In literature, a foil is a character that shows qualities that are in contrast with the qualities of another character. The importance of this is to shed light on the qualities of the other character. Foil characters may, but not always, be antagonists. Sometimes, alongside the protagonist, foils are even other characters. When an author uses a foil, they want to ensure that the reader picks up on important differences between the character’s traits and characteristics. Therefore, it is important to keep an eye out for foils in literature. In Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, there is a notable comparison and contrast between the characters Joseph Asagai and George Murchison who evidently are shown to be foils to each other. Asagai and Murchison share one common love interest in one of the main characters, Beneatha, however, they have major differences that make each have unique qualities. Comparing and contrasting these two based on their upbringing, culture, mindsets, and their personality toward Beneatha shows how different the two are.
Joseph Asagai comes from a Nigerian background and seems to value his culture very much. Asagai represents the inner desire of a person who wants to express themselves through their original background. He is not afraid to be different. Throughout the play, he is in love with Beneatha and encourages her to go to school to become a doctor. He believes she has the potential to make something of herself and supports her goal of becoming a doctor. Beneatha is attracted to Joseph because of the way he enlightens her about the African culture and traditional lifestyle. In a way she wants to be like him to be able to follow that path of being traditional and not conforming to the white-American society. While spending time together, he is able to intellectually stimulate her in ways that make her want to connect with her African roots, and pursue her independence:
Then isn’t there something wrong in a house – in a world – where all dreams, good or bad, must depend on the death of a man? I never thought to see you like this, Alaiyo. You! Your brother made a mistake and you are grateful to him so that now you can give up the ailing human race on account of it! You talk about what good is struggle, what good is anything! Where are we all going and why are we bothering? (134) He is eager for Beneatha to follow her dream of being an independent woman and uplifts her spirits about it.
Unlike Asagai, George is an assimilated African American who comes from a well-established wealthy family. He doesn’t seem to respect Beneatha’s opinions and points of view. He represents the complete opposite of what Asagai stands for. Beneatha becomes unattracted to him due to his point of view that it’s okay to assimilate into a white-American society and not want to take an interest in his African roots. Moreover, Murchison doesn’t take Beneatha’s goals seriously. He believes it is silly of her for wanting to take time to study and become a doctor. In Beneatha’s point of view, she believes that both men and women are able to have intellectual conversations but for him, that doesn’t really matter. She feels that he is an arrogant and superficial man who is shallow. He demonstrates these characteristics when he doesn’t find interest in Beneatha being an educated woman he only seems to care about her looks. Essentially he wants a woman to be like a trophy for him to just show around:
I know [you love to talk] and I don’t mind it sometimes…I want you to cut it out, see – The moody stuff, I mean. I don’t like it. You’re a nice-looking girl…all over. That’s all you need, honey, forget the atmosphere. Guys aren’t going to go for the atmosphere – they’re going to go for what they see. Be glad for that. Drop the Garbo routine. It doesn’t go with you. As for myself, I want a nice – (Groping) – simple (Thoughtfully) – sophisticated girl… not a poet – O.K.? (97) This only makes her realize how much she’s interested in Asagai and how much she is not with Murchison.
The theme of identity plays a major role in this play and it focuses primarily on Beneatha’s identity when it comes down to these two suitors. She is stuck trying to find how she really wants to identify herself. Murchison seems to be trying to be something he is not. He is ambitious, materialistic, and self-centered. She definitely is not interested in all that and wants to be able to be heard as a woman not just seen as one. Asagai tries to encourage Beneatha to embrace her roots by making a comment about her hair, “And so to accommodate that — you mutilate it every week?” (64) From this quote, it’s shown that Asagai thinks of assimilation as something negative and Beneatha should not become submissive into it. Although her family approves of Murchison for his wealth she is happier to be with Asagai who may not be rich but makes her happy. Beneatha shows that as an African-American it is difficult to attempt to identify with any culture besides the one born into or the one lost back then. Beneatha likes Asagai because he is not trying to change her from who she really is; he accepts her for who she is. In the end, it is clear that Asagai is the best suitor for her and that he is who she truly identifies herself with.