Essentially, this play is the story of Walter Lee Younger, sometimes called “Brother.” Passionate, ambitious, and bursting with the energy of his dreams, Walter Lee is a desperate man, shackled by poverty and prejudice, and obsessed with a business idea that he thinks will solve all of his economic and social problems. He believes, for example, that through his business idea, he will suddenly accumulate all the money he will ever need. Then, with this sudden accumulation of capital, he will improve himself socially and will be looked up to by others — all the people who, he believes, do not think much of him as a man.
He will, he believes, finally be able to provide material necessities and even luxuries for his wife. Walter asks in desperation why shouldn’t his wife wear pearls. Who decides, he wonders, which women should wear pearls in this world? However, Walter proves throughout the drama that he does not possess the entrepreneurial skills necessary to succeed in business. His education is sorely lacking, a fact made most clear in his confrontation with George Murchison. When George says, “Good night Prometheus,” Walter not only does not know what “Prometheus” refers to, but he actually thinks that George, just that moment, made up the word.
The word “Prometheus” fits Walter’s fiery personality. Prometheus, the god who was punished for bringing fire to mortals, was chained to Mt. Caucasus, where every day an eagle tore out his liver, which grew back each night. Prometheus’ suffering lasted for thousands of years — until Hercules killed the eagle and freed Prometheus. As a parallel, Walter, too, is chained, and likewise, his obsessive dream restores what his frustrations devour. Sadly, Walter never sees any way out of his economic distress other than the liquor store, which his mother opposes solely on moral grounds. Nowhere in the play does Mama indicate that she would not give Walter the money for some other business idea; it’s just that she resists the idea of his selling liquor. Walter’s singular obsession causes him to lose sight of his possible alternatives and of a compromise that might have led to his goal of economic independence. Walter’s chauvinism is evident immediately when he tells his wife, Ruth, that for a fleeting moment, she “looked young . . . real young . . . but . . . it’s gone now.” Walter Lee is older than Ruth, but, to him, looking young is important only to a woman. However, it is, perhaps, the disturbing realization of his own aging that prompts his sarcasm, for shortly after these remarks to both, he admits that he has been contemplating his own aging, without having realized any of his dreams, when he says, “This morning, I was lookin’ in the mirror and thinking about it. . . . I’m thirty-five years old; I been married eleven years and I got a boy who sleeps in the living room.”
Walter’s chauvinism is further apparent when he questions Beneatha about her decision to become a doctor: He asks why she couldn’t just become a nurse or get married “like other women.” When he comes home after a drinking bout with his friends and Beneatha is dancing to the African music, he says, “Shut up” to Ruth, just before joining Beneatha in the dance. Walter is obsessed with getting money so that he can buy “things for Ruth”; he is unaware that treating Ruth more kindly and with more respect would be more appreciated and valued than any “gifts.”
After Walter foolishly entrusts all of his mother’s remaining money to his unscrupulous buddy, his shame turns to self-hatred, the only emotion that permits him to consider selling out his race and accepting Lindner’s offer. It is a proud moment when Walter, mainly because Travis is watching him, cannot bring himself to relinquish his remaining dignity for Lindner’s offer of money.