stand upright.
The Side of Sonny’s Brother, The Narrator
Distance and Coldness
It was not to be believed and I kept telling myself that, as I walked from the subway station to the high school. And at the same time I couldn’t doubt it … He became real to me again. A great block of ice got settled in my belly and kept melting there slowly all day long, … This would always be at a moment when I was remembering some specific thing Sonny had once said or done. (Baldwin 1)
The story started with the narrator being cold and distant to his younger brother. As stated in the third sentence: “He became real to me again” (Baldwin 1), the narrator has almost forgotten about his brother, and right after hearing the news that Sonny was arrested for possessing and selling heroin, the image and memory of his brother, once again, becomes alive. There is ‘ice’ and coldness inside him despite the warmth that is shown in his sweat, as stated in the lines: “It was a special kind of ice. It kept melting, sending trickles of ice water all up and down my veins, but it never got less. Sometimes it hardened and seemed to expand until I felt my guts were going to come spilling out or that I was going to choke or scream” (Baldwin 1). While teaching algebra to his class, the narrator’s sweat spills from the ice inside him.
Closeness and Warmth
Then I kept in constant touch with him and I sent him whatever I could and I went to meet him when he came back to New York. When I saw him many things I thought I had forgotten came flooding back to me. This was because I had begun, finally, to wonder about Sonny, about the life that Sonny lived inside … He looked very unlike my baby brother. Yet when he smiled, when we shook hands, the baby brother … looked out from the depths of his private life… (Baldwin 5-6)
The first sign of closeness was when the narrator wrote a letter to Sonny right after the former’s daughter died of polio. Then right after Sonny replied to his brother, the latter has been in constant touch with his younger brother. Having been overwhelmed how Sonny overcomes the stress, pain, and the sufferings of life, the narrator enters the world of Sonny when he goes to the jazz club where Sonny is about to play. On the way, countless memories come rushing in on the narrator, until they finally arrive at the club where the narrator is overwhelmed at how warm their welcoming is. The narrator even describes the place as Sonny’s “kingdom” (Baldwin 22). While playing the piano, Sonny’s sweat spills from all the warmth and affection around him.
More open to suffering
“I believe not,” he said and smiled, “but that’s never stopped anyone from trying.” He looked at me. “Has it?” I realized, with this mocking look, that there stood between us, forever, beyond the power of time or forgiveness, the fact that I had held silence—so long!—when he had needed human speech to help him. He turned back to the window. “No, there’s no way not to suffer.” (Baldwin 20)
With the help of Sonny, his brother becomes more open-minded by the fact that there is also a need for people to try ‘not to suffer’. According to the narrator, people should just accept suffering; according to Sonny, however, people should do something to avoid suffering. For Sonny, certain actions (e.g., music, art) avoid people from suffering by extracting all of it through, music, art, and other forms of self-expression; yet the narrator believes that to endure suffering is to simply accept it and then bury the ice deep down into oneself.
It is evident that, at the start of the story, both Walter and Sonny’s brother (the narrator) are intelligent and wise, yet in the middle of the story, the truth behind their real identities reveal that they are even more numb and intolerant than the other characters in the two stories. Walter is strong at first glance: he does everything to support his family with almost everything that they would need for the days ahead. Sonny’s brother is also strong and intelligent at first glance: he is a teacher of algebra and appears to be capable of controlling himself and his future. Then Walter’s weakness slowly appears, as he is incapable of holding himself up and understanding the real state of his family. In the same way, Sonny’s brother also shows that he has a weakness when it comes to understanding himself and his younger brother. Finally, Walter becomes a real man after becoming more open to himself and his family; likewise, Sonny’s brother becomes a real man after becoming more open to himself and his state of suffering. This he was able to achieve by understanding his brother and his world. Both Walter and the narrator, however, appear to have the whole world during the start of the story, only to arrive at the fact that they are aliens that are very isolated from the rest of the world. In the end, Walter arrives at the conclusion that money is not life after all. Sonny’s brother learns that to survive an ordeal is not to simply accept it but to do something that would make them avoid or prevent the suffering.
Walter of ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ and the narrator of ‘Sonny’s Blues’ are both congruent to one another. However, in the first story, both practicality and idealism are centered on Walter alone, while in the second story, ice is centered on the narrator, while heat and warmth are on Sonny. We can incorporate it with the overall idea that both characters started out on top of the world, and then ended up with almost nothing except the lessons that they have learned from their families—to be true to oneself. Probably it is not right to focus only on ourselves.
- Baldwin, James. Sonny’s Blues. 1959.Department of English Language and Literature. Ed. Alex Macleod. 2006. Wright State University. 3 July 2007.
- James, Rosetta. Raisin in the Sun. Indianapolis, IN: Cliff Notes Publishing, 1992.
- Additional References
- Domina, Lynn. Understanding A Raisin in the Sun: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998.
- Emerson, Waldo. “Hansberry’s a Raisin in the Sun.” The Explicator 52.1 (1993): 59+.
- Sanchez, Jesus B. “Narrative Voice and Blues Expression in James Baldwin’s Sonny’s Blues.” Servicio de Publicaciones UCM 4 (1996): 175-187.
- Tsomondo, Thorell. “Sonny’s Blues and Waiting for the Rain.” Critique 36.3 (1995): 195+.