In "Mother to Son" what is the extended metaphor?

The extended metaphor in "Mother to Son" is the mother's life described as a staircase. She explains that the stairs aren't made of crystal and consist of obstacles, but she has always kept climbing the stairs despite the difficulty of doing so. Her message here is the importance of persistence despite the challenges of their social circumstances.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The entirety of Langston Hughes' poem "Mother to Son" is an extended metaphor. The poem is written from the perspective of a black mother who is encouraging her child never to give up on life, even if life is not difficult for him. She expresses upon him the fact that her own life has not been a "crystal stair." By this, she suggests that life is a continual uphill climb: the point of life is to move from a lower to a higher position. However, the journey from one place to the other will rarely be smooth like crystal. On the contrary, for the mother in the poem, life has been full of "tacks"things which have interrupted her journey and made it more difficult.

The stairway from lower to higher ground has been often "bare," and the mother has sometimes felt as if she is climbing "in the dark"the implication here being that she has little knowledge of what will happen to her next, or what is expected of her. Sometimes there is little guidance on the uphill journey of life. Despite this, she reminds her son that she herself has not yet finished her journey, nor has she sat down on the stairs (given up hope) but, on the contrary, is still climbing. She asks her son to follow her example and continue to climb upwards, tooeven in the knowledge that this will often be difficult.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The extended metaphor in the poem is the comparison of life to a "crystal stair," or, in this speaker's case, the opposite of a crystal stair. When we envision the image of a crystal stair, we likely see something quite beautiful, clear—pristine even—and full of light. However, this mother describes the "stair" of her life as full of "tacks" and "splinters," "torn up" boards, and bare spots "with no carpet."

In other words, her life has been like a wooden staircase that has fallen into disrepair or has been damaged with so much use; perhaps (figuratively speaking, of course) she had to build it with the only tools she was given in her life. She has reached "landin[g]s" and turned "corners" and has had to carry on "in the dark"—sometimes without any light at all. Life is like a staircase, she says, imploring her son not to turn around and give up just because "it's kinder hard." It's going to be hard, and she tells him not to fall; she's "still climbin'" despite how hard it is.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

As explained in the previous two answers, an extended metaphor is a metaphor that is carried out through most or all of a literary work. In Langston Hughes's poem "Mother to Son," Langston Hughes compares a mother's lifetime of struggles to her courage to perceive. In the intro to the poem, the mother explains to her son,

Life for me ain't been no crystal stair. Its had tacks in it, and splinters, and boards torn up. And places with no carpets on the floor, bare.

The mother in the poem compares her life to all of the glorious things that it is not. She begins by comparing her life to crystal stairs. Crystal is seen as beautiful, pure, clear and valuable. The mother explains that her life is not any of these things. She also showcases her life as being bare, filled with splinters and torn up boards. But Langston Hughes also shows this mother's refusal to give up and stop, and makes the case for fighting through even the unknown as seen below.

I'se still climbing on, and reachin landins, and sometimes, going in the dark where there ain't been no light.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The entire poem by Langston Hughes is one metaphor; this is why it is called an extended metaphor. The unstated comparison is between life and a set of steps that has by no means been "crystal"—a metaphor itself meaning that the stairs do not belong to a person whose life has been privileged (only well-to-do people own crystal glassware; a crystal staircase would indeed be extravagant).

This extended metaphor of a stairway is an apt one as often life is marked by stages and by a person's having elevated him/herself (e.g."climbing the ladder" to success or some other goal). While the mother may not have reached much success because of her social setting, she has always persevered nevertheless. This is the lesson that she wishes to teach her son:

But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
 
Furthermore, since she has been persistent in "climbin' on," she urges her son to do the same: 
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey
 
Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

An extended metaphor is a metaphor that is continued throughout the text, whose meaning is central to the understanding of that text. In this poem, the extended metaphor concerns the mother's description of what life has been like for her and how it has been very challenging. Note how she introduces the extended metaphor in the following quote:

Life for me ain't been no crystal stair.
It's had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
Bare.

The extended metaphor is therefore that life is compared to a staircase that is not a "crystal stair" but a very rough and painful staircase that has made it hard to continue to go upwards. However, inspite of these difficulties and the "splinters" and lack of furnishings, the mother in this poem has continued to ascend that staircase, and she urges her son to do the same and follow her example even though life may not be a "crystal stair."

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team