Mother to Son Questions and Answers
by Langston Hughes

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What does the mother compare her life to?

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Marietta Sadler eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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In "Mother to Son", the mother compares her life to a splintered and dilapidated stairway:

It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up
A stairway is a means of getting somewhere or, literally, of moving up in the world. So, the mother could be comparing her life here, metaphorically, to a splintered and dilapidated stairway to suggest that her path in life has been a difficult one. The "tacks" and "splinters" and the ripped up "boards" could represent the obstacles that she has had to overcome. The description of the stairway also implies poverty, especially when compounded with the word "Bare" two lines later, so perhaps the mother's life has been difficult because she has been poor, and the obstacles that she has had to overcome are the obstacles that poverty imposes.
The speaker (the mother) then continues the metaphor and says that, on the "landin's" and while "turnin' corners," she has had nobody else to guide her. She has had to find her own way. This is implied by the lines,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
The absence of light here could suggest that she has had nobody to guide her, as a light might guide somebody through the darkness. She has had to turn corners in her life, and find doorways in her life, without the guidance that most might expect somewhere along the way.

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Heather Nieto eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The mother compares her life to a staircase filled with nails, broken boards, and missing boards. For her, life has not been easy. She sees her life as a struggle upwards, fighting against injustice, discrimination, and despair. In the poem, she states "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." She has been met with dead-ends, anxiety, and the unknown. However, even with all of this struggle and pain, she keeps going, because that's all she knows how to do. To keep going in the face of all of this shows her strength of character and her belief that if she just keeps climbing, life will be better for her and her son. She tells him, "So, boy, don't you turn back. / Don't you set down on the steps. / 'Cause you finds / it's kinder hard. / Don't you fall now— / For I'se still goin', honey, / I'se still climbin'" and extends the metaphor of the stair and her life to show her son that she can still keep going and he can, too.

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