What are all the similes in the poem "Harlem"?

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A simile is a figure of speech in which an author makes a comparison between two unlike things. Using the words "like" or "as" confirms the similarity. The purpose is to emphasize the description or make it more vivid.

In his poem "Harlem," Langston Hughes speaks about the...

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A simile is a figure of speech in which an author makes a comparison between two unlike things. Using the words "like" or "as" confirms the similarity. The purpose is to emphasize the description or make it more vivid.

In his poem "Harlem," Langston Hughes speaks about the frustration experienced by African Americans in having to delay or set aside their desire or dream to attain success by comparing it to ordinary, concrete, tangible experiences to which the audience can relate.

Hughes effectively uses five similes by asking whether this deferred dream is something that

  • dries up like a raisin in the sun
  • festers like a sore and then run
  • stinks like rotten meat
  • crust and sugar over like a syrupy sweet
  • just sags like a heavy load

The first four images speak of neglect and abandonment, while the last relates to a burden which, by its very nature, suggests disillusionment and depression. These powerful expressions propose that dreams require hard work, care, and attention.

The accentuated final question metaphorically asks whether the dream explodes and suggests the culmination of such frustration into either an act of rage or deeper disparagement and feelings of helplessness.

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A simile is a figure of speech in which one thing is compared to another. A simile, unlike a metaphor, must use explicit comparative terms such as "like" or "as."

Written in 1951, Langston Hughes's "Harlem," sometimes also known by the title "A Dream Deferred," is an iconic expression of the African American experience. It uses similes to share the experience of being unable to pursue one's dreams freely, comparing that deeply personal and abstract experience to shared, tangible, concrete physical realities.

The dream deferred is compared to a sequence of different things in the poem:

  • a raisin drying in the sun
  • an open sore or infected wound
  • rotten meat
  • a candy (also implicitly spoiled)
  • a sagging heavy load

The final question of whether a dream deferred explodes is a metaphor, rather than a simile, because it does not use explicit terms of comparison.

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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 up
      like 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 sags
      like a heavy load.
 
Or does it explode?
 
A simile is an unusual comparison using the words "like" or "as."  Hughes is obviously a fan of using the word "like" for his similes.  I will mention the simile and then explain the comparison.
 
The first simile is as follows:  "like a raisin in the sun." This simile compares the "dream deferred" (the dream of equality) to a "raisin in the sun."  This definitely gives us an image of a dried-up dream or one that has withered away.
 
The second simile is as follows:  "like a sore."  This simile compares the "dream deferred" (the dream of equality) to a "fester[ing]" and then "runni[ing]" sore.  Again we have a very negative image here of an infected wound that runs with puss.  This is WORSE than a "raisin in the sun" and implies that animosity is brewing inside as a result.
 
The third simile is as follows:  "like rotten meat."  This simile compares, again, the "dream deferred" (the dream of equality) to "rotten meat" that "stinks."  This now goes from sight and touch images into smell imagery.  It is just as grotesque as those above.
 
The fourth simile is as follows:  "like a syrupy sweet."  This simile compares, again, the "dream deferred" (the dream of equality) to a "crust" of a "syrupy sweet" that has "sugared over."  Again, a negative image, but this time hidden by a positive one:  that of candy.  But an old candy that has crusted over is old and disgusting.  One cannot hide "fake" equality with sugar.
 
The fifth and final simile is as follows:  "like a heavy load."  This simile compares the "dream deferred" (the dream of equality) to a burden that is heavy.  It "sags" while the person bears its weight.  In short, it AFFECTS the person, just as racism affects the African American race.
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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.

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