Please identify figurative language in Langston Hughes' poem, "Harlem."

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Langston Hughes' poem entitled "Harlem," the "dream deferred" here describes the American Dream that was available to all white people, but not to the black man. Even when laws were changed to guarantee equality, the dream was not theirs. There are several instances described in the poem that compare the "dream deferred" (or the American Dream) using similes. A simile compares two dissimilar things that share similar characteristics. It is...

...a comparison of two dissimilar things using "like" or "as"

There is a simile in the line "Does it dry up like a raisin?". Here "it" refers to a "dream deferred" in the first line.

The speaker is stating that a "dream deferred" (or put off), not realized, is like a shriveled up raisin: a grape that was once juicy and plump, now dried up from sitting, abandoned in the sun.

There is a simile in the second image as well: "Or fester like a sore…" Here the "deferred dream" is compared to a "festering sore," saying that the dream that does not come true is like a sore that festers and does not go away, but potentially causes illness to the body on which it rests.

The third simile is found in the line, "Does it stink like rotten meat?". The comparison here is of the "dream deferred" to "rotten meat." A dream not realized is like meat that is worthless, poisonous.

The simile Hughes uses next compares the "dream deferred" to something covered with a crusty sugar like a piece of candy ("syrupy sweet"). A dream that never comes true is like a piece of old candy. When it is new, it is enticing and beautiful: full of promise. But as a "dream deferred," the candy becomes old, soft, faded, perhaps tastes unusual or bad.

The last simile is comparing a "dream deferred" to a sagging, heavy load. In this case, I see that lost dream as a burden that weighs one down because it haunts the soul. This is not something that poisons or causes illness, but it breaks the spirit a little at a time, for there is no respite from that continuous weight. It robs the bearer of hope.

The last line might be an example of hyperbole—exaggeration. All of the other comparisons have affected the dreamer in quiet and individual ways. The term, "explodes," provides a dramatically different image: explosion affects more than one person, and it is something that takes place when some kind of reaction can no longer be contained by that in which it rests. Because we have been reading figurative language seen in the similes, I believe this image is also figurative, and hyperbole is exaggeration on a figurative level. However, were one to look on a literal level, the word "explode" would be just as appropriate.


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jamphilips | Student

In Langston Hughes poem "Harlem" or as many refer to it "A Dream Deferred", there are many examples of figurative language used. Most of them are similes. In the first stanza, he uses 4 similes comparing how a dream deferred might look like. These similes are "like a raisin in the sun", "fester like a sore", "stink like rotten meat", and "sugar over like a syrupy sweet". In the same stanza Hughes also uses one example of personification by sating "and then run?". Here, he  is giving an inanimate object a human like ability by asking if a dream deferred gets up and run.

In the second stanza there is one example of figurative language used and it is a simile as well. He says " just sags like a heavy load".