What literary elements does Langston Hughes use to demonstrate the message in "Mother to Son"?
A metaphor is a comparison that is direct. It says something is something (or not something) as opposed to saying something is “like” something. For example, the poem begins with a metaphor.
Life for me ain't been no crystal stair.
It's had tacks in it,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor --
Life is compared to a crystal stair, or an easy and beautiful journey. The mother is telling her son that life has been difficult for her, and there have been barriers to her success.
Dialect is also used in the poem. Dialect is the special kind of speaking certain groups use. In this case, the dialect is likely that of a working class woman.
I'se been a-climbin' on,
And reachin' landin's,
And turnin' corners,
In this case, the words are written as the speaker would say them and not in standard English. This helps to characterize the speaker and tell us more about her, such as her upbringing and education level.
Finally, the poem has a lot of imagery. It is so descriptive that you can really see what the speaker is describing. The descriptions of tacks and splinters and the image of the crystal stair itself are very specific and allow you to visualize the difficulties.
In "Mother to Son," Langston Hughes uses a parallel structure, with the "crystal stair" phrase repeated at both the beginning and the end of the poem, to lend a sense of completion to the anecdotal narrative and underscore the extended metaphor of life as a journey upstairs. The poem is written in the voice of the mother, giving it an increased sense of authority as the mother conveys her message that, if she can "keep climbin'" despite the difficulties of her journey, her son also must never "set down . . . cause you find it's kinder hard."
The dialect features used throughout the poem help further heighten its immediacy and verisimilitude, or truth. Elements such as "I'se," "a-climbin'," and "ain't" suggest that the speaker is a black woman from a certain generation and part of the United States, which immediately gives the reader a better understanding of what the "tacks," "splinters," and "boards torn up" in the stair of her life might represent.
The use of repetition in the poem helps to underscore the mother's message that life is sometimes relentless in the difficulties it presents; the repeated "and"—"And reachin' . . . and turnin' . . . and sometimes . . . " intensifies and prolongs the sense of obstacle. But this repetition is employed again at the end of the poem, to give also the impression that the speaker's perseverance has been equally endless: "I'se still goin', honey / I'se still climbin'."
Anaphora, or the repetition of a word at the beginning of clauses, is a key literary device that helps develop the message of “Mother to Son” of the value of persistence in the face of adversity. Hughes employs anaphora in lines 4-6 that all begin with “and” as the speaker describes the obstacles and disadvantages that dominated her life. The use of anaphora here mirrors the cumulative effect of all of these injustices: it is as if Hughes is literally piling them on in the poem in the same way that challenges built up in the mother’s life. Anaphora is used again in lines 10-12 to describe the mother’s movement through life that sometimes brought her success as she reached “landin’s” and turned “corners.” The repetition of “and” in these lines reflects the poem’s emphasis on achieving progress through a refusal to quit.