Figurative Language in the Poem "Harlem" by Langston Hughes
Langston Hughes' poem "Harlem," sometimes called "A Dream Deferred," explores the consequences of allowing a dream to go unfulfilled. The title of the poem, "Harlem," implies that the dream is one that has been kept from the people. The dream is one of social equality and civil rights. Hughes uses a variety of figurative language to create vivid imagery in the poem to suggest just what might happen as a result of being denied that dream.
Series of Similes
Simile is the primary type of figurative language used in the poem. A simile uses the words "like" or "as" to compare two things, and a series of similes are used in the poem to compare a dream deferred to rotting, aging or burdensome items. A dream deferred is compared to a raisin, a sore, rotten meat, a syrupy sweet and a heavy load. The actions linked to these items suggest what might happen to the dream, such as rotting and dying or weighing down the conscience of the people.
A metaphor compares two things without using the connectors "like" or "as." The poem ends with a single metaphor with the line "Or does it explode?" The text is also italicized to emphasize this metaphor even more. The metaphor compares a dream deferred to a bomb. The momentum for the dream may continue to build and, having nowhere to go, finally explode. Alternately, the dreamer's anger may cause the dream to explode into action.
Each of the similes and the metaphor are symbolic of what can happen in the society that defers the dream of equality. If it dries up like a raisin in the sun, the suggestion is that it has been deferred by the passage of time and has lost its life, or the inspiration that sustains it. If it is rotting like meat, the people have become soured by resentment and contempt. If it explodes, the people have decided to revolt and to claim the dream by violent force.
Other Figurative Language
Many other examples of figurative language are found throughout the poem, helping to reinforce the vivid imagery. The ongoing use of the phrase "Does it" is an example of anaphora, which is the repetition of a word or phrase at the start of a series of sentences, phrases or clauses. Used here, anaphora helps to emphasize the question and to create a sense of urgency around it. Alliteration, or the repetition of consonant sounds, is found in the "d" sound in "What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up..." The use of alliteration helps create rhythm, and it emphasizes the words, drawing attention to the ideas in them. The final line uses hyperbole, or deliberate exaggeration, to underscore the severity of the potential consequences of denying the dream of social equality.
- California Polytechnic State University: English Department: Figurative Language and Rhetorical Devices: Figures of Speech; Dr. Deborah B. Schwartz
- Poetry Foundation: Harlem; Langston Hughes
- Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute: Voice in Poetry: Dream a World With Langston Hughes; Octavia Utley
- Holt, Rinehart and Winston: Holt Literature and Language Arts: Expanded Writer's Model: Analyzing a Poem
Maria Magher has been working as a professional writer since 2001. She has worked as an ESL teacher, a freshman composition teacher and an education reporter, writing for regional newspapers and online publications. She has written about parenting for Pampers and other websites. She has a Master's degree in English and creative writing.