The poem, “Harlem” by Langston Hughes, contains several similes. Each of these figures of speech is designed to describe the frustration and impotence felt by one who is prevented from realizing dreams. Moreover, each simile poses a possible response to the rhetorical question posed in the poem’s opening line: “What happens to a dream deferred?”
There are five similes in the poem. The first simile suggests that the dream dries up, “like a raisin in the sun” lacking vitality and viability. The second simile offers the possibility that the dream rots, or “festers like a sore.” In this instance, the “dream” is figuratively blistering and decaying. Next, Hughes proposes that the dream may begin to “stink like rotten meat” tainting the dreamer with the rank and fetid smell of disappointment. Still, in others, the dream becomes sappy and sickening, “like a syrupy sweet.” The fifth and final simile states that the dream may begin to “sag like a heavy load” which burdens and encumbers the dreamer.
Here is the full text of the poem, and below that I explain the five similes in order:
Harlem, by Langston Hughes
What happens to a dream deferred?Does it dry uplike a raisin in the sun?Or fester like a sore—And then run?Does it stink like rotten meat?Or crust and sugar over—like a syrupy sweet?Maybe it just sagslike a heavy load.Or does it explode?