I haven’t read this book since I taught it the last time — which was about 3 years ago, I believe. It’s a powerful story, and one that never ceases to frustrate me throughout the reading. Walter Lee just drives me crazy…until the end, that is. But this time around I found him a lot more bearable. I’m not sure what’s changed in me to find more understanding for me, but it was a different reading experience this time. Mama seems to be the only character who sees what’s happening to him, and while I still get annoyed with him when he keeps cutting Ruth off and not letter her share the news of her pregnancy with him, I also found myself much more sympathetic to his plight than I have been before. While I still think he’s quite a selfish character in some ways (most obviously, when he uses not only his own portion of the insurance money, but Beneatha’s as well), this time around I also realized he’s quite a generous character — in his own way. He doesn’t see his actions as being potentially harmful or cruel — he honestly believes that his plan can succeed, that he might be able to help his family, to improve their situation. When he explains himself at one of his low points, he tells Mama:
Sometimes it’s like I can see the future stretched out in front of me — just plain as day. The future, Mama. Hanging over there at the edge of my days. Just waiting for me — a big, looming blank space — full of nothing. Just waiting for me. But it don’t have to be. (73-74)
His hopefulness comes through here. His potential despair — the ability to see this huge and empty future just waiting to swallow him up — isn’t able to squash his hope. He still sees the possibility for happiness, for success, for something other than nothingness. I think this is why later on, when he hits his lowest point, it’s so painful to watch him wallow in his hopelessness. After Asagai’s last visit, Walter Lee’s pride is gone and he tells Beneatha:
You and that boy that was here today. You all want everybody to carry a flag and a spear and sing some marching songs, huh? You wanna spend your life looking into things and trying to find the right and the wrong part, huh? Yeah. You know what’s going to happen to that boy someday — he’ll find himself locked in a dungeon, locked in forever — and the takers will have the key! Forget it, baby! There ain’t no causes — there ain’t nothing but taking in this world, and he who takes most is smartest — and it don’t make a damn bit of difference how. (142-143)
This is the low point, and what I failed to see in previous readings was just how utterly defeated Walter Lee was. I don’t think I fully appreciated what it was he lost in this scene — what it was that had to die inside of him before he could speak these words. But this time around, I realized why Mama was so profoundly saddened by this speech, and why Beneatha wanted to sever any links connecting her to the man who spoke these lines: Walter Lee lost his moral compass, his pride, his integrity — everything that made him a decent and honorable person; he lost his humanity. This time around, I think I finally got Hansberry’s message.