The main theme in the poem is perhaps the theme of identity. The speaker seems to be a satirical parody or caricature of a supposedly masculine "bad man" stereotype. He doesn't know why he "beats (his) wife" or why he "beats (his) side gal too," he only knows that “It keeps (him) from feeling blue.” Likewise, he thinks he is “a bad, bad man” only “Cause everybody tells (him) so.” The implication seems to be that he acts the way he does simply to live up to an identity that has been thrust upon him by others. Acting according to this “bad, bad man” identity is also the only way he knows how to combat the underlying sadness (“feeling blue”) of his life.
Hughes uses a number of literary devices throughout the poem. Perhaps the most obvious example is repetition. There is repetition in each of the three stanzas. In stanza one, the phrase “bad, bad man” is repeated, and the repetition here emphasizes the importance of this identity to the speaker. The repetition of the word “bad” also suggests how insubstantial this identity is. It’s only defining feature is the necessity to be “bad.”
In the second stanza, the word “beats” is repeated four times. This emphasizes the point that to be “a bad, bad man,” one must be violent. In the third stanza, there is repetition of the line, “Don’t even want to be good.” The repetition of this line suggests that the speaker’s desire to be “bad” is simply a desire not to be good. In other words, there is nothing positive about the “bad, bad man” identity; it is defined only in opposition to everything that is “good.”
This is a point compounded in the third stanza, where there is a juxtaposition between “good” and “bad” and also between the “devil” and “heaven.” This juxtaposition emphasizes the idea that the “bad, bad man” identity is defined and determined only in opposition to what is “good.” In this sense, there is nothing positive about this affected identity that the speaker is trying to project. It is entirely negative.
Another literary device used in the poem is colloquial language. The speaker’s voice is very distinct and individual. He says, for example, “ma” rather than “my,” and “heaben” rather than “heaven.” He also uses colloquial expressions like “licker” and “side gal,” meaning liquor and mistress respectively. This colloquial speech is as much a part of the “bad, bad man” identity as is the predilection for violence or the insistence on not caring about being good.
The individuality of the speaker’s voice is also emphasized by the rhyme scheme of the poem. In each stanza, the second, fourth, and sixth lines rhyme. In stanza one, for example, the second and fourth lines end in the word “so,” and the sixth line ends in the word “go.” The distinct individuality of the speaker’s voice is somewhat ironic given that there is nothing distinct or individual about the “bad, bad man” identity that the speaker is trying to project. This irony is another literary device employed by Hughes.
In his poem titled “Bad Man,” Langston Hughes uses a number of literary devices to help contribute to the effectiveness of the poem. Among these devices are the following:
- Simple, colloquial language. The poem is easily accessible and its phrasing is easy to understand.
- Repetition for emphasis, as in the repeated word “bad” in line 1 and the repeated phrase “I’m a bad, bad man” in lines 1 and 3.
- Dialect, as in such words as “Everbody” (4) and “heaben” (18). Such phrasing helps make the poem sound authentic and also helps it to suggest that the speaker is an African American of a lower social class. These words, then, help specify the circumstances of the speaker and may help to explain why he characterizes himself as he does.
- Movement from general to specific. In the first stanza, the speaker announces merely that he is a “bad man” but doesn’t say how. In the second stanza, however, he gives particular examples of his badness:
I beats ma’ wife, an’
I beats ma side gal too. (7-8)
- Possible irony. In the first stanza, the speaker says that he is bad simply “Cause everbody tells me so” (2). This phrasing may suggest that the speaker doesn’t actually believe that he is genuinely bad. However, in the second stanza, he ironically offers particular examples of his badness (adultery and physical abuse).
- Emphatic stress on verbs, as in the repeated and metrically emphasized word “beats” in stanza 2.
- Ambiguity, as in the speaker’s statement in line 2 that he doesn’t know why he beats his wife and his mistress.
- Paradox, as in his claim in stanza three that he doesn’t even want to be good; this makes the poem more intriguing and mysterious.
- A somewhat shocking climax, as in the claim (in the final two lines) that not only is the speaker going to be a “devil” but that he wouldn’t go to heaven if he could. This is another example of paradox, and it also adds to the intrigue and mystery of the poem.
- Lack of comment by any voice other than the speaker’s. A different kind of poet might have made the speaker more self-pitying; instead, Hughes makes the speaker defiant and unapologetic. Likewise, a different kind of poet might have used the speaker’s words as an opportunity to offer moralistic commentary. However, Hughes refrains from indulging in such moralizing, letting the speaker speak for himself and letting readers draw their own conclusions about him.
- Rhythm, language, and repetition that link the poem to the “blues” tradition in music.