Figurative language is a device used by poets and other writers to create a more effective impression upon readers. Figures of speech such as similes, for example, allow authors to express concepts that go beyond the literal meanings of the words they use. Readers are able to understand deeper meanings in the language employed by writers using these devices. During the Harlem Renaissance of the mid-twentieth century, Langston Hughes demonstrated the power of figurative language to craft insightful portrayals of African American life.
In the short poem, “Harlem,” Hughes chooses the device of simile to cement his impressions upon the minds of his readers. His underlying purpose is to sway his readers toward a better understanding of the plight of African Americans in the United States whose dreams are often dashed by a lack of means to fulfill their destinies.
Hughes begins his poem with a rhetorical question: “What happens to a dream deferred?” In order to allow his readers to reach their own conclusions, he inserts several similes into his poem as a method of cementing lasting images rather than answering the question from his personal perspective.
Hughes challenges his audience to respond to his question with a realistic simile:
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
This comparison is a direct connection to the dreams never realized by those deprived of the opportunities to enrich their lives. Hughes equates stagnant human dreams to shriveling raisins dying in the sun.
Another powerful simile is found in the line, “Does it stink like rotten meat?” Once again, the poet relates lost human dreams and aspirations to decaying food. The effect of these analogies is to convince readers that overcoming societal obstacles faced by black Americans is a hopeless and draining effort.
It is important to note that Hughes is not content to simply tell people how unrealized dreams die. He opts through the use of similes to connect the concept of a slow death to dreams deferred. Delayed fulfillment of aspirations causes painful decay. The poet implies that putting off dreams eventually rots the human spirit until it eventually succumbs to death, like the rotting food in his similes. Hughes’s choice of title for this poem makes it clear that the atmosphere in Harlem promotes hopelessness.
Langston Hughes offers a variety of similes in this short poem. A simile is a literary device in which one thing is compared to another thing in order to emphasize meaning and create imagery. In this case, Hughes offers several similes in answer to the question he poses: what happens to a dream when it is deferred, or put off?
First, he wonders whether a dream that is delayed would "dry up" in the same way that a raisin does when it is left out in the sun. This simile suggests that the dream is losing its vitality, becoming shriveled, and dying.
Next, he wonders whether a dream might begin to "fester" and then "run" like a sore. This suggests a darker outcome, as if the inability to act upon, or reach, the dream might result in it becoming infected or corrupted, and then polluting everything around it.
The next simile—comparing the dream to "rotten meat"—has a similar effect, suggesting that the unrealized dream would begin to permeate the surrounding environment with a bad smell.
Next, Hughes compares his dream to a "syrupy sweet" which has become crusted and sugared. This simile seems to suggest that a dream deferred might become idealized in the mind of the dreamer, even while it is becoming less and less vital and real.
The final two similes in the poem offer two contrasting options: might the dream just weigh upon the dreamer, like a "heavy load"—or might it, in fact, "explode" and reverberate throughout everything in the world?
All the similes in Hughes's poem are responses to the question of what deferring a dream might do to that dream, and to the dreamer. Hughes offers a variety of suggestions, but in none of his example scenarios is the deferral of the dream a positive thing.
In the poem "Harlem," Langston Hughes uses five similes and one metaphor to describe what can happen to a dream when it is deferred. To "defer" means to put off or delay, and so all of the comparisons describe what happens to something that is left too long.
First, the speaker asks, in a simile comparing a dried-up raisin to the "dream deferred" referenced in the first line, "Does it dry up / like a raisin the sun?" (2-3) One might imagine the original dream as a firm, plump raisin, sweet and flavorful; however, the dream deferred is more like a hard, small raisin that has dried out and become undesirable. The contrast between the two images shows us the harm in delaying a dream.
Next, the speaker asks, in a simile comparing a festering wound to the dream deferred, "Or fester like a sore-- / and then run?" (4-5) Here, the dream that is deferred is compared to something that, if left to sit without being taken care of, becomes infected and painful. The implication is that a dream deferred becomes something bad, something that hurts.
Third, the speaker asks, in a simile comparing the dream deferred to rancid meat, "Does it stink like rotten meat?" (6) Now the delayed dream is making its presence known. Its "stink" affects everyone around, and again, the comparison has shown how something good can go bad when it is not used right away.
Fourth, the speaker asks, in a simile comparing the dream deferred to an old piece of candy or pastry, "Or does it crust and sugar over-- / like a syrupy sweet?" In this case, again, something that was once perhaps positive becomes inedible and kind of disgusting ("crust[ing] over" and "syrupy" have negative connotations). A dream deferred is like this: it begins as good but then goes bad.
Fifth, the speaker suggests, in a simile comparing the dream deferred to weighty baggage, "Maybe it just sags / like a heavy load." "Sag[ging]" clearly has a negative connotation, as does "heavy load." This comparison suggests that a dream deferred begins to weigh the dreamer down, to tire them out as carrying a heavy load would do.
Finally, the speaker uses a metaphor to compare the dream deferred to a bomb: "Or does it explode?" It is notable that Hughes uses only one metaphor in the poem because metaphors are more forceful than similes; they say that something is something else rather than that something is like something else. Perhaps he uses the metaphor here because he believes this one to be more truthful than the similes, or perhaps it is the inevitable and eventual outcome of any dream deferred, regardless of what other stages it might pass through.