Langston Hughes's poem "Harlem" takes the form of a series of questions. This in itself sharpens the tone. A single question may be friendly, but a series of questions, without a pause for answers, creates a querulous, hectoring atmosphere. The poet asks,
What happens to a dream deferred?
He then comes up with six possibilities, which range from disappointing to alarming. There is no suggestion that there could be any positive outcome from deferring a dream, despite the fact that "defer" is a neutral word. An optimistic idea might be that deferring a dream makes it grow stronger and more inspiring. However, the speaker sees only negative consequences. The dream may "dry up" or "fester" or "stink." All these results take the form of unattractive physical images of corruption and decay.
The negative imagery
in the poem creates a mood of frustration, building at the end to anger. Until the last line, the tone has always suggested self-harm and internalized pain. It is the dreamer who suffers when the dream is deferred. It is only with the final word, explode
, that the speaker raises the possibility of harm to others. Frustration cannot continue indefinitely for all those who dream in vain. Eventually, there must be a reaction, and this may take the form of violent anger. This explosive conclusion intensifies the buildup of frustration throughout the poem.